After his anxiety nearly forced him to stop travelling, Kevin Wagar confronts similar fears reflected in his youngest son.
In 2018, my family boarded a flight from Shanghai, China, to Manila, Philippines. We were excited for an experience that would help my kids connect to their Filipino roots, meet my wife’s extended family and open our eyes to some of the most beautiful islands and beaches in existence. We weren’t expecting this trip to spark a fear that would shape our travels for the next two years.
My wife, Christina, and I are avid travellers. Our two boys, Cohen, 9, and Dylan, 7 (yes, they’re named after Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan), have been travelling around the world with us since they were babies. As toddlers, they rode horses beneath the towering cliffs of Petra in Jordan. Not long afterwards, they played tag with Uru children on the floating islands of Lake Titicaca in Peru. Our passion for travel led me to a career as a family travel writer.
We've run into our fair share of obstacles along the way: awkward border crossings, food poisoning and kids who occasionally strayed. But challenges are meant to be overcome. As a family, we've always worked together. We've supported each other and worked through our fears as a unit.
One short yet frightening experience on the windy beaches of Puerto Princesa in Palawan threatened to throw our life of travel into complete disarray.
WATER HAS BEEN a staple on many of our trips. Between scuba diving, snorkelling, boating and even ice swimming in Arctic Finland, we’ve always been drawn to the water. For Christina and me, water has offered a peaceful escape. The muted noises beneath the waves have been a source of calm and relaxation. For the boys, it's been a place of play and excitement. They know if we're spending a day on the water, it means sun and fun.
That was the case when we arrived in Palawan during the balmy days of early January. We’d been chased out of Boracay by an incoming typhoon. After a restful night of counting stars on the sand and playing tag around the Daluyon Beach and Mountain Resort, we walked to the Sabang Marina for our boat ride to the Puerto Princesa Underground River.
Brilliant blue hues broke between the fluffy clouds and belied the heavy winds that had swept in from the typhoon in Boracay. Choppy seas deterred the boats from coming directly onto the shore to pick us up. We needed to wade out into the water and board the traditional Filipino paraws (long, double outrigger boats) via a ladder.
Although the sun shone brightly on the beach, we could see angry clouds bubbling over the horizon like a boiling pot. The wind began to whip the ocean mist into our faces. I pulled Dylan into my arms and carried him through waist-deep water toward the paraw.
Cohen bravely skipped through the water and climbed up the ladder like a monkey. Dylan, however, clung to me tightly as he spat salty water from his mouth.
As we approached the boat, he cried out in terror. For me, timing my leap into the boat between increasingly large waves was simple mental math. For a small five-year-old, it was like standing beneath the feet of a wooden monster, leaping and slashing at him.
The waves were growing increasingly rough, tossing the boat into the air like it was weightless. Dylan buried his head into my shoulder as I grabbed the ladder and hauled the two of us up onto the deck. When I tried to safely place him onto one of the boat’s padded seats, I could tell something about him was different. His typically brave and stoic face was ashen, and his eyes were clamped tightly shut. In that short moment, he had become terrified of boats and open water.
Christina and I thought this might be a temporary fear. However, our boat ride to the remote beaches of San Vicente the next day proved us wrong. Dylan spent most of the journey curled up in my lap, refusing to look over the edge. My wife and I looked at each other and wondered whether our passion for the water would need to be shelved. But we were mostly worried about how to help our sweet, brave boy conquer what would become one of his biggest emotional obstacles.
Knowing that he had this fear hanging over him was heartbreaking for me. I’ve dealt with anxiety myself. When I was a young traveller, a panic attack nearly derailed my life and ended my travels. Instead, I decided to use it as a catalyst to propel my passion. But it wasn’t an overnight feat—anxiety took years for me to overcome. My love of travel and Christina’s support helped me find my way through.
I didn’t want my little boy to be saddled by the same burdens that had weighed me down. After battling with mental health for most of my life, the idea that my child might have to struggle with something similar overwhelmed me.
On our next two big family trips, we kept trying to get our little man into the water to help him overcome his fear. We could get him onto small lakes and rivers, but anything resembling an ocean had him trembling like leaves on a windy day.
EVERY YEAR, WE let the boys decide on a destination. They usually base their decisions on what animals they want to see. We’ve visited penguins in Argentina, polar bears in Churchill and whales on the Saint Lawrence River. This time, it was Cohen’s turn to choose. His biggest desire was to swim among tropical fish and colourful reefs. We knew Dylan had a fondness for sea turtles, so we thought, maybe this is the trip where Dylan will fall back in love with the water.
We packed up and made our way to Maui, Hawaii, for a trip with a big focus on snorkelling. Every time we dipped into the water, whether it was on Lanai’s secluded beaches or the black sand beaches along the road to Hana, our youngest son just couldn’t relax.
Finally, on our last outing of the trip, we took a boat out to the Molokini Crater, a spectacular crescent moon-shaped island about three miles offshore. Big D was, as always, dressed in his snorkel gear and ready to go. But we assumed that once he hit the water, his fear would overtake him, and we would spend the day on the boat together playing games of rock, paper, scissors or I spy.
This boat was a little different from what we were used to; it was a family-focused snorkelling excursion ran by the eco-focused Pacific Whale Foundation. Ideal for kids, it featured a waterslide for splashing into the waves.
I went in the water first and waited patiently for Dylan at the bottom. I spent a few minutes taking in my surroundings. Underneath the sparkling blue waves, the vast colours of the ocean were on full display. Tropical fish of every hue flitted and zipped around coral reefs that glowed with reds, blues and pinks.
And then I spotted it—something Dylan had been begging to see his entire life.
As I looked up, Dylan was summoning his courage. With a deep breath, he zipped down the slide, hitting the water with a splash. The second he landed, he looked up at me with those massive, terrified brown eyes. I reached out to grab him and held on tight.
“Dylan,” I said. “I want you to take three deep breaths and look down below you. There’s something extraordinary in the water right under your feet.”
Dylan slowed down his breathing just enough that he was able to dip his head beneath the surface of the ocean.
“Dad! Dad! There’s a sea turtle down there! It’s huge!”
He took off like a shot to follow the turtle through the reef. I never actually caught up to him again. And he was the last one out of the water.
WHEN WE ALL returned to the boat for the ride back to Maui, it was hard to tell who was feeling the most pride: Dylan or me. We spent the next 10 minutes grinning at each other and sharing extravagant high-fives.
It had been heartbreaking to see how his anxiety mirrored my own—we were both handcuffed by our own mental health. But in the end, we both found something we loved enough to overcome the fear that was holding us back.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Canadian Traveller.