Rolling a kayak, is there no beginning to my skill level?

Learning to roll a kayak is hard. Actually it is really easy. The only problem is that it is also very hard. Did I mention that it was easy? Well it is. But also hard. Confused yet?

I first ventured to attempt to learn to roll at the end of my first week kayaking. Needless to say that I didn’t manage it, but I learnt a lot. I have since followed a path that is familiar to most kayakers. That being that I learnt to roll, thought I had nailed it, and then went through a period of not being able to roll at all. Then I thought I had recovered my ability, and then lost it again.

A few weeks ago I went for a trip on the Mill Falls section of the River Usk. It had been raining and the river was at a good level. Since my balance is still fairly rubbish when it comes to white water I capsized a few times, yet I managed to roll up quickly each time. I thought I had nailed it again.

Fast forward to last week when I went to HPP in Nottingham, and I dutifully capsized, and swam, every bloody time!

So just what is going on? At first when I learnt the roll I was taught the screw roll.

Here is my first successful kayak roll!

So far so good. But then after a long period of not being able to roll I changed tack. One day on another coaching session with Dan I decided that I would try a C-C roll instead. I figured I could break it down in my mind more easily that the screw roll, which requires you to “just do it” or risk getting caught up with multiple things coming at you at once.

I tried the C-C and hey presto it worked! Joy! That day proved to be a bit of a turning point since it was not only the first time I managed to roll up in moving water, it later proved to be the first time I rolled up after unintentionally going over in moving water.

While I was having more success with the C-C my roll was still sporadic. So I decided to make it a regular thing to go down to the River Severn near where I live to practice flatwater skills, and rolling.

It’s a bit of a confidence thing to practice kayak rolling on your own. Especially on the lower Severn where walkers and passers by not in the know could mistake my practice for somebody in trouble. Mostly I have been practicing my “hip flicks”. This doesn’t solve the fundamental problem though of why rolls are failing.

Getting my roll sorted is a major part of improving my whitewater paddling. I will admit to having become rather obsessed with it, because knowing that I can roll up when needed will allow me to experiment more with playing around in features without as much worry that my boat will go off down river and potentially put my friends at risk going to rescue it. Swimming in whitewater is a major pain. You bang your legs on the boat getting out, you sometimes have to endure swimming through holes, banging your limbs yet more on rocks or other obstacles. Swimming sucks, frankly.

So, on my current journey sorting out my roll what have I discovered is holding me back. Well, the usual suspects that hold back everybody elses roll. All of equal importance:

  • Relaxing.
  • Blade awareness.
  • Separation of the lower body from the torso.
  • Bringing the head up in an effort to get air.
  • ‘Punching’ with the back hand, causing the paddle to dive.

As anyone who has done a really good roll will tell you, it feels effortless, as if someone else has lifted the boat back over for you. Just when I think I have sorted out one thing, I forget about something else. I have often been criticised for over analysing all of this, but it is just my thought process. The best thing to do with any physical motion like this is to break it down into it’s component parts, and then work on them regularly.

So, what do I/we need to do to make a roll effortless? What makes the boat roll? The answer is simple. The hip rotation rolls the boat back up. Reading through any in depth literature on the roll shows that roll types are pretty much irrelevent. This is born out by the fact that experienced rollers have rolls that are formless. They cannot be put into any category. They are not merely doing a mixture of roll types, they are simply bringing the boat up using the core fundamental aspects that make the roll work in the first place.

Rolling the boat with the hip sounds simple, but the natural tendency to make this work is to pull down on the paddle. I don’t believe that pulling down on the paddle is just a symptom of trying to bring the head up. Most drills involving hip rotation involve being by the side of the pool or river and practicing rotating the boat. I think this is a good idea as long as you are also focussing on not putting pressure on your supporting hands.

The main thing that I think can be gained from this sort of poolside practice is hip rotation awareness. I am now practicing this in the same way that I would practice a martial arts movement. I will perform many repetitions of boat rotation with the hip very slowly. I will then also perform repetitions as fast as I can. I realise that pure speed will not necessarily help the roll, but performing the movement as loose, yet as fast as you can will help in the long run to being able to perform the hip rotation without thought, yet relaxed. This will be a slow process though, but I’m in it for the long run and you will be able to see if it makes a difference for me here.

I am also looking at Eric Jacksons idea of sculling with the body on the water. This has come in for some flak because of the extended arms. But the point is that you have to physically extend the arms in order to to the exercise properly. The real point to the drill in my mind however is not to develop a bad habit high brace with extended arms, but to develop upper and lower body separation. If you watch the video closely you will see that one of the suggested drills is to scull along with your body on the surface of the water while at the same time rotating the boat from almost upside down to right way up and back again. All the time while continuing to scull.

This looks to me to be a valuable exercise for someone who is having trouble with the roll. Not only is the drill/exercise not possible to do if you pull down with the paddle, but to get back fully upright again you have to perform 80% of a roll. Importantly it would, from what I can see, totally develop upper and lower body independence and help to solve the problem of bringing the head up.

The Eric Jackson roll video extract

That video has come in for some flak on various forums, but for the inexperienced kayaker such as myself it is I think very useful. It isn’t a case of watching what he is doing and telling you, it is a case of watching what he is doing and telling you.

More on this as I think of it. In the meantime, here are other useful rolling tips videos.

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