started kayaking on the south coast of England. Brighton beach was my local
launch spot. At low tide a gradually shelving sea bed caused the waves to spill
gently if a little chaotically, while at high tide the steep shingle beach
caused the waves to suddenly rear up and pitch down onto the rounded flint
cobbles with explosive impact. Either way, my aim was to ride these waves, and
almost invariably I ended each short ride upside down.
those days I had no release strap on my spray skirt. In a mild panic I'd punch
and pull at its straightest edge until I pulled it free, then tumble out.
Although swimming was not my strong point, I was seldom in water deep enough to
need to swim. My frequent wet exits pointed to some basic skills I lacked, but
those took me longer to figure out. Eventually I learned how to avoid tripping
over the shoreward edge when I broached, by edging to seaward. I also learned
to roll. A roll is no substitute for skills that keep you upright, but it sure
is a great technique when you do find yourself upside down!
what's the big deal with rolling? Why don't more paddlers try to master it?
Well, I know I spent my early days of paddling trying to avoid getting my face
wet. Call it a fear of water. It was probably that same fear that made me enjoy
kayaking so much in my attempts to master techniques so I could avoid capsize.
At any rate, I was jubilant when I first rolled in the pool, but from then on
it took more than a year before I could roll reliably even in the pool, and
longer still before I would roll after an accidental capsize. Much of that time
delay was due to poor technique that became ingrained.
skills, like any other movement skills, become automatic after a very short
time, and if there's a bad element in a complex sequence of movements, it's
difficult to break the sequence at the appropriate time to alter just that one
bad element. Rolling is an unusual sequence of moves that one seldom duplicates
in normal life. There is something odd about a situation where you find
yourself inverted with your head in water. Bungee-jumping off bridges can do it
to you briefly but some would say that's an odd situation too.
I first attempted to roll my eagerness to get my head out of the water to gain
air ruined my chances of success. This "head-up-first" mistake is
universally one of the biggest causes of rolling failure. In fact it's much
easier to roll if your head leaves the water last, after you've more or less
righted your kayak. But if you get it wrong and try several times to bring your
head up too early, the fault becomes ingrained, and then it becomes really
difficult to break the bad habit. In fact, it's really difficult to diagnose
the reason for the failure of your own roll, and almost impossible for you to
act successfully on the advice "You're bringing your head up too early;
come up head-last." So instead of starting to learn a roll with your head
under water, let's begin on dry land where there's no perceived advantage to
bringing your head up early.
practice the movement without your kayak. Sit upright on the ground with your
legs in front of you as if you were sitting in a kayak. Now lean over to one
side and put your elbow on the floor about the length of your forearm from your
hip. Roll your legs with your knees together until the side of your knee
touches the floor. This is a simulated "capsized" position.
jerk your butt into the sitting position, keeping your elbow on the floor and
dropping your head until your cheek rests close to your shoulder. This is the
"hip flick" that rights your kayak. It now remains for you to bring
your body upright sliding your forehead as close to the ground as possible
until you come into balance.
refine your movement. Begin in the simulated "capsized" position as
before. Now drop the shoulder of the uppermost arm backward so your chest is
facing upward. You should achieve this by rotation of your torso, not by
straightening your body at the waist. Begin your "hip flick" by
bringing the uppermost shoulder forward to rotate your torso as you jerk your
butt into a sitting position. Your shoulder should finish so your chest is
toward the ground and your head should be forehead-down. It helps at this stage
if you try to keep your head in contact with the ground throughout the movement
by rolling it and then dragging it. Imagine your head is immensely heavy, even
if it isn't. Practice the movement on both sides. This will speed up the
TIP Check your kayak fits you snugly. You'll find it more difficult to roll if
it doesn't. Your seat should be firmly secured inside your kayak so it doesn't
slide in any direction. You must be able to lock your knees against the inside
of the deck or against thigh braces while the balls of your feet brace firmly
against fixed foot braces. If your kayak has sliding footbraces, you'll need to
immobilize them. For comfort you may wish to glue minicell foam pads where your
knees and thighs contact the inside of your kayak. Check your kayak is strong
enough to withstand your weight rolling in it on the ground. Plastic whitewater
kayaks are great for learning the roll, and they should withstand the rigors of
repeated land practice. Composite kayaks are more liable to damage. Some sea
kayaks are quite difficult to roll and require good technique. You'll find it
easier to master the techniques first in a kayak that rolls easily. Once you're
rolling competently, you can apply your roll to the kayaks you normally paddle.
a soft area of ground or set your kayak on a mat or carpet. Sit in your kayak
holding your paddle. Grip the kayak with your legs. Now roll the kayak onto its
side until you come to rest with your shoulder on the ground and your paddle
blade on the ground in the high brace position. The face of the blade should be
on the ground with your elbow bent and tucked close in front of your body so
you can pull the blade down against the ground, rather than pushing it down.
Invert your kayak by bending your body sideways. (Not so far that it hurts.)
Now rotate your torso so your back is toward the ground. Look up toward the sky
with the back of your head against the ground. This is the position you adopted
in the first exercise and it's the same one you should adopt in the water at
the start of a "High Brace Roll". To roll up, pull down on the paddle
and perform your hip-flick, as described above. You should be able to flick
your kayak upright with your forehead ending close to the ground. Practice on
dry-land drill can be rehearsed slowly until you minimize the effort needed to
right the kayak. Once you are familiar with the movement you can begin to speed
up until your "hip flick" becomes the almost explosive action that
offers such good results in the water.
When you capsize accidentally, you should tuck your paddle close alongside your
gunnel to prevent it being taken from your grip by the force of water. Practice
this now, on dry land. Invert your kayak as before, tucking your paddle alongside
the gunnel while holding it in your normal hand grip. Now lift the rear blade
across your inverted hull to position the front blade out to the side as
before, ready for a high brace. This is the movement you need to make
underwater to get into position for a high brace roll. Now flick the kayak
upright as before.
Remember to keep your elbows close to your body throughout. Pulling down with
an extended arm can lead to shoulder injury.)
TIP. It's not a bad idea to begin in warm clear water, but if you only have
cold water available, dress as warmly as possible, paying special attention to
your head. If you intend to spend a little time practicing, a neoprene divers
hood is a good idea, together with nose-clips to prevent your sinuses from
filling with water. If your ears are exposed, then wear some form of earplugs
to prevent the inrush of cold water. )
(CAUTION: Kayakers have suffered hypothermia as a result of overzealous rolling
practice in cold water! Rolling in cold water can rapidly chill you. Always
have a companion with you when you practice and stop if you begin to shiver.)
your practice with either a companion supporting your paddle blade, or with
your blade resting on a low dock, or with a paddle float. Allow yourself to
fall sideways toward your blade into the water. Once your body is supported by
the water, but not necessarily completely submerged, repeat your dry-land
movements, paying particular attention to the rotation of your body as you
flick the boat upright, and to keeping your head low. By this stage you should
be able feel if your movement requires a lot of effort or strength. By
contrast, a good roll with a good body position requires minimal strength and
effort. Keep your elbows close to your body.
the next stage, allow yourself to capsize completely with your paddle tucked
alongside your gunnel in the "wind-up" position. Lean toward your
paddle to allow your PFD to float you up toward the surface and the position
you have already been recovering from. Now push the rear blade up and pivot it
to cross the hull as you practiced on dry land, before pushing the active blade
up to clear the surface. Now you are ready to pull down on your brace and to
flick your kayak upright in the way that you have rehearsed.
be able to roll on flat water is great, but not as useful as the ability to
roll in a variety of conditions, especially after an accidental capsize. Once
you've become proficient on calm water, try rolling in windy or choppy
conditions, or in moving water, or small surf. When you set up for your roll,
capsize away from the wind or current or surf, and roll up on the side the
wind, wave or current is coming from. That way you'll harness the energy of the
elements to help your roll. Roll up on the other side and you'll find it more
(CAUTION: Before practicing a roll, check the water depthto make sure you'll
not hit anything when you capsize.)
roll I have described is only one way to roll, and the learning sequence is one
of many you can follow. Refer to "Kayaking, a Beginners Manual" Nigel
Foster, (Fernhurst Books), or "Nigel Foster's Sea Kayaking" (Globe
Pequot Press) for alternative techniques. You may find as I do that you'll use
only one or two varieties of roll in action, but practicing other rolls will
help you roll more reliably. The more positions of the paddle or different body
movements you can successfully adopt, the more likely you are to be able to
roll in any given situation.
the paddle float was devised as a way to improvise an outrigger for
self-rescue, its best use, in my opinion, is as an aid to a reentry and roll.
Once the rudimentary principles of a roll are mastered, a reentry and roll with
a paddle float can offer a reliable self-rescue, even though rolling without
the float might still be elusive.
a reentry, flip the kayak upright, float yourself alongside the kayak facing
the bow, and grasp the paddle against the far side of your cockpit so that it
extends out at right angles past you with the float as far from the side as
possible. Grip the near side of your cockpit with your other hand. Lie back in
the water. Hold your breath and swing your feet into the cockpit between your
hands. Still gripping both sides of the cockpit, wriggle yourself into your seat,
and with your feet on the foot braces, grip firmly with your knees.
grasp the paddle shaft with both hands and gently pull down against the
buoyancy of the paddle float until your head reaches the surface and you can
breathe and see what you are doing. Relax now in this position. Finish your
roll by pulling down on the paddle with the hand closest to the paddle float,
pushing your head down toward the water and flicking with your hips to right
the kayak. When the kayak is upright, bring your head inboard close over the
your balance with the aid of the paddle float by gripping it tightly across the
cockpit coaming. As with the previous paddle float self-rescue, in windy
conditions or in waves or surf, enter from the side the waves are approaching
from so that you are bracing on the correct side once you are upright. If you
practice the reentry and roll with a paddle float and find it straightforward,
try deflating the float a little. The less buoyancy you need in the float, the
more efficient your hip flick is becoming. Ultimately you might aim to be able
to self-rescue without a float, but then you can still carry the float as a
back-up in case you need it sometime.
course practicing a roll with a paddle float is a good way of gaining
confidence for rolling without a float. It is also an excellent way to improve
your hip flick until it is almost effortless. Use the float for practicing
paddle braces until you can brace with confidence and can progress to bracing
without a float with no fear of failure. Regularly using a paddle float
increases your familiarity with it and helps you gauge its advantages and
limitations for yourself. To improve your sense of balance, try reentering
without the paddle float, going through all the moves on calm water. Then
rehearse with your float in varying conditions until you know what you are
capable of with a float rescue.