It has been a while since I have had time to sit down in front of the computer and put some thoughts on the screen. Recently I had a chance to escape from the office and sneak onto the lake with a couple of guests that wanted to work on their kayak skills. One of my guests wanted to tune up his roll and the other wanted to learn the roll from scratch. One was paddling a Super EZ and the other a Big EZ. So here we were with a good cross section of kayaks that supposedly are hard to roll. My guests, well I won’t go into their ages but suffice to say they weren’t much younger than me. Let’s say somewhere between 40 and 50 years old.
We started out working on the basics. (1) Getting the paddle and especially the front blade completely out of the water next to the boat. (2) Keeping the back hand well behind the center point of the boat and as far around on the hull of the boat as possible. (3) Arching up to the surface and arch their backs at the completion of the sweep. (4) Doing the “Hip Snap” and arching the back while shifting their center of gravity (moving their belly button) to the other side of the center line of the boat. Hum! Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Things haven’t changed much so far.
They both rolled that day and they both did good rolls. Their paddles were on the surface on the sweep and their boats were coming up easily. How long did it take to roll? The husband who could roll on occasion was doing clean rolls with little effort after an hour. His wife, who had never rolled, got it down later that day when we stopped at a calm spot on the river. She had rolled several times on the lake but there were always one or two things that weren’t perfect. She and I know that she will need to practice to get to a point where her roll will become automatic but having done a perfect roll gave her the confidence to know that she can do it and do it well.
We have a saying here at Endless River Adventures, “It is not practice that makes perfect, it is perfect practice makes perfect.” I guess the point I am trying to make is that too many times I have seen other instructors stop working with people just because they got the boat right side up. What they really needed to do is continue working with consistent instruction until their people are either doing the roll near-perfect or at the least understand what they need work on to eventually do the perfect roll. I guess there is just a little too much of my granddad in me. He built houses for a living and he always had a saying that has stuck with me through these years. “It is either square or it isn’t. An eighth of an inch out of square is still out of square.” I can tell all of you one thing for sure: if you are only doing things at 80% correct on flat water then you’ll be lucky to achieve 60% on white water. In fact things seem to go downhill exponentially as you stray farther from perfect.
So what is the big deal about these wider fatter boats and rolling? Let’s use my folks as an example: The husband was trying to roll by trying to muscle the boat up by pulling on the paddle hard and sweeping to the back end of the boat. He was not getting his paddle out of the water and was not doing any arch on the hip snap.
We started with first things first, how to get the paddle out of the water next to the boat. Look at the newer boats and you will see that they are the widest right at the knee area. Most people try to put their front hand around the side of the kayak at right about this point. They may have been able to do this with a Dancer but this is not going to work with any of the new boats on the water these days. Also if you think about it, the greatest distance that anyone can reach to the side of the boat is a straight line from the front shoulder perpendicular to the side of the kayak. So with this in mind let your back arm straighten out a little and bring your forward hand back to the narrower part of the boat behind your knees and you will find your paddle blade back above the surface of the water again.
You’re going to find that you will have to lean forward a little differently these days. You can’t lean forward over the center line of the kayak and expect to get your paddle out of the water. Instead try leaning forward but also out to the side. You’ll find that you are closer to the surface of the water and consequently in a position that allows you to reach the surface easier.
Next we fixed the sweep. My guy had been told to sweep hard and hip snap at the same time. Well, I got him to slow down and think about what he was doing. We broke the sweep down and worked on keeping the weight off of the paddle until it was just about perpendicular to the kayak. He was surprised how easy it was to keep his paddle near the surface of the water just by starting the sweep from the right set up position. If he rushed things and didn’t get his front hand out of the water then everything else went south too. I explained to him that if you look at the geometry of the roll, you can see that the closer to perpendicular the paddle is to the kayak when you hip snap the more momentary support you have to do that hip snap against. (Don’t ever let anyone try to tell you that you don’t need some minor momentary support to hip snap against, whether it is the paddle blade or your hands when rolling a kayak.) What is momentary support? Lay your paddle on the water with the blade flat. Hold the paddle shaft next to the other blade with one hand and take the palm of your other hand and hit down on the paddle shaft near the flat blade. Your hand will bounce back up off of the paddle shaft. If you just push or pull on the paddle shaft it will sink and later on so will you. If you hit it sharply the paddle doesn’t sink. I guess that’s why its call a hip snap rather than a hip pull!?!
If you take a top view of the roll and the bow and stern of the kayak are two points of a tripod where would the third leg, which is your paddle, need to be to have the most stable platform; Straight out to the side of the kayak!?!
So now we need to deal with the question, of how to keep the paddle from sinking to far below the surface while sweeping. That seem to be the biggest issue that I have heard concerning rolling the wider boats. There are several things that you can do. (1) Keep the back hand well back behind the center line of the kayak. This is a little different from letting your back hand slide forward on the bottom of the boat to a point above your tail bone. Keeping the back hand more toward the back of the boat will help keep the paddle on the surface. (2) Don’t let your back hand become confused as to where the bottom of the boat is. Many people think they have their back hand on the bottom of their boat when in fact it is on the side of the boat. All of the newer kayaks have flat chines so it is easy to think you are reaching around to the bottom of the kayak when in fact your hand is on the chine of the kayak. The reason this is important is that if your back hand is on the chine, it will force your forward hand to far out to the side. The greatest distance you can reach toward the surface of the water is a straight line up from your shoulder. The more your hand is forced away from that vertical position the more it will end up under the water. And as an interesting side note, the more your paddle blade sinks the greater the tendency is for your head to come rocketing out of the water. And if you raise your head then you are going to do the opposite hip snap (we call it a reverse hip snap), because the hip snap is directly influenced by what you do with your head. And if you do a reverse hip, Not only are you not going to roll, but you will put shoulder wrenching force on your body. (3) Have much more arch to the side before you sweep and keep arching up to the surface of the water while you sweep. Most people don’t ever really arch to the surface on their first “C”. Have someone hold your boat right side up while you lean to the side and forward. Shove your hands as far under the water as possible, put your ear against the shoulder closest to the water; really bend to the side. Now check where the elbow of your front arm is in relation to the side of the boat. This is a point of reference for future “perfect” rolls. Now take a breath and fill over. If you kept your arm tight against the kayak, your hands will beak the surface of the water and they will be way out of the water. So far out of the water that the front blade won’t even touch the water until you’re at least half way through the sweep. The first time someone does this drill most people roll up so strongly that they think someone helped them. (4) Lastly, it is OK for the paddle to be a little under the surface of the water at the end of the sweep. You will still roll well as long as your body is arched up to the surface. With practice you may find that the paddle will eventually stay on the surface all the way through the roll.
Time for the hip snap! The thing about the hip snap is that you have to be in the right position to do a hip snap well. The right position is arching side ways to the surface of the water and also having some arch back past the perpendicular point away from the side of the kayak. This allows the paddle to be perpendicular to the kayak but still in front of your body. If you are in this position, just snap and you’ll easily end up coming right side up. Don’t lean forward or twist to the side. If you lean forward, you will put backward force on your shoulder. In fact if you lean forward during the finish of the roll, it is pretty easy to put External Rotation on your shoulder. External Rotation is one of three positions that can lead to a future shoulder problem. Leaning forward at the end of the hip snap also kills the hip snap. This puts even more stress on the shoulder. Try sitting straight upright with your back arched and your chin up (keeping your chin up ensures that your back is arched) and snap the kayak back and forth. It should easily snap from side to side. Now lean forward and try the same thing. As soon as you pull with your abdominal muscles your hip snap will get really weak. Don’t twist your torso to the side. Twist your torso so that your shoulders are rotated beyond perpendicular in the boat and try to do a hip snap. That also doesn’t work well. Plus if you twist in the boat at the end of the hip snap your paddle will end up at the back of the boat and you will end up in an awkward position at best. Having your paddle at the back end of the boat at the end of the roll doesn’t lend itself to much balance if you get hit by another wave as you’re trying to roll up.
So what should you look like at the end of the hip snap? (1) Your back should be arched. (2) Your body/shoulders should be square to the boat. (3) Your chin should be pointed up toward the sky. (4) Your head should be as much as possible against your shoulder. Remember to keep your chin up (5) your paddle should be perpendicular to the kayak with the center of the paddle shaft centered on your body. (6) Your hands should be (throttling back) pulled back toward your shoulders with the knuckles of both hands rotated back toward your shoulders as well. This ensures that the paddle blade stays flat to the water at the end of the roll. (7) Shift your body weight so that your belly button is to the opposite side of the center line of the boat from the side you just rolled up from. This is the one thing that usually messes up a normally good hand roll. After each roll, stop in what ever position you end up in and do a “post roll” check. If any of these things are missing you will know what you need to work on to fix your roll. This is like doing a pre flight on an airplane before taking off, only you are doing it after you land.
If you follow the basics it is amazing how easy it is to roll any boat. I recently heard someone saying that the Transformers were hard to roll. We teach people all the time to do a classic C-C roll in a Transformer. Even the big guys in a T-4 are no problem if you follow the basic rules. We have had twelve year olds hand rolling a T-2 and 50+ year olds rolling the widest boat Pyranha makes. Are they as easy to roll as the old boats? Some of them are more challenging to roll, no doubt. Do you have to change your rolling technique? Maybe a little. Figure out how to get a good starting position with the paddle out of the water and half the battle is won. Do you have to learn a different roll? Only if you want to, but make sure that the new roll really does work better than what you are doing now. Remember it is more important to take the time to do the roll correctly than it is to hop from one roll to another trying to get a quick fix. Quick fixes don’t exist. If you want to stop swimming you have to do two things. Be able to think under water and understand, 100%, what’s going on in the roll you decide to use.
That same day that I had the instruction with the couple, a few guys showed up on the lake. I knew one of them. I asked him how it was going and he told me that he was there to work on his roll. He had swum the day before and someone told him he needed to learn a sweep roll because there was no way to do a C-C roll with an EZ. Turned out it had nothing to do with the C-C roll but had everything to do with (1) having his back hand on the chine. (2) Not arching to the surface. (3) Not putting his head against his shoulder with his chin up and (4) twisting in the boat at the end of his sweep (because he was looking out to the side of the boat) which sunk his stern like you would to initiate a flat water cartwheel. This is beginning to sound all too familiar isn’t it?
I walked him through a few rolls going back to the basics and he pulled off a couple of great rolls, with his paddle completely above the surface of the water. He missed a few too! But that only happened when he twisted in the boat. That’s that practice thing! What kind of practice? PERFECT PRACTICE!!