How I Conquered My Fear of Water by Snorkeling in Key West (Yahoo! Travel Feature)

This feature was originally written for and published on Yahoo! Travel

by Jackie Laulainen – February 6, 2015

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“Do one thing every day that scares you.” This advice, commonly attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, inspires bravery, ambition, and confidence, daring its audience to take a leap of faith. How often, though, are we actually given the chance — or seek out the opportunity — to do something that scares us? How often do we willingly step outside our comfort zones?
My mom and I recently took a girls’ trip to Key West, Florida. I’m not sure what we were thinking when we packed our schedule full of water activities.
I hate water.
Ever since my near-drowning incident as a child, anything that has to do with the wild water of rivers and oceans makes me panic and hyperventilate upon full-body contact.
We eased into our water activities, starting with stand up paddle board (SUP) yoga with Serenity Eco Therapy. The name alone sold me. I practice yoga a couple times a week, and like to think I’m an experienced, accomplished yogi (on a hard floor). It turns out that paddle boards, even when anchored, make for surprisingly difficult yoga platforms. I could barely hold a modified warrior position for more than three seconds without collapsing in an unbalanced panic.

SUP yoga
The one time I was able to find my modified warrior pose during standup-paddleboard yoga
It didn’t matter that we were in three feet of water near a beach; I didn’t want a cold saltwater bath that morning. Somehow, we mustered enough concentration to stay atop our boards and even enjoy a bit of the relaxation we were hoping to get out of the session. That was especially easy in savasana, floating on our backs under the sun and clouds among the singing birds. This serenity, however, was too short-lived, because we had a jet-ski tour to catch.
Normally when I’m anywhere near water, I’m also quite near my husband, whom I trust to keep me safe. This day, I was with my mom, who is both smaller than me and not much braver when it comes to water. She nominated me to drive the jet ski.
My high school running coach taught me that running is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical, which still gets me through many things in life (thanks, Penny). I can put my mind to anything, even when my body doesn’t think it’s up to the challenge, like driving a jet ski in the ocean.
Jet Ski Key West
I manage a smile, trying not to shake on my jet ski.
This wasn’t just a calm lake; it was the open ocean: a busy marina with massive cruise ships nearby, plenty of boat traffic, and waves that seemed bigger than our jet ski. We started on our adventure with a group of five jet skis, and before we even made it out of the marina, one of the drivers turned back. Gulp. We fought the voices in our heads (and the white knuckles on my hands) and pressed on, convincing ourselves it was going to be worth it. As we eased into the calmer waters of the “backcountry” of Key West, I eased into my position of (mentally) confident jet-ski driver. Fake it ’til you make it, right? I did, and we made it.
Apparently these activities were not enough excitement for us in the open ocean water. The next morning, we got on a catamaran to go snorkeling with Fury Water Adventures. We were headed to a living coral barrier reef, the only one in North America, six miles off the shore of Key West.
Wetsuit Key West
Day two in a wetsuit: SO not normal for me.
The waves were much bigger and the water much deeper than I had anticipated. When it was my turn to dive in, I found myself at the bottom of the ladder, fins and mask in place, GoPro in hand, husband 3,000 miles away, mother behind me, and my only hope of community support quickly disappearing with the rest of the group in front of me. I was face to face with the very waves that were tossing the catamaran like a pizza chef tossing his dough.
I only managed to make it off the ladder because my mom was waiting for her turn and because the Fury staff was watching my every move, ready to rescue anyone, if necessary. I could have easily chickened out right there and climbed back up those stairs.
But I didn’t.
I took that leap of faith and pushed off, focusing on fighting hyperventilation when it threatened and slowly making my way away from the boat. My mom, even as she joined me in the water, was not close enough for comfort. I was basically alone. The water was deep, and the waves were rising high enough to block my view of anyone else or the safe harbor of the catamaran.
Snorkeling Key West
The only photo I had the courage to snap in the water.
It wasn’t long before we both made our way back to the boat. The reef was a good 100 meters away, and in those waves, you would have to be a strong swimmer to make it out there and back. It just wasn’t going to happen for us. The staff welcomed us back on board, not with judgment of failure but with chilled wine and guacamole (how did they know?). We may not have made it to see the only living reef in North America, but we did conquer that fear of water, if only for a few minutes. The sun definitely felt warmer after that.
Fear of Water
I survived and wanted to capture the real moment.
I know I’m scared of wild water, but tasting that fear makes me feel just as raw and alive as doing something exhilarating that I love. It’s a healthy challenge, something worth doing, no matter the outcome.