Debugging a Sweep Roll

Post By Alan

I’ve had an ‘offside’ (or less reliable) side when rolling my kayak for a long time. Historically, it came about as a result of various rotator cuff strains whilst learning to roll. I have switched sides several times in the learning process, but my left side roll has always been the most reliable and strong. The lesser used right hand side (offside) has appeared and disappeared then reappeared in a different forms from time to time, and I have gone through the associated highs and lows.

I have mainly debugged my offside roll by analysing video footage, quite often on location for immediate feedback on what worked and didn’t work. Through this, I have a better understandings of some of the mechanisms that can lead to a sweep roll failing. Sometimes it is the exact same thing that I do wrong time and again, which shows that it isn’t always a straightforward process to learn from your mistakes when rolling!

My findings are based on rolling a sea kayak, with dry suit, buoyancy aid and a crankshaft Euro paddle. Again, the assumption is that you know the basics of a Euro paddle sweep roll, but you may be experiencing inconsistencies with your roll on one side or another. The following are things that I have determined whilst trying to debug my own less dependable ‘offside’ roll.

Debugging Alan’s Sea Kayak Offside Roll

  • On setting up underwater, I often find that I over-reach upwards and, as a result, I am holding the paddle and sweeping the blade out of the water at the start of the roll. Unfortunately, you don’t get any leverage out of sweeping fresh air, so bringing the paddle blade down to be in contact (or almost) with the water surface is a must before starting a sweep. The amount that you have to reach up or bring the paddle blade down will vary considerably depending on whether you are rolling with a buoyancy aid and dry suit, or not. For example, in a swimming pool rolling session, likely with no dry suit or buoyancy aid, you will have to reach a lot more to get to the water surface.
  • If you are uncertain of blade angle on the water surface, you can use your hand to reach up and feel what angle the blade is at before you start your sweep and make corrections to position it flat on the water surface.
  • A climbing blade angle results in adding too much resistance to the sweep, which limits it and results in a failed roll. A flat to soft declined blade angle is the best angle to sweep with. A declined blade angle of 30 degrees or more will make the paddle dive and most likely lead to a failed roll.
  • The blade angle changes as you sweep due to your body position changing, therefore, the sweeping wrist angle needs to bend back as the sweep reaches the mid to rear of the kayak in order to keep the blade flat and to stop it climbing. Failed rolls can happen even after starting the sweep with a flat paddle if the wrist is kept in the same position during the entire sweep causing the blade to climb, ie resistance. This is a common finding in many of my failed rolls. I find that at the start of the sweep my wrist is neutral to slightly bent forward, but by the end it needs to be bent back to maintain the desired flat blade angle. This action had become so automatic on the left hand side that I barely noticed I was doing it and it took me a while to realise that it was missing entirely on the right. When I introduced it to the right, the roll started working again!
  • Get someone to video your rolls so you can easily debug them later, or play back the video on site (if you have a waterproof camera) for extra quick visual feedback. Remember if a picture paints a thousand words, then a video must paint a whole lot more!
  • Different sea kayaks vary in how they capsize and, as a result, each will feel different to get into the set up position. Higher volume kayaks will have more buoyancy to drag round. If you sometimes feel like you are stuck before getting round to set up position, learn to tug on the paddle a couple of times to pull yourself around.
  • Keep your rolling practice to sensible durations. It’s better to do 3 days of one hour training sessions a week  rather than 3 hours, one day a week.
  • If you are doing rolling practice for a while and you start to feel your rolling is getting worse, a few other things can come into play –
    • Dizziness (affects me after about 3 rolls)
    • Water leaking from your spray deck into the cockpit filling it up and changing kayak/rolling dynamics
    • Fatigue from muscle weakness, which could lead to bad technique and injuries
    • Are you wearing the correct clothing? Dry suit and under fleece are essential at minimum for rolling in Scotland anyway!
    • Even with a dry suit and fleece, cold can become an issue, especially if you’re rolling outdoors in northern climes. Intersperse rolling with some forward paddling just to get the blood circulating again.
  • If you make progress during a rolling session, stop and feel good that you did so. Don’t keep repeating a roll until it fails. It’s better to leave with a sense of enthusiasm and achievement in your mind rather than dwelling on how you managed to fail miserably after a good start!

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.

Back on home waters

Just down the road ...During our last trip, before leaving from Ballachulish, I noticed that Lewis had dug some laminated maps of our paddling area out of a folder labelled “Local Paddles”. This made me consider the definition of “local” and how it varies from one person to another. For example, if Alan and I were organised enough to have such a folder, it would contain a map of the Clyde, extending to Loch Striven, the Kyles of Bute, Loch Long, Loch Goil and Loch Fyne. Maps for far flung areas such as north of Oban would go in the folder labelled “Remote Paddles”, whilst everything else would go in the folder marked “Foreign (There be Dragons)”.

It just so happens that the bulk of our kayaking has been done in local waters, simply because it’s so handy. It also happens to be rather beautiful, and one can never get bored with beauty. A lowered carbon footprint is a nice little bonus. True to form, we were back on local waters this past Saturday, returning to Colintraive but this time leaving from Toward.

I read with some disbelief that the temperature was supposed to reach 2°C by 7 am. The brilliant sun shining through the window implied only warmth. I stopped short of grabbing my wetsuit (which is now in winter hibernation), but feared I might stew in my drysuit. To create a sort of compromise I wore only one layer of capilene as my thermal base.

Toward Sailing Club lifting yachts out

Toward Sailing Club lifting yachts out the water

We paddled past Toward Sailing Club, whose members were busily extracting yachts from the water by way of a crane. What could be sadder, I pondered, than removing your sailing vessel from the sea on a beautiful breezy, sunny day? I feel a pang locking my kayak up overnight (heck, I have friends who take theirs into the house with them), but imagine parting company until spring. We paddled past in an appropriately solemn fashion.

Soon we were in amongst the ever lovely Kyles of Bute, pausing to gaze towards the now vacant Loch Striven along the way. The half dozen container ships that had been in cold lay-up there have now departed, travelling emptily to an uncertain future in the Far East, last I heard. Loch Striven has been returned to its previously slumbering state with nothing more than a few bouncing bombs to attract any attention.

Northerly breeze

Northerly breeze

As we approached the East Kyles, the northerly wind was making itself known and I realised that, contrary to my initial fears, sweltering heat was definitely not an issue. It might be said that a disadvantage of paddling with one’s spouse is that one is more readily given to voicing one’s discomforts aloud. When in a group, I am slightly less inclined to burden my friends – but husbands, on the other hand, are fair game. Alan soon pulled into the shore and I followed, managing to scrape my kayak along some barnacles in the process. He insisted that I put something warm on – something being his fleece as I noted that I’d left mine in the car. Suddenly, the air became frostier. (Note to self: time for a spare clothing drybag audit).

Rhubodach ferry

Rhubodach ferry

It was the first time that we had paddled all the way to Colintraive from South Cowal, powered on by the promise of the wind and tide at our backs on our return. We had lunch beside the Rhubodach ferry jetty before being pushed back to Toward with the sun in our faces.

The sudden onset of cooler temperatures brought home the fact that we are now running out of time for anything but minimal wet practice, outdoors at least. I duly swapped my baseball cap for a neoprene hood and plopped into the water for a spot of rolling. Whenever I am about to declare stupendous, bombproof, super-robust rolling success to the world, the Universe comes knocking at my door with a little calling card that says, “Catch yerself on”. Last week, I introduced a new and unexpected quirk to my ever-growing list of new and unexpected quirks. As I tumbled upside down and initiated my sweep, I became aware that the blade wasn’t “catching”, resulting in a truncated roll which gets me up, but not as easily as I’ve known. I could not determine the cause of this until I figured out from video evidence that I am initially sweeping the air (which was also a recently diagnosed problem with Alan’s offside roll). It’s funny how, underwater, my brain couldn’t work this out – but then again, it has difficulty working anything out beyond not breathing.

Rolling on Loch Eck

Practice on Loch Eck

Anyway, this week I was completely focused on fixing the problem and, in the process, managed to forget the One Thing that has changed my roll from being hit and miss to being something I can depend on. This is my most important rolling discovery since … well, the last one. The trick is to flick my leading wrist back emphatically. It works beautifully in achieving perfect blade angle every time. But this week, my underwater brain succumbed to the law of Sudden Oxygen Deficiency (SOD) and decided to dispense with the One Thing altogether. So my first couple of rolls were laboured, to say the least. Fortunately, Alan’s brain was still working and he could plainly see the climbing blade angle that was the source of the trouble. As much as I would like to, I dare not yet make a declaration of bombproofness, as all too often I have proved that pride comes before a fail.

Alan with empty Loch Striven in background

Alan with empty Loch Striven in background

As we paddled past the sailing club once again, we were surprised to note that the crane had gone and that, barring a few whose owners had presumably slept in, all the yachts were now out of the water and were getting herded into their winter pen. That was fast work!

Back at our launch spot, we threw the kayaks on to the car roof and were home within 10 minutes. As we tucked our kayaks in for the night, it was with the reassurance that they would soon be back out on the water. Even if we don’t go far, it’s always good to go kayaking no matter what the season.

Goals
There are no goals
There is no order
Paid for in laughter

Home
Is this my home
Been starting over
Bathe in the water

Home, Engineers

The Slightly Imperfect Paddling Club

Julia, back on the waterWe’ve been a bit out of our paddling routine lately, what with Easter visitors and some poor weather to boot.  We were, however, back at the pool on Friday for the last session of the year, and then out on the sea on Saturday which coincided with the arrival of summer. Warmth and sunshine abounded and seemed like such a luxury after the harsh winter that we endured. I popped along to Loch Eck yesterday to try out some new rolling technique, but I can honestly say that it had more to do with just getting out on a beautiful day than with fretting over blade angles and head positioning. (Note to self: no matter how sunny and warm a day it is, Loch Eck is still a barely defrosted icebox in April. It certainly sped my roll up.)

A significant and unfortunate development occurred since I last posted. In the course of a “warm-up” during a coaching assessment a couple of weeks back, our paddling pal, Julia, ruptured her ACL (anterior cruciate ligament). I don’t know about warmed up, but I understand that things certainly got a little heated as she writhed about in extreme pain before heading for the hospital. And so, she now awaits some quite serious surgery (I’ve squirmed my way through the animation). This did not , however, stop her from going for a little paddle from the beach at Ardentinny at the weekend.

Naturally, Alan and I were keen to offer our help and support, making offers to carry her kayak, assist her in and out of it etc etc. This lasted all of half an hour before we basically left her to fend for herself. Well, not quite. To explain, Alan wasn’t having a good day. His recent sternum injury had reawakened and he was becoming increasingly nervous about setting it back again. And so he decided to bail out of the paddle shortly after setting out. Fortunately, the others in our group were of adequate strength and number to ensure that Julia wasn’t left floating about the Clyde helplessly.  On the plus side, I got some towing practice in.

It started out so well ...

It started out so well ...

As a result of recent events, and following on from my post on the subject, I’ve come to appreciate that almost everyone is dealing with their own personal challenges. In our little group on Saturday we had a torn ACL, a sternum injury and 2 gammy knees, one bad ankle and a neurological condition. And that’s just the stuff I know about! The Scottish paddling community is also acutely aware of the absence from the waters of a well known paddler who has  recently undergone radical knee surgery.

All of this serves to make me appreciate that getting out in a kayak is a privilege that is not to be taken lightly. I am less inclined to obsess over matters such as rolling (no, really) and more inclined to just enjoy being on the water.  To those of us with slight imperfections, the “ordinary” moments of kayaking – and indeed life – are without doubt something to be savoured and appreciated.

“”That’s why I always say, what is the mark of a good warrior if he has no scars? What battle did he fight? When you see someone all scarred up and still going on, you can say, “That’s a good warrior.”
The Wind is My Mother, Bear Heart (Muscogee Creek Indian medicine man)

Failure is the path of least persistence

Avocet at poolHaving learned that sea kayaks are allowed in the Riverside Leisure Centre pool (as long as they’ve been thoroughly washed), we decided to bring one along to practice some “real” rolling at the Club session on Friday night.  Of course, I was keen to take my Rockpool Isel, but this was not conducive to letting other folks have a shot, being that the Isel’s footplate takes a bit more work to adjust than foot pegs. And so, we took along Alan’s Valley Avocet. This choice caused me a little trepidation as my history of rolling the Avocet has not exactly been one filled with glowing accomplishment. I have had the odd moment of success, but it’s been exactly that – odd. And, of course, after the arrival of my Isel, I was in no rush to go back and engage in further self-torture. I managed, however, to delude myself into thinking that I had been making decent progress in improving my skills in the pool boats, so perhaps rolling the Avocet would be a scoosh now. Or perhaps not …

The moment of truth arrived. Alan jumped in and rolled in his usual style, with grace and poise. Next up, it was my turn. After a particularly ugly roll, I then went for a little swim. This was followed by a couple more laboured efforts and some more swimming. Sigh …

Meantime, various other members of the Cowal Kayak Club (mostly river paddlers) jumped in for a go, and each one of them rolled the Avocet with ease.  By the end of the evening, it was as if my ego had imbibed a shrinking potion and  promptly jumped down the rabbit hole into a distorted wonderland of neurosis and despair. Through the haze of blind rage chlorine, I heard a coach’s voice advise something about giving it more “oomph”, fixing my hand position … oooh and look at how good Terry’s (first ever) roll in a sea kayak is … it’s so good, he doesn’t even know how good it is … yada yada yada (I hate Terry …*).

We did of course bring along a camera and I have now reviewed the video evidence.

Readers who are bored senseless at this stage can skip.

For the remaining 2 of you, I give you Exhibits A and B (and C and D):

Alan at set-up

Alan at set-up, note that kayak has started to rotate already

Pam at set-up

Pam at set-up, note that kayak is not rotating at all

Alan rolling up

Paddle at 90 degrees, and Alan's well on his way

Pam not rolling

Paddle at 90 degrees and kayak only just starting to rotate

So, what’s up with that? Yes, yes, I know what you’re all thinking – HIP FLICK! But I swear I can’t get it going any sooner in the Avocet.  Is this a connectivity issue (with thanks to Julia for supplying that technical term), or am I just rubbish?  My most successful roll was the one that involved an absence of noseclip which resulted in a degree of urgency, or “oomph”. I am now inclined to learn a C-to-C roll for those kayaks with which I have difficulty, being that the first half of my sweep isn’t achieving anything anyway.

Fast forward to Saturday and I awoke to a disinclination to go anywhere near a kayak. The prospect of sulking at home all day, however, was even less appealing, and so we trundled along to meet up with our friends and then made our way to Strachur.

Hebridean Princess

Hebridean Princess

It was a pleasure not to be warding off frostbite as we got our gear ready for going on the water, and we were soon heading south towards Strathlachlan, with some slight wind coming from the northwest. There were few other vessels on Loch Fyne, and we were passed by the Hebridean Princess (HM The Queen was not on board). Alan took a photo of her (the ship) with me in the foreground and said he was going to label it “Hebridean Princess and cruise ship”.  I simpered obligingly.

Castle Lachlan

Castle Lachlan

We stopped for lunch at the Inver Cottage Restaurant, whose welcoming fireside is always appreciated.

Upon departure, I took the opportunity to surreptitiously dip my hands in the loch to test the temperature. It wasn’t exactly bath-like, but I speculated that I could perhaps handle a little dunking as long as I kept my drysuit on. In other words, I needed to regain my rolling mojo. I read a book recently that dealt with how the brain attaches to negative associations, being that primitive peoples had to place great focus on matters such as not being killed or starving to death, versus the more positive matters of finding a mate, or a flat-screen telly.  And so we are hard-wired to attach to negativity. The book recommended that, when something negative occurs, you should immediately replace it in your mind with something positive and, in so doing, you can effectively rewire your brain.  My intention, therefore, was to replace the painful associations of the previous evening, with the memory of a perfect, effortless roll in my Isel.

Loch Fyne

Loch Fyne

It didn’t work out exactly as planned. No sooner had I capsized than I became aware of a complete inability to surface. Convinced that I’d been snagged by the Loch Fyne Monster (or at least an especially vicious piece of kelp), I went for yet another frantic swim. On my next attempt, Alan pinpointed the problem. My drysuit was full of air and I was resembling the Michelin Woman upon immersion. Lesson No. 1: always make sure to fully purge your drysuit. Alan helped me deflate by hugging me (which Julia mistook for a romantic gesture – as if!).  Finally, I nailed the roll and it felt exactly as it should – effortless. I love my Isel.

I cheered heartily, however, not as heartily as Alan did. I’m sure I heard some utterances about finally getting some peace. Well, I can take a hint.

Now, I wonder if I should take my Isel into the pool next week …

* With apologies to Terry, it was the chlorine talking

Disregarding obstacles

Kyles of ButeI think everyone who has taken up paddling would agree, there are obstacles that must be dealt with along the way. Every training class, every trip, every swimming pool session presents something to be surmounted, some of it real, and some of it a creation of the mind of course.

At the moment, a couple of our paddling pals are overcoming the obstacle of having to learn open boating skills as part of the syllabus for SCA qualifications relevant to their pursuit of sea kayaking (I know, I don’t get it either). While they have been exploring the complexities of single-bladed paddling, Alan and I have been left to our own devices.

Tighnabruaich

Tighnabruaich

So, a couple of weekends ago, we kayaked from Colintraive to Tighnabruaich on a relatively calm day.  The first obstacle of that particular trip was the discovery that Tighnabruaich had succumbed to the Dreaded Curse. The sign had said something about “unforeseen circumstances”, but my disgust impinged upon my forbearance to read further. I would say that being a Sunday in the West of Scotland is not so much an unforeseen circumstance as a requirement for toilet closure. Disgust then took on a whole new meaning when, upon rejoining Alan on the beach, we discovered the source of an unpleasant odour that had been putting him off his lunch. Disturbingly, it was emanating from his boot. I’ll stop right here as, if I continue on I will get queasy. Needless to say, the sewage facilities at Tighnabruaich require some attention (perhaps that’s why the toilets were closed?).  Like me, you might now be interested in supporting this organisation. You might also be interested to learn that mukluks can withstand high-powered jetwashing.

Near the GantocksLast weekend, we were out on the Clyde with a couple of other members of the Cowal Kayak Club, one of whom comes from a river kayaking background. He informed us of a recent incident on the river that left him shaken, such that he is considering transferring his allegiance over to touring.  I have had my own little dance with the rough and tumble demons, which has been greatly alleviated by acquiring a Rockpool Isel (not so much my knight in shining armour as the kayak he paddled in on).

Then, of course, there are the obstacles that can be found each Friday night at the pool – mostly relating to the ever-moving goalposts of acquiring or perfecting a bombproof roll.

There are also the obstacles of everyday life as they impact our ability to get out  – whether related to time, family, health, injuries, work or even the weather. It’s all part of what Zorba the Greek called “the full catastrophe”.

Why do we put ourselves through all this? Why do we work so hard to overcome these impediments? And is it so much about overcoming them, as disregarding them, or even working with them? The answer is difficult to put into words.  I recently found the following moving/inspiring/beautiful video circulating on the paddling blogosphere, and I think that perhaps it expresses it best:

BIRTHRIGHT from Sean Mullens on Vimeo.

Each of us has obstacles to transcend, and once we’re out there on the water, in amongst nature, we do just that. We are free and in the moment. We can breathe and be our natural selves.

About a year and a half ago, I lost a chunk of vision. Not to over-dramatise, I thought I might be going blind. The thing that concerned me most at the time took me by surprise. I recall standing on the shore road of Innellan as a storm blew in. I was fixated on the sea and how I might not be able to get back out in it. Day after day, I looked out at the Clyde and measured the changes in my vision against it.

My sight came back, but – like everyone else – I don’t know what lies ahead. I certainly won’t be taking anything for granted and, inspired by others, it will take more than a few obstacles to stop pursuing what is, after all, a birthright.

If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.
Steve Jobs, CEO, Apple Computer

Getting warmer

Karitek Demo Day at FairlieAfter a weekend off from kayaking (other than the pool), it was back to normal last weekend as a group of us rendezvoused at Fairlie on Saturday. This was in order to coincide with the Karitek demo day being held there as we were all anxious to fondle the lovely range of Rockpool, P&H and UKSK kayaks on display. Of course, Alan and I are not in the market for another kayak, but it’s always nice to look at the latest offerings regardless. Hopefully the good people of Karitek didn’t notice mind one chap testing out Alan’s Nordkapp.  We bumped into quite a few “well kent” faces from the paddling world and it was only after Alan had launched my kayak without me in it that I took the hint, stopped chatting and  jumped in. Apart from anything else, I didn’t want it to be inadvertently taken out for a demo and returned to Karitek!

Approaching Wee Cumbrae

Approaching Wee Cumbrae

We headed over to Little (or Wee) Cumbrae and stopped there for lunch. The island is under new management in the form of the Patanjali Yog Peeth Trust. As a yoga student myself, I am of course pleased that the island will be used as a centre for yoga and the promotion of ayurvedic wellbeing and non-harming – a much more favourable prospect than the potential shooting and quad biking options that were advertised on the prior “for sale” listing (somewhat oxymoronically alongside birdwatching). I have it on good authority that the owners are welcoming to sea kayakers, merely requesting that visitors respect the island’s ethos, although disappointingly allegedly, it is not necessary to swear an oath of vegetarianism in order to land (but don’t quote me on that).

View from atop Wee Cumbrae Castle

View from atop Wee Cumbrae Castle

We consumed lunch beside the square Castle remains and did a bit of exploration both inside and outside. Sufficiently fortified (us, not the Castle), we were back in our kayaks to cross over to Millport on Great Cumbrae for further sustenance in the form of a hot beverage in the Ritz Cafe. Following that, we hopped back to Fairlie, passing Hunterston’s terminal where a bulk carrier all the way from China was now berthed. Landing back at the beach should have been an uneventful affair, had it not been for Alan’s back going into a spasm which found him writhing about on the ground emitting “man groans” (akin to “man flu” in terms of the immensity of suffering involved). Not only that, my efforts to assist my fellow paddlers went horribly awry when I tripped over a stone and promptly dropped my end of Henrik’s kayak.  Henrik was very gracious about it and I didn’t even see him applying the duct-tape before putting his kayak back on the car roof.

Heading to Millport

Heading to Millport

One thing had become apparent during our outing and that was the almost, but not quite, spring-like quality to the day. In fact, we almost, but not quite, entirely dispensed with our pogies, neck gaiters and hats. At least I thought about it. Any weekend  now, I reckon.

And speaking of getting warmer, we’ve been trundling along to the pool each Friday evening to diligently work on skills improvement. A week ago on Friday, I jumped in, capsized and had the mental equivalent of a computer’s “blue screen”. The rolling program in my mind did not start and all that was left in my head was a blinking cursor.

Action shot

Action shot

There was no-one more surprised than I was about this. But it was actually a good thing as it caused me to have a total “reboot” (I won’t say where). I took myself (and Alan) back up to the shallow end and got right back to basics, once again building up what I consider to be the 2 core elements: sweep and head position. A bit of video replay had revealed a virtual absence of both which I soon corrected and was back feeling more confident by the end of the evening. In retrospect, I’d known that something wasn’t quite right the week beforehand and that my rolls were pretty laboured, but I hadn’t been able to fix it. So sometimes it’s better to utterly fail in order to deconstruct then reconstruct. The key is not to self-destruct, and that initself is a skill.

“You’re the only one who knows when you’re using things to protect yourself and keep your ego together and when you’re opening and letting things fall apart, letting the world come as it is – working with it rather than struggling against it. You’re the only one who knows.”
Ani Pema Chödrön

Deja vu all over again at Loch Striven

Friday night’s pool training took on a new and interesting twist last week. Alan and I had been busying ourselves with our usual rolling drills when I became aware of something resembling “shenanigans” going on at the deep end. I tried to ignore this and look busy, but was spotted by coach Richard who bullied invited me to participate. I then found myself in a kayak with a rope tied to each end, a bit like some sort of mediaeval torture device really. Richard and Euan then pulled the kayak up and down the pool, encouraging me to brace to prevent capsize. I have to admit, I was starting to enjoy it. Upon inevitably capsizing, I then had the opportunity to roll in the “moving” water. It definitely simulated the sensation of battling opposing forces under the water and I got a lot out of it. Alan’s turn was next and I think that there’s the tiniest of chances that Richard and Euan set the bar slightly higher for him (this could be a guy thing).

Duly trained up, we were keen to get out on the real water at the weekend. The forecast made Saturday a complete non-starter as, despite Richard and Euan’s best efforts, our training hadn’t quite extended to simulations of 65 mph gusts (maybe just 35 mph), so we pinned our hopes on getting out on Sunday when conditions were predicted to be calmer. And indeed they were, so off we popped for an afternoon jaunt.

Those great big ships again - and tiny kayak

Those great big ships again - and tiny kayak

More often than not we find ourselves putting in at Toward shoreline and seeing where the fancy takes us. More often than not, it takes us to Bute. And then maybe back over to Loch Striven. Being creatures of habit, that’s exactly what happened on Sunday. Well, to be honest, I wasn’t entirely finished inspecting the Maersk ships anchored in the loch, especially as another one had been added to the “raft” since we were last there. I suppose I am slightly fascinated by ships. It must have something to do with growing up on the banks of the Clyde.

After a pleasant paddle over to Bute and then northwards up Loch Striven, we managed to get a little more up close and personal this time (with the ships, that is). There were no signs of life aboard the behemoth vessels as we paddled around them, although I believe they are still being “powered down”. It’s astonishing to think that there is no work for them (or hundreds of others like them around the world) for the foreseeable future. What were all those ships transporting previously that we are somehow managing to live without now?

Stars and Stripes on Loch Striven

Stars and Stripes on Loch Striven

We noted that one of them (the Sealand Performance) was registered in New York and was flying the Stars and Stripes, which seemed a little incongruous in wee, backwater Loch Striven. But I’m forgetting how recently nearby Holy Loch played host to those very colours.

Having satisfied ourselves that we’d seen enough, we were escorted off the premises by a friendly seal as we turned to head home. We noticed that the sea state was changing a little at this point. It was no longer calm, for a start. The tide was going out and meeting the incoming wind. There were no 65 mph gusts or anything, but it was definitely lively. Something very similar happened the last time we made this self same trip, so it was all getting a bit Groundhog Day-ish. By the time we reached the NATO refuelling depot, I declared to Alan that I wanted to head in for a short break. Alan appeared to be unfazed by the conditions, but I threw a small wobbly. I’m not sure why this is. I think I am naturally predisposed towards thinking the worst. Alan pointed out that the worst that could actually happen was:

  • I might capsize
  • My roll might fail
  • I’d simply be blown over to the nearby shore

Processed through the “Pam’s even worse, worst case scenario filter” however, this reads as:

  • I might capsize
  • I might become entangled in something (seaweed? fish farm paraphernalia? NATO pipelines?) and be unable to free myself
  • I might hit my head off a rock
  • My roll might indeed therefore fail
  • Conditions might deteriorate to gale force
  • That squall moving to the north of us might contain south-bound tornadoes*
  • I (and my kayak) might get smashed to little pieces along the shoreline

(*Before you ask, I have seen a tornado forming above a car park in Greenock).

Where does all of that come from? It does get tedious.

Sensing my discomfort, Alan swapped kayaks with me. He had been paddling his new Avocet, while I was in my Nordkapp LV. I must say that I’d rather liked this arrangement as it levelled the playing field in terms of our respective speeds. Alan, therefore, got a big dollop of his own medicine feel for paddling at a reduced pace. After the wind had made its presence known, however, I was inclined to jump into the Avocet to see how it compared. And yes, I did feel a little more “in control” in the smaller kayak. It was also interesting to note that, whilst the Nordkapp had tended to rear up and then slap down on the waves, the Avocet delivered several face-fulls of saltwater instead (no, I wasn’t crying!).

We chugged our way back, rounding the fish farm, where it became especially bouncy and confused. I summoned up my learnings from Lewis, Islay, Skye and the pool, all of which had involved considerably worse conditions (ok, except for the pool). In my mind, I can honestly say, I was mentally prepared to try rolling upon capsize, especially as most of the sea activity was on my “good” side. I no longer think that my only instinct would be to pull the deck’s grab loop, but it remains to be seen as, on this occasion, I (and Alan) did manage to stay upright.

I am leaning towards adopting another indispensable tip from coach Richard in the meantime, proven to help many a kayaker get through rough waters and also to engage their roll. So where can I order a smiley face sticker for my deck? 🙂

I want to be you – whenever I see you smilin’
Cause it’s easily one of the hardest things to do
Your worries and fears become your friends
And they end up smilin’ at you
Put on a smilin’ face

Smiley Faces, Gnarls Barkley, St. Elsewhere

Both sides of the story

Scottish summer weather

Scottish summer weather

Let me start by mentioning the weather situation here on the west coast of Scotland. This past August was the second wettest on record, as measured at Benmore Gardens near Dunoon. A full 410 mm of rain fell. For a kayaker, of course, getting wet isn’t necessarily an obstacle to enjoyment. Indeed, a river kayaker may positively relish such conditions, at least in terms of their impact on river levels. But for the sea kayaker of less-than-advanced skills, aside from visibility issues, the real deterrent is the wind which has accompanied the torrential rain, with gusts of anything up to 50 mph. This doesn’t exactly entice one outdoors, let alone on to the sea (or on to the rapidly developing patch of wilderness/swamp formerly known as the garden, for that matter). Not only that, the average maximum temperature for August was 18°C. I know that my overseas readership is finding this difficult to believe, especially those in, say, fiery California or sweltering Spain, for whom August is still officially classified as summer.

So perhaps I may be forgiven if I don’t have exciting blog posts filled with details of multi-day trips to beautiful, sun-baked Hebridean beaches. Or even wee jaunts down the Clyde. Instead, the conditions have only served to encourage our preoccupation with rolling practice in the pool and at the loch. At the risk of being a tiny bit boring – and going on the premise that a boring blog entry is slightly less boring than no blog entry at all – allow me to return to that very topic.

Alan has come on in leaps and bounds, finally mastering a sweep roll – on both sides. Months of working on his “bad” side have been followed by him discovering that his other bad side, ie the injured side (bear with me here) is actually now his good side. A pool session at Garnock last week, coached expertly by Harvey, produced great results which saw my role as rescuer becoming entirely redundant. Also thanks to the efforts of Harvey in teaching me what a decent sweep was really all about, and to the many suggestions from other experienced folks, my sea kayak roll has improved markedly. Three things have been key:

  • aforementioned sweep
  • watching the paddle blade
  • blade angle

On that latter point, I made an astounding discovery. When I first learned to roll at the pool, I found that my blade angle was improved by tweaking my leading wrist away from me, and I’ve been doing that ever since. Last weekend, I discovered that in my Nordkapp LV, possibly due to the differing body position upon set-up (ie I’m up much higher in the water than when in the pool kayaks and in other sea kayaks), I have to tweak my wrist towards me. This flat out surprised me as I realised that this especially had been my undoing all along. Whenever I’d been trying to “improve” blade angle, I’d actually been hindering myself further. Finally, I started rolling consistently.

On the other hand (so to speak), I have been completely neglecting my off side, choosing instead to try to make my right side “bombproof” first. I am a very right-sided person. Doing anything on my left feels weak and/or weird. So I knew that I would be starting essentially from scratch when I did move over to rolling up on the left. What I hadn’t factored in was the revival of an old mountain-biking injury from a few years ago.

I recall it was a March morning up on the forest trail. I was cruising along on the flat when suddenly my bike wiped out from under me upon hitting a patch of ice. I slammed into the trail, which caused me to writhe about helplessly in pain. I still have the shin dent to prove it. The worst of the injury was the tearing of the (rhomboid) muscular tissue between the shoulder and the spine which took some time to heal. And, at a certain age, one might argue that healing of such injuries is never quite complete or perfect. So it goes when attempting to engage a sweep roll on my left side that I cause whatever patchwork repair that occurred to start to unravel and my best friend soon becomes an ice pack. Of course, this only adds weight to my suspicion that I should have learned all this rolling stuff at age 12 (hi Jessica!).

Now I am facing the awareness that rolling on both sides may be a higher mountain to climb than I’d previously thought. When checking off the mental skills chart, in the entry against “rolling” I see a little asterisk beside my name which translates to “one side only”. Getting back to reality (I remember that!), there is also the annoying prospect of being unable to roll up against the waves because they are not on my “good” side.

I can’t help but note how, in rolling, my personal goalposts keep moving and it thus becomes rather like an emotional rollercoaster. It goes something like this:

  • Starting to learn to roll –> fear
  • Overcoming fear –> moderate contentment
  • Still can’t roll –> frustration and lowered self-esteem
  • First roll at the pool –> ecstasy!
  • Growing awareness that roll could be better –> dose of reality
  • Can’t roll sea kayak –> frustration and lowered self-esteem
  • First sea kayak roll –> ecstasy!
  • First sea kayak roll in rough water conditions –> best day ever!
  • Difficulty rolling own sea kayak –> frustration and lowered self-esteem
  • Continued difficulty rolling own sea kayak –> meltdown/tantrums
  • Rolling own sea kayak consistently –> happiness moderated by growing awareness of inability to roll on both sides
  • Can’t roll on both sides –> frustration and lowered self-esteem

That’s a lot for the old nerves to handle. Or should I say, the old ego. Good job that, at the end of the day, I can take a step back from it all and realise that it’s really the be all and end all only rolling.

If less is more, just think how much more more could be.” Frasier Crane

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