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Rolling. Learning the easy way!

I 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.

In 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!

So, 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.

Kayaking 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.

When 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.

First 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.

Now 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.

Now 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 learning process.

( 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. )

Find 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 both sides.

This 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.

(CAUTION 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.)

Begin 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.

At 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.

To 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 difficult.

(CAUTION: Before practicing a roll, check the water depthto make sure you'll not hit anything when you capsize.)

Other Rolls

The 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.

A Summary of Rolling Tips

© Nigel Foster, 2000

The Paddle Float Roll by Nigel Foster

(first published in Sea Kayaker Magazine)

While 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.

For 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.

Now 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 deck.

Maintain 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.

Of 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.

© Nigel Foster