Finding your rolling mojo

If someone posted an article online about sea kayak rolling a couple of years ago, I’d have found it before Google did. It was around then that I was putting in enough research on kayak rolling that, in another field, it could have warranted the discovery of the Higgs Bosun particle, or the mapping of the human genome perhaps.   After many hours of YouTube videos, reams of articles, much experimentation and observation, guidance from coaches and friends, as well as DVDs and books, you might think that I would have determined the definitive technique for a bombproof roll. Well, it’s not that simple. There are so many variables in the rolling equation, including the paddler, that it is impossible to provide a one-size-fits-all answer. Instead, what I can do is share some of the discoveries that helped me in the hope that they might tip someone else over (so to speak) into the realms of success.

Euro blade sweep roll

I’m assuming a certain foundation of knowledge such as – you’re familiar with “eskimo rescues” (wherein you capsize, thump the bottom of your kayak and then use the bow of your assistant’s kayak to right yourself). Thereafter, you’ve perhaps managed to roll all the way around to the other side of your kayak and used a float or a person to work your way to an upright position. You’ve probably learned the basics of “hip flicks” and body and head positioning . And, if you’ve got that far, you might even have inserted a paddle into the mix.

If you are pursuing a sweep roll (as I did), it’s around now that things start to get a little more tricky. You are probably using a “Euro” blade (as opposed to a Greenland “skinny stick” paddle) and that’s when you might become intimately familiar with the concept of blade angle. It has been my personal experience that blade angle can make or break a Euro blade roll. An angle that is, say, 30 degrees or more off of flat can make the blade dive or climb. Never mind head positioning, sweeping or watching the blade, your roll is DOA and all the heaving in the world won’t save it (but may injure your shoulder!). Blade angle can also be affected by the particular paddle you are using (in relation to blade size, feather, crank shaft etc), your buoyancy (buoyancy aid, dry suit etc), and the type/size of kayak you are rolling.

All I can say is that, having a death grip on your paddle does not help. In other words, loosen your grip sufficiently to allow the paddle to find flatness on the water. In the past, I have tended to draw up elaborate mental formulae for wrist angle that only lacked a protractor for accuracy, but this was easily thrown out of whack by so much as a change of dry suit. Another idea is to capsize, set up and then get someone to adjust your paddle to be flat on the water. That was, in fact, the final step that got me rolling in the first place.

You might wonder whether you should try to progress on both sides equally. A coach once told me to make one side bombproof before working on the other as you can transfer your awareness and learnings over readily. I would agree with this approach. Apart from anything else, it is a psychological boost to have a strong roll on one side as opposed to a weak roll on both sides.

I would also recommend having a go at rolling with an extended Greenland paddle. As I’ve mentioned before, the Greenland paddle is your friend. It will scarcely allow you to fail. If you can get hold of a copy, watch Helen Wilson’s “Simplifying the Roll” DVD where you will learn about torso movement and keeping the eyebrows under the water, among other things.  Whilst this type of layback roll differs from the standard Euro paddle sweep roll, it will give you a feel for the importance of body and head positioning, as well as confidence that you can get yourself back up. This goes a long way to removing the fear of capsizing that can hinder practice. Once you’ve gained that confidence, you can then transfer your awareness and experiment with an extended Euro paddle perhaps, before refining your sweep roll. As one thing leads to another, you may then find yourself pursuing some of the other Greenland rolls and, before you know it, you’ll start looking forward to capsizing. At the very least, you will have diminished any inherent aversion to spending time underwater.

Of course, you never finish learning in sea kayaking, and this includes rolling. No sooner than you’ve finished celebrating your first successful pool roll, you must work on rolling your sea kayak in salt water. Then you have to try it out in chop. Then in even rougher water. Then with “unexpected” capsizes where you haven’t set up beforehand. Then with a kayak full of water. Then with half a paddle. And so on.

One piece of advice that I can offer is to always adopt “beginner’s mind” when approaching rolling. Be open to all the possibilities, including failure – and success, of course. Don’t assume that just because you were rolling like Maligiaq one day that you will never again have an off day. And just because you didn’t nail that roll today, the effort is never wasted. You have built more “knowledge” into muscle memory than you realise.

In fact, thinking about it all, I’m going to amend what I said at the start. I do have the secret to rolling success, and I can sum it up in one word – practice!

Next kayakacrossthewater article will focus on debugging a faulty roll.

4 Comments

  1. Bruce says:

    Hi Pam,
    I just wanted to say that I really enjoy your blog. I am on a similar path of roll obsession / frustration so I find your experiences very enlightening and inspiring. Looking forward to your next post.

    Cheers,
    Bruce

  2. pamf says:

    Hi Bruce – Very glad that you are gaining inspiration. I think we all inspire one another in this quest. All the best, Pam

  3. Lesley Mackay says:

    Great post Pam – couldn’t agree more! ( I remember the Euro blade protractor stage… )

  4. pamf says:

    Indeed, Lesley. It also took me a while to discover that I can actually detach my hands from the paddle 🙂

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