Rolling With Sticks

Rolling With Sticks

Rolling With Sticks book at the ready

As Alan and I go out to practice our Greenland rolling, a scenario unfolds that might resonate with other paddlers of the skinny stick variety. Picture the scene: you have arrived at your favourite rolling spot, you go through the repertoire of rolls that you’ve mastered then you proceed to the ones that you are working on. One of two things happens then – you can’t quite get it right and can’t remember all the tips you tried to memorise from the DVDs and videos you’ve watched previously. Or, you nail it and are ready to try out a new roll, but can’t think which one or where to begin.

Sadly, out on the water, it’s not possible to take along a laptop, or even to readily fire up a mobile device, so it can leave one at a loss as to how to proceed. At worst, one could inadvertently start using bad technique which could lead to injury.

Rolling With Sticks

So that's how it's meant to be done!

Some of you might already be familiar with the Qajaq Rolls Website, which has been carefully put together by rolling aficionado Christopher Crowhurst in the US. It is a terrific free resource, documenting all the Greenland rolls (and others) in video and text, as well as employing useful stick figure diagrams. Branching out from this, Christopher has now created a book containing a first volume of rolls illustrated by said stick figures and accompanied by descriptive text. The book is called “Rolling With Sticks” (what else!) and is published on “Xerox premium NeverTear water resistant polyester paper.” In other words, it’s bombproof (just like your roll will be).

Alan and I received our copy last week and took it out to test in saltwater. Firstly, I can confirm, it really is waterproof. It’s difficult to imagine anything “paper” that wouldn’t become a soggy, mushy mess in saltwater, but it truly doesn’t. It’s hard to tell it’s even wet! And so, we were happily flipping through the contents and rolling with the book under our decklines. I was working on my hand roll and Alan on his storm roll and it was extremely useful (and somehow comforting) to have a handy reference right in front of us. It also acts as inspiration to get started on a new roll that we might not even have considered before. The stick figures work well as a quick visual reference (and I appreciated that they are smiling, reminding us to have fun!).

Rollign With Sticks

Alan looks up something new to try ...

This is quite a pioneering  book, being that the very nature of Greenland rolling is such that the skills have been passed down via elders and mentors, and have not been committed to paper to any large extent. Even although the activity is growing in popularity, it has still been quite niche. Skills sharing in this digital age has occurred via Internet sites and videos (as well as elders and mentors, of course), but I have not come across a lot in the way of guidebooks, and certainly not waterproof ones – a definite first!

I do have a tiny criticism. In the instructions for at least one roll (hand roll, forward to aft), we are guided to look up at the “sunlight”. This did throw me, being that the West of Scotland hasn’t seen sunlight for most of the “summer”. Perhaps “sky” would be a better word for us sun-deprived folks. But now I’m just being bitter picky.

To get your copy of Volume 1, go to the Rolling With Sticks Website. You won’t be disappointed!

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.

Never too much of a good thing

There is a Zen saying that, “When the student is ready, the teacher will come.” I have come to realise a slightly adapted version of this, which is: “When the kayaker is ready, the paddling opportunities will come.” This has certainly been the way of things lately. When Alan and I started out, we didn’t know any other kayakers.  We then made friends down at Garnock and, now, we find similarly minded folks right on our very doorstep, providing no shortage of opportunity to get out on the water. It’s a truly wonderful thing.

Misty Holy Loch

Last weekend saw several of those folks stranded on the “wrong” side of the water. Those of us on the Cowal side had intended to meet our friends at Kilcreggan, however, a thick, pea-souper of a fog had descended upon Greenock. Not possessing any suicidal tendencies, our friends quite sensibly abandoned any plans to cross the Clyde shipping channel. Sadly, therefore, they missed out on the beautiful sunny window that had opened over the Cowal Peninsula. We gazed over at the fog-enshrouded gloom in disappointment, which was only assuaged by blue skies, sunshine and beautiful scenery as we made our way from the Holy Loch to Dunoon and a hot cuppa at the Yachtsman’s Cafe.

Heading for the Kyles

Paddling in the Kyles

This weekend saw everyone gathered on the “right” side of the water where more blue skies and sunshine, if not exactly balmy temperatures, beckoned us out for a paddle from Toward to the East Kyles of Bute. After a great deal of deliberation, Alan decided that this would be the day of his “official” return to the world of sea kayaking after a nearly 4 months’ absence due to injury (give or take a couple of short practice outings). It was really excellent to have him back. Also a little strange. I confess to having become a bit “precious” about organising my kit, and I did try not to show my irritation upon discovering bits of his kit appearing in “my” Ikea bag. On the other hand, it’s awfully nice to have someone help you tug your mukluks off (paddlers will understand) at the end of a day’s exertions.

Taxi for Alan

Taxi for Alan

The wind was coming from the NNW  at about 20 kph as we headed straight into it on the way up the Kyles. Fortunately, the sun was out sufficient to keep us from freezing, despite the 3°C temperature and, indeed, my hands became quite sweaty in my pogies. I watched Alan with some concern, hoping that he wasn’t at risk of undoing all the hard physio work he’d undertaken in order to heal, but he assured me that he was feeling fine.  It seemed like the wind was picking up a bit as we pulled into shore for a spot of lunch. Most conveniently, our lunch site sported a rope swing, the temptation of which was too great to resist. Several of us let loose with our inner child and were soon flying through the air in a state of reckless abandon.

Loch Striven meets the Kyles

Loch Striven meets the Kyles

Returning was a quite different experience, with the wind now behind us. We soon established that, at the rate we were being pushed along, we were acquiring 2-3 knots of wind and tidal assistance. It took me all my time not to pull out a newspaper and make a cup of tea as we coasted along. As the waters exiting the Kyles met up with their relations exiting Loch Striven, however, things became a little livelier and required a return of all hands on paddles as we negotiated a bit of F4 chop. The optimists within our party had anticipated that it might be possible to not have to skirt around the fish farm at the southern end of Loch Striven, however, such hopes were obliterated upon meeting up with the rather chunky cables and pipes inconsiderately placed between the shore and the fish cages.  And so we laboured through the chop all the way around the fish farm. Suddenly Alan was making excellent progress as, momentarily distracted from his injury, he had hit the “turbocharger” button on his kayak (a well-known bonus feature of the Nordkapp). I continued to enjoy and appreciate my Rockpool Isel, which took the turbulence in its stride.

A January roll

A January roll

Soon we were back in the calmer waters of Toward. As we approached our destination slipway, not happy with a successful day’s paddling, Alan decided to test out his roll. I am pleased to report that it was present and correct, thus motivating the rest of us to duly pat him on the back and declare him mad (but in a good way).

And, speaking of resurfacing, the Cowal Kayak Club is now providing yet more opportunities to paddle. The Friday night pool sessions have re-started and future trips are in the works. If I’m not careful, this paddling thing could become a bit of an obsession …

Snapping out of it

With perfect timing, I came across this article: “Overcoming MS to scale Everest“. Exactly the kind of news I need to read right now. The last couple of sentences are particularly meaningful:

“Who you are inside… that’s what’s important. That will always be there,” she said.

“Whether my legs carry me up a mountain or not, I’m still who I am deep inside.”

And speaking of snapping out of it, I’m still working on hip snaps (aka hip flicks) in my sea kayak. Interestingly, I’m making better progress with my Capella solely due to the thigh grips. When (not if!) I do get it working, I will next have to look at perhaps modifying my Nordkapp with some foam to allow better contact for learning to roll purposes at least.

But before I get overly focused on rolling as a core skill (oops … too late), I am conscious of the fact that it is important to also focus on avoiding having to roll in the first place by learning other core skills that go some way to preventing capsize. Fear not, we are looking forward to addressing those further very soon.

A new club, and other trials

There are certain clubs that are a pleasure to join and participate in. I can think of the 2 kayaking clubs that I have joined in the past couple of years. It’s been a while since we’ve been over at Garnock in Ayrshire and it’s not for want of wanting. We haven’t forgotten our pals over there and the fun we had with them last year. A happy complication occurred when the local Cowal club started up and met on the same night as Garnock. The choice was drive 20 minutes to the Cowal club, or 1.5 hours to Garnock. As you might guess, Cowal won out and we now hang our heads in shame in front of the Garnock crew (we do intend to return soon).

Some clubs aren’t so fun, and last week I discovered that I had qualified (without even trying!) for entry into a new one, the one called “Multiple Sclerosis”. Ugh. The diagnosis didn’t come as a shock as it’s been suspected since last October, and it is classified as “mild”. But somehow actually having the label pinned on me has been a bit unsettling, to say the least. Half of me is in complete denial – I feel fine overall and still have all my fitness, and the other half is determined to beat it (yes, I will be the one!). There’s another half of me (I know, I know) that is all messed up. I am told that that is natural.

I’ve been grappling around for something to lift me out of that third half’s abyss, to occupy my mind with more pleasant things. The other day, Alan and I decided to take advantage of the sultry temperatures and go to Loch Eck to try to roll our sea kayaks. I figured, now that I’ve mastered rolling the Dunoon pool boats (one of my proudest achievements of recent times), there was a fair chance of success and nothing would cheer me more than rolling my very own Nordy.

OMG it was like trying to roll concrete.

There are several possibilities here:

  • The amnesiac excuse: I’ve completely forgotten everything I ever learned about rolling (it sure felt that way).
  • The blame someone else excuse: the technique is waaay different between a river kayak and a sea kayak, even although several coaches assured me it would not be.
  • The feeble excuse: the cold shock of rolling in the not-so-sultry waters of Loch Eck deprived me of any cognitive ability, other than to gasp and panic.
  • The looking for sympathy excuse: I was a wee bit distracted and not in the best frame of mind.
  • The poor workman blames his tools excuse: the Nordkapp’s thigh braces aren’t the most gripping.
  • The bad karma excuse: my self-pride at learning to roll the pool boats was unwarranted and OTT, so this is what I get.

It was with great despondency that I exited the water realising that I have taken a bit of a step back, in more ways than one. But no-one promised us a rose garden, did they? Life is by its very nature a bit of a trial – it’s how we respond to that trial that determines how much we actually suffer. Happiness is, after all, a choice.

So I’ll try rolling again, maybe with my Capella just for comparison. I’d pay good money for appreciate any tips about transitioning from rolling a river kayak to rolling a sea kayak.

I’ll do a bit of yoga to sort my head out. And I’ll probably go for a paddle somewhere nice too.

Tomorrow is another day.