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Crystal clear water reflected the vast wilderness back, the red of my boat framed by a splash of blue sky, towering grey rock walls, and the luxurious green of New Zealand moss and ferns. We were nearing the crux of the first gorge on the Waitaha River. Like most of the runs on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island, the Waitaha is located in a deep gorge far accessible primarily by helicopter flight. “Remember,” Brad had shouted over the hum of the propeller as we flew up the river valley that morning, “thirty seconds of flight time equals roughly one and a half hours of paddling.” As I stared down at the gorge walls that loomed above the whitewater below I couldn’t help but realize the irony of how committed I was in that moment.

The View Flying into the Waitaha. Photo Lou Jull

Like many paddlers, I am a self-described commitment-phobe. In the past few years, I have lived in Africa, New Zealand, Chile, Canada and the United States. One year I held so many different jobs my parent’s accountant requested to meet me. My longest romantic relationship has lasted less than a year. The one thing I have committed to making a part of my life is whitewater. It has been the constant as I have moved from place to place, job to job, and yet my inability to commit often follows me onto the water.

All boaters experience moments of indecision; the question of should I take the right line or go left? Should I boof or plug? Catch an eddy or run the drop straight? Should I run this rapid at all? These moments can paralyze us; a split seconds waiver of where to put the stroke can result in being shoved the crucial few inches off line that can make the difference between safe, and sorry.

There are a thousand reasons to hesitate on the water: not seeing your line clearly, having one little thing go wrong that throws off your rhythm; feeling as though you are in over your head, or simply being nervous or afraid. When I asked a friend for advice on what to do in order to improve my boating, he told me “Your technique is fine. You just need to actually paddle.” But I am paddling, I thought. It wasn’t until I started racing this past New Zealand Summer that I began to understand exactly how much more I needed to commit, and how much more I was capable of putting in to my strokes.

For the first two races of the NZ Extreme Race series, I took the strategy of “participating,” rather than competing. I was intimidated by the other racers and by the courses themselves. As a result, I would back off in crucial moments to let others through. After my second race lap in the Wairoa Boatercross I began to be disappointed in my paddling and myself. I am capable of doing better than this, I thought. And at the Citroen Boatercross on the South Island my attitude began to change.

My first impression of the Citroen Rapid on the Kawaru river was “ I can not believe that people race this rapid, let alone four at a time.”  A massive boulder split the river into two channels. The left line was faster, but contained a boof that could potentially lead to a nasty beatdown in a pocket eddy. The right line was slower, more technical, but looked good: an 8 foot boof/tongue before having to cut back into the main flow of the large wave train below. We took a practice lap the day before, and I went into the race feeling pretty nervous. As we put in for the first heat, my plan was to take it chill into the main part of the drop, hope for the best, and squeak into fourth place to make it to the final. As we headed into the first part of the move, I worried that I was too far left and pulled back to let Soph Mulder cut in front of me, killing my speed. Not surprisingly, I was shoved off line, got surfed and flipped, but made through to the next round. As I sat on the start ramp for the final I had a new perspective. I wanted not only to participate in this race, but compete.

The countdown started; we slid off the ramp and started charging towards the finish. I was still behind Soph coming into the first drop, but instead of pulling back, or worrying that I was too far right, I charged forward, driving as much speed as I could muster to stay on her tail. To my surprise, my Small Karma came out of the drop clean and fast. I continued to chase Soph, Lou Jull and Jen Chrimes down the course, determined to paddle my hardest even if I was behind. Ahead of me, Soph and Jen cut the eddyline that led to the final gate too high and were pushed downstream. I flew through the gate with Jen Chrimes, resulting in a tied finish for second place.

At the Bueller Fest Boater Cross in Murchison the next weekend, I once again decided to compete. I gave everything I had to the race, staying in a good position to make it through to the next heats, and not apologizing or backing off when others were on my tail or by my side. In the final, I snuck ahead of Lu to finish behind Jen in second place.  While my confidence had improved on the grade three and four (plus!) race courses of Citroen and Bueller, I didn’t know if my attitude change would follow me from the race to the river.

Charging the Small Karma to a Second Place Finish at Bueller Fest.

As I headed into a crux move on the Waitha, I could feel my boat angle start to drift as my nose turned downstream earlier than I intended. I took my paddle out of the water for a split second, the internal panicked dialogue in my head debating between a massive sweep stroke to get back on line or simply charging towards the meatier part of the drop. “F-ing paddle!” yelled Brad from the shore. And I did. I simply put my blade in the water, rotated my torso and drove with everything I had. I paddled with a strength that surprised myself as I charged towards my screaming friend. I made it back on line, pulled a boof stroke and landed at the bottom. Committing, it turns out, starts by simply putting your paddle in the water.

Reveling in the beauty of commitment. Photo by Stefan Gilmour