Rolling as religion

Alan doing C-to-C roll

Alan doing C-to-C roll

It’s been feeling like I’ve converted to a new religion lately, the religion of kayak rolling. The way it occupies my thoughts and spare time has all the markers of a cult-like fervour, a saltwater brainwashing of sorts. Heaven or Nirvana can be found in a perfect roll. Hell or dukkha is found in repeated failure. There are even sects to this religion – the sweep-roll followers, the C-to-C convertees, the “hybrids” who dabble in various forms. Our temple is the sea, our church a convenient loch or pool. Our rosary or mala is the noseclip worn around our neck and our skullcap is made of neoprene.

Sometimes the God of Rolling is in benevolent mood and the planets are aligned, blessings are bestowed and some sweet rolls are manifest. But sometimes this God is angry and vengeful and punishes by cruelly denying the devout prayers of unworthy disciples.

I’m certain also that there are many religious parallels concerning the gifting of a lowly devotee with a powerful and blessed tool that renders them capable of wondrous things, such as smiting enemies and parting seas and so on. I have been given such a tool – it’s called a Valley Nordkapp LV. I have yet to prove my worthiness.

So Alan and I made our weekly pilgrimage to Loch Eck yesterday. Alan struggled with his sweep and took a break for some contemplation. I jumped in my kayak and, to my immense pleasure, performed a highly successful roll that had the sound of “hallellujah” echoing up and down the loch.

That was my last really good roll.

And so it followed that I started to think. And then I thought some more. Here’s how my thoughts went:

  • I need to adjust my head positioning
  • I need to adjust my blade angle
  • I seem to be coming up too high and can’t get my blade on the water at the start of my sweep, why is that?
  • My BA is too buoyant
  • I need to reach forward more
  • Wow, I haven’t thought about my hip flick in a while, I need to focus on that
  • I’ve forgotten my head movement
  • My blade angle’s all wrong
  • I’ve forgotten everything, but if I try another 3 dozen times it might come back to me
  • I feel dizzy
  • I’m tired, cold and want to go home

There were some more successful rolls, and I should have stopped at 2 in a row, but I honestly can’t figure out what made them successful. Or why in some kayaks all this seems almost effortless.

Meantime, after his contemplation, Alan made a declaration that he was sick fed up with failed sweep rolls and was going to convert over to the C-to-C side. To me, such switches of allegiance at this stage in our rolling practice are akin to converting from Church of Scotland to Rastafarianism. It is beyond comprehension, a step too far. But Alan has been dabbling with the C-to-C for some time now and yesterday saw him on his road to Damascus (OK, enough with the religious metaphors). Needless to say, the C-to-C with an extended paddle (the latter recommended by Gordon) worked. Every single time. In my Nordkapp LV. In his Nordkapp. Awesome.

So, with a desire to share in the awesomeness, I had a go myself. It felt weird and different, yet not. I came up after 3 attempts, which isn’t bad for a brand new roll. I am torn.

I started a discussion on the UK Rivers Guidebook Sea Kayaking forum where I have found like-minded souls who evidently also spend their non-practising hours contemplating matters of deep and philosophical meaning relevant to all things salty. I would, however, like to know where they all were when I was checking for new responses at 8 am this Sunday morning. I mean, priorities.

But until such time as I figure it all out and achieve Ultimate Enlightenment, aka a consistent, bombproof roll in my Nordy, that’s me in the corner …

The body moves naturally, automatically, unconsciously, without any personal intervention or awareness. But if we begin to use our faculty of reasoning, our actions become slow and hesitant.” Zen Master Taishen Deshimaru


  1. Dan Thomas says:

    I don’t usually contribute to the UKRGSS forum but I did this time because I enjoy your blog and even met you on the water once. It’s nice to find a kayaking blog which has a bit of humanity to it and expresses rather than covers up the doubt, worry and fear which has been a major part of my own experience of the sea. It does ease with time, but only gradually.

    As it happens, at 8am on Sunday I was camped at a lonely spot in the Menai Straits contemplating packing up and paddling out in a force 5-6 stern quartering wind. Some might say I would have done better to be sat in front of a computer.

    You’re right about the quasi-religious feel to some discussions about rolling. It can be scary sometimes. It’s just one skill amongst many, and far from the most important one. It looks spectacular and can be fiendishly hard to learn but a solid low brace will spare you a lot more drama and heartache than rolling ever will. I like Wayne Horodowich’s thoughts on the subject –

  2. pamf says:

    Dan, Thank you for the kind comments. I am glad you survived those F5-6 conditions! I doubt very much you would have been better off sitting at a computer 🙂

    I must hide your comment from my husband who has been nagging me endlessly about working on my low brace. I am going to completely ‘fess up to being obsessional about rolling beyond good sense and reason. It is a psychological condition and I may need help. Meantime, if I could just get that roll down, I’d be able to focus on other things.

    Seriously, I absolutely hear you.

  3. Hi Pam, I always enjoy reading about your experiences on the water. I never thought I needed a roll until one day the motion of the ocean taught me humility.

    It took me a long time to learn to roll. I just could not get the rhythm down. Then when I did I realized that rolling was not important…a brace was the key to having fun on the water. For it truly lets you naturally move without thinking. And then rolling became like breathing, totaly natural.

    I developed water on the brain from all of those hours of practice playing on the edge between clouds and sea grass. And I fell in love with the allure of Greenland rolling due to the complexity of the rolls and how it rejects modern technology to embrace the technology of history. I also think I could have been a seal in a past life…

    But I have realized that the perfect roll always looses against the perfect brace in real life applications. Rolling improves balance, timing, and bracing. And a perfect roll in eye shot of a non kayaker can scare off or entice them into trying out this lifestyle.

    Nevertheless, playing between air and water does put things into an interesting perspective,..Keep up the good work, Jeff

  4. pamf says:

    Hello Jeff – Very interesting to hear of your bracing and rolling evolution. Indeed, I have, er, more than once, experienced the results of a lack of a good brace and I do fully intend to address this (along with other things). The rolling thing has taken on a bit of a life of its own – going from sheer terror in the early days, to rolling pool kayaks, to (most recently) rolling sea kayaks. I think my recent training experience in Skye had quite an impact on me – being able to roll up in rough water made attempting a self rescue (which I’ve also been practising over time) seem like a non-starter in comparison. And I couldn’t help but marvel that I (or rather my coach) found such a capability within me, esp when I reflected on those early days. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t have an emotional impact. And now, I think it’s a case of seeing it through the whole way.

    I can understand the appeal of Greenland rolling. I do enjoy the feeling of a roll coming together and have been known to daydream about giving Greenland rolling a try one day. I’m interested in the whole body awareness aspect of it, and of transferring some of my yoga learnings over (which I try to do even now).

    Yes, I used to watch people rolling and think on their capabilities as almost mystical!

    Anyway, I hope you are enjoying sunny days on the water in Florida. I am running out of practice time on the sea/lochs as it feels like winter is already setting in here, in the form of torrential rain and gales 🙁 Summer was in June. But that’s Scotland for you.

  5. Dan Thomas says:

    Your thoughts are confused, young Paduan. You must be mindful. And I must avoid sounding as if my ideas count for any more than anyone else’s. Here they are anyway.

    You can approach rolling as a sort of watery Tai Chi or as a core survival skill and I’m certainly not going to say that either is the One True Way, but if it is to be the latter it is important that you do not put it aside during the Winter. If the Firth of Clyde is anything like the Irish Sea, the water should stay warm (that’s a relative term) until the end of October. You might want to give hour long practices in Loch Eck a miss by then but it will still be a good idea to roll once every time you are on the water – assuming most of your attempts are successful. It doesn’t have to be that unpleasant. A successful roll is quick enough that you won’t really feel the cold. An unsuccessful roll need not be much worse as long as Alan is stationed alongside to provide a bow rescue.

    It matters because you won’t be able to roll in cold water unless you are familiar with cold water. If you capsize in February and your last roll was in October you will know (or rather, believe) that your head is going to explode just as soon as it hits the cold water, That belief, rather than the cold itself, will be enough to destroy your technique. If on the other hand your last roll was just a week previous you will know that it isn’t noticeably colder this time. The water is obliging enough to only cool down gradually. That means you only have to familiarise yourself with it gradually. And this is all about familiarity. It has *nothing* to do with mortification of the flesh.

    Incidentally, my first ever encounter with a kayak was on Loch Eck in 1984. I capsized. That’s not to say that I have 25 years of experience behind me. Eight would be more like it.


  6. pamf says:

    Hi Dan – Thank you for injecting a dose of reality! I’ll be honest, I really haven’t thought about actually rolling outdoors in the winter. But indeed it might happen that I need to! This is a good point. I have just today ordered 2 neoprene hoods (is that cheating?) with the thought of practising into, oooh, October or so … but maybe we will go beyond that :O I’m feeling shivers as I type this! Which proves how much is in the mind.

    Yes, I am fond of Loch Eck. It’s such a lovely spot and we get it to ourselves most of the time (don’t tell anyone). I think many a kayaker started their “career” there. I can’t believe it’s only been 2 years since my first “tippy” experience at that very spot.

  7. Hello Pam, I have absolutely no sea kayaking qualifications, so I comment with little insight into the “normal” learning process. I too struggled to learn to roll (in a nice warm pool) but I echo what Dan and Jeff say about concentrating on bracing. That will save you from many sticky situations.

    A roll is very similar to a high brace and one day I was practicing a high brace when I went too far and capsized. I kept my paddle in position on the surface and swept it back and popped up. I was so surprised I tried it again, and again popped up. I have never looked back. At the Skye symposium I did about 50 rolls on the trot when compariing different boats. I only missed one, when I was tired.

    My question to you is, are you cortorting yourself into some strange setup position before you capsize? That is what held me back and I can guarantee you will never capsize by accident in that position. You might like to work on high braces, sweeping, then coming up on the back deck, then allowing yourself to go right over from the high brace position.

    I have a short video of this here:

    Note how after the sweep back, I then sweep the back of the blade forward for extra stability as I come up off the back deck.

    It’s not a pretty roll but for me it works in any conditions. All our bodies are different so its not surprising that some find some rolls easier. For what it’s worth. I don’t hip flick. As soon as my sweep or brace starts, I just keep a steady twisting pressure through my lower back, hip and thigh.

    You will note my neoprene hood. I have windsurfed throughout the last 32 winters and now have surfer’s nodules in both ears. Keep cold water out your ears!

    Happy practising!


  8. pamf says:

    Hi Douglas – I love your “Zen” video! Lovely smooth roll on the go… to me it’s very pretty. Wow, 50 rolls … you must have been dizzy!

    To answer your question – no, there’s no contortion. I actually deliberately don’t put too much stock in initial set-up, being that a real-life capsize won’t allow it. But I do need to work on braces etc, as you suggest. I found myself with a natural tendency to lean back in a Romany, but this doesn’t happen in the Nordkapp. I think the leanback might have been what allowed me to have a consistent roll in fact.

    Interesting point about the hip flick – I find it to be a bit of a “black art”. I’m not sure what I do qualifies as a “flick” or “snap”. It feels more like what you describe. The CtoC on the other hand does seem to require a more vigorous snapping motion.

    Thank your for the advice on ear protection. I’ve been very aware of the amount of water I seem to have sloshing about in my noggin after rolling sessions. I just invested in hoods for Alan and me. Hopefully that will help. I was thinking about ear plugs, but complications regarding handling (I have visions of them floating about the loch and some poor bird eating them) and temporary deafness put me off.

    All the best.

  9. Seylan says:

    Hi Pam

    I’ve read a few of your posts now and enjoyed them but this one took the biscuit. I love it. I’m afraid I’m a fully sworn in member of the sweep sect.

    It sounds like I’m in a pretty similar position to you. My nose clips and goggles (yes, goggles) have a permanent home in by BA pocket. I WILL get that bombroof roll. I will. Maybe just one more youtube video or forum thread and somehow magically the next time I try it’ll all be fine and I’ll laugh about the days when I got so frustrated.

    I know bracing can be more important. But I’m addicted.

    Good luck. Maybe see you upside down under the water sometime!

  10. pamf says:

    Hi Seylan – I’m very pleased to learn that you can relate to my rolling experiences. This confirms that there are others like me out there and that, indeed, not everyone else was born able to roll! Yes, I have been watching the YouTube videos and reading the threads too – it all contributes something to the “knowledge bank”. I too have bought a pair of goggles, just this week! I thought it might be interesting to see what my blade is actually doing (rather than guessing). Then hopefully I can match what I’m observing to feel, and then dispense with the goggles.

    Meanwhile, it’s all about practice! If you see me out on the water and I’m not coming up – flip me over, and I’ll do likewise 😉

    Good luck to you too.

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