You want a bombproof roll? I hate to even admit this with Murphy’s evil law running around out there but the last time I legitimately swam out of a kayak was in 1975. Ya, Ya, I swam once throwing my paddle away doing enders and getting sucked up into a hydraulic that you supposedly couldn’t get sucked up into and missed a hand roll when a well meaning individual put their boat on top of mine during their efforts to give me a bow rescue. I hate it when that happens! But with paddle in hand it’s been 25 years going on 26. I’ve logged about 200-250 days a year in a kayak and I have been hammered a few times over the last 25 years. One thing should be obvious, I hate to swim. I am not writing this to brag about a record of any kind, God forbid, Murphy of the evil law will certainly have me looking like Mark Spitz the next time I go out to paddle. But there has to be something here to pass on to the paddlers out there who are sick of losing their shorts and/or shoes
So how did I get away without getting my butt wet for so many years? Good technique, lots of practice, persistence and I HATE TO SWIM. The old saying “First you learn to roll and then you learn to hate to swim” is true. SWIMMING SUCKS! I’m not good at it. I sink. I paddle a kayak so I don’t have to do it. Get the picture?
Let’s take a look at technique first. I’m not going to get sucked into the battle between Sweep, Slash or C-C because there are people out there like me that have long ago decided that one is better and more reliable for them than the other and no amount of cajoling will change that. Suffice to say that unless you can do all of them, CORRECTLY, you don’t have all the information to make a good decision. Many of the same principals apply for all of these rolls; and certainly what goes on inside of your head is the same.
I assume by now that you know all the steps to the roll: set up, sweep, hipsnap and recovery. The set up gets you in a good protected starting position, which has your body leaning forward at an angle bent up and to the side of the kayak. This starting position avoids any unwanted geology lessons. At that time, the paddle is positioned completely out of the water and parallel to the kayak. At times you will see good paddlers start their rolls before the paddle blade clears the water. That is not the “perfect” way of starting the roll, but if everything else is right they will still come up. This is definitely a “do as I say not as you see” situation. Get everything working to your advantage, take the time to get the paddle blade out of the water before you sweep.
Next comes the sweep. During the sweep you bend your body and head further toward the surface as you rotate your body out a little beyond perpendicular to the center point of the kayak. At the same time you move the paddle out to a point that is perpendicular to the kayak. The reason that the body goes out beyond perpendicular is because you want to keep the paddle positioned in front of the body and your arm in front of your face. Remember that you need to be stretching and reaching for the sky with the sweeping hand while anchoring the back hand on the bottom of the kayak over your tail bone. This will keep the paddle blade on or above the surface of the water as it moves out perpendicular to the kayak. This may not be as easy as it sounds with the newer wider boats that have squared off chines. It is easy to confuse the “flat” side of the boat for the bottom of the boat. Remember the idea here is to reach all the way around the edge of the kayak to the center of the hull.
Now, let’s get to the heart of the matter, the hip snap. The set up and the sweep are just positioning steps. They are just a way to get you and the paddle into a position to be able to do an effective hip snap. The hip snap is the thing that gets you right side up and unless you’re being a putz and shoving off of the bottom, it is the only thing that gets you right side up. The hip snap is done by rotating the boat from side to side, bringing the edge of the cockpit into contact with first one and then the other side of your body at the waist line. I’m sure you’ve seen people practicing this on the side of the swimming pool at roll sessions.
The problem is you can do hip snaps wrong. If you want to kill a hip snap deader than a rock, lean forward while you do it. You may lower your center of gravity, and it might work fine in easy water, but sooner or later your record of no swims will go down the tubes. I cringe when I watch well-meaning instructors teaching the C-C roll — or any roll for that matter — and emphasizing leaning forward at the time of the hip snap or at the end of the roll in general. I can tell you for sure that the only time you lean forward on a C-C roll or Slash roll or Sweep roll is when you flip over and set up for the roll. You never lean forward again during any of the three rolls. There are people out there that are adamant about leaning forward when doing the hip snap because they believe that you protect your face that way. What they should be concerned about is protecting their tailbone after having to swim, because more often than not, they will continue to miss rolls on a regular basis.
I am going to emphasize what I said earlier: If you’re doing the roll correctly, lean forward during the set up, bend your body up and to the side of the kayak during the sweep. Keep the arm that is reaching to the surface during the sweep in front of your face. If your arm isn’t in front of your face as your paddle blade sweeps to the side, then rolling will become very difficult with that sling you’ll be wearing for the dislocated shoulder you’re bound to get sooner or later. Speaking of which, lean forward again and put your paddle out to the side in a brace. Any idea what kind of pressure will be applied to you shoulder when your arm is in this position? It’s called external rotation and extension! Sounds bad! Is bad! That’s why even though there are funky specialty rolls that the playing crowd use, such as the back to front deck rolls, they are “most times” using these rolls in conjunction with hole playing where the water helps roll the boat up. That allows them to use the dynamics of the current to help that roll work. But taking all that in stride, they still have a pretty big disclaimer about being careful not to injure a shoulder. If you are leaning forward over the front deck of the kayak at the end of the roll, and have your paddle extended perpendicular to the kayak, then your shoulder is very close to the dislocation danger zone.
Try this out the next time you’re in a kayak. Sit up straight and arch your back, now snap the boat back and forth. OK, now tighten your abdominal muscles and lean forward a bit and see what happens. The “snap” in the hip snap quickly disappears. And what rolls the boat up? The Hip Snap! Now the last test. Sit up straight without arching and try doing the snap again. Now do some snaps again with an arch. There is a difference, the hip snap is stronger with the arch. I don’t know why but it is and the hip snap is the MOST important component of the roll. So arch! When do you get into the arch position? You should be simultaneously arched and bent toward the surface at the end of the sweep, but before the hip snap begins.
Want to do the fastest and easiest roll ever? Do a roll and touch your head on the back deck of the boat at the end of the hip snap. DON’T STOP READING HERE! (This isn’t the right way to roll, it’s just a way for you to feel how easy it is if you don’t use your abbs.) You’ll probably roll up and go right over again. That’s because your center of gravity is lower but leaning that far back you don’t have any balance. Lean back and have someone try to push you over. If it is coming unexpected, most times you’ll be talking to the fish. If you roll coming up leaning on the back deck, get knocked back over and it’s shallow you’ll get the proverbial geology lesson. Then after you get back from the emergency room, you can buy the “Chic’s dig scars Tee shirt.” So, arching your back is OK, but leaning back against the back deck isn’t too smart.
Time to talk about your head. There are two topics to cover here. When you sweep to the side, bend your body and head up to the surface. That loads your total body up like a spring that releases at the end of the sweep. Now bend your body and head in the other direction, toward the bottom of the river. That’s where you get the power for the hip snap. When you finish the roll your head should be pushed FIRMLY against your shoulder. Don’t turn your head, tuck your chin into your lifejacket, or flop your head to the other shoulder. Tilt your head back and try to crunch your ear against your shoulder. Leave it there for a while after you roll up to make sure that it was in the right position. This finishing crunch to the side helps tense up all of the muscles on the other side of your body and helps make the hip snap.
As a side note here, when you’re sitting upright after the roll, your belly button should be shifted off center away from your paddle blade. In other words, if you are doing a right handed roll, your belly button should be slightly left-of-center after rolling up. That, along with having the paddle shaft centered over the boat and against your chest, ensures good position during the recovery phase of the roll.
Next, what is going on inside of your head? What are you thinking about? Anything? You’d better be thinking about what you’re doing, rolling. If you are thinking about getting out of the boat or what’s downstream of you (or not thinking at all), you’re going to be using that life jacket again. You have to have an attitude. Get mad. Do whatever it takes to keep your mind on the task at hand.
I could write a novel on all of the little things involved with doing a good roll. But my best advice is to get some instruction. Take care, there are a bunch of well-meaning people out there who can’t do the roll correctly, much less teach you how to do it perfectly. You have to be careful about getting into bad habits because they are almost impossible to get rid of. Get instruction, that way you won’t have to reinvent the wheel. But please get good instruction!
Practice time! Nobody wants to spend time under the water unless you have air tanks and you’re in the islands. But you have to practice. For the instructors here, it is a forced issue because most of the instruction we give entails some time on flat water working on rolling. They are out there every day doing demonstration rolls. When they aren’t instructing, they are out on the river rolling after doing multiple cartwheels or playing in holes.
Bottom line is you have to get upside down, both on the lake and on the river. You can’t get good at something if you’re not willing to practice it.
So pick two nights… OK one night a week… and go to a lake or pool and practice, practice, practice! Turn it into a social event. Do whatever you have to do to make it fun. But PRACTICE! And practice PERFECTLY!.
Now here comes the secret to not swimming. All of the stuff you’ve read up to this point is so that you can do a decent roll. You ready?
YOU HAVE TO BE ABLE TO DO THE ROLL ON BOTH SIDES EQUALY WELL!!!!! AND YOU HAVE TO TRAIN YOURSELF TO SWITCH FROM SIDE TO SIDE AUTOMATICALY IF YOU MISS A ROLL!
There it is. I’m not saying it again. I can’t tell you how many times I have encouraged paddlers to do this. And how many times I’ve heard the old “I never miss my on-side roll so I don’t need an off-side roll.” Even from trained instructors. Bull! That’s like saying that I always drink with my right hand so I don’t need my left. If you don’t have a roll on both sides and use it on both sides, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll be buying the drinks at the end of the river.
Why is this so important? Because if you have a good roll and miss it, then something caused that to happen. One of the examples of where this can happen is in a big wave train with breaking waves. If you are trying to roll upstream against the waves, you’ll more than likely miss a roll because you’re rolling against the break of the wave. If you switch sides immediately you will now be rolling with the current and will find that the very thing that was causing you to miss the roll is now rolling you up. Another example is in swirly water or on eddy lines. Again, if you miss the first roll, more than likely you are trying to roll against the flow of the current. A quick switch to the other side and the water almost rolls you up without you having to put any effort into it.
The other advantage to switching sides is that it is much quicker than resetting on the same side. If you switch automatically you can switch quick enough that the paddle is in the starting position for the other side before you fall completely back upside down. You are now doing a momentum roll. That is, you’re rolling with the momentum of the boat. If you try to reset on the same side as before, you have to push the paddle all the way back around under the water to get back to a good starting position. Worst of all is you’re still dealing with the original water-based problem that caused you to fail in the first place. I look at that as having a flat learning curve.
Persistence! You have to hang in there. Once on the Bio Bio River in Chile a friend of mine and I decided that we were going to have a death pact (that’s when you both decide to do something really stupid but agree that no matter what happens to one, the other has to do it too). The hole was one of those catch-it-on-the-fly-holes, and my friend missed it. I, on the other hand, realized too late that he missed it on purpose. The water level had dropped and the hole had grown teeth. I found myself in a hole that I really didn’t want to be in. It was DEEP! It was one of those holes where you strain air through your teeth. And to make matters worse, it was blocked on both ends. Things were looking grim. Then the fun started! A window shade upstream followed by two quick snap rolls. Then a quick breath followed by two more rolls. Then a try at paddling forward followed by another window shade and two more quick rolls. Another try forward, another roll. There was none of that hanging around under the boat and waiting to be washed out nonsense.
I looked down and noticed that the last roll managed to blow my spray skirt. Well now, breathing is really going to get interesting, I’m sinking. Another roll, another roll and finally after the thirteenth flip I washed out under the foam pile with a boat full of water and rolled up and brought it in for a landing looking more like a U-boat commander then a kayak guide.
Lucky? Yeah, I was lucky, but I was also persistent. I could have called it quits early on.
There is a time to stay with it and a time to eject. But are you getting out too soon!?! You may not want to hang in there for thirteen attempts, but if nothing life threatening is on the horizon, you should be able to give it at least five or six tries. If you’re getting out before then, then you are thinking impure thoughts.
Good luck. Have fun and may you keep your feet dry and butt in the boat