Roll With It
Einstein defines insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. We kayakers would take issue with this definition because when we roll we do the same thing over and over again expecting the same result. Our goal is always the same thing, roll after roll, after roll.
Ask any new kayaker what their most memorable moment to date has been in their kayaking career and they undoubtedly will answer “Rolling in the river!” with a big smile.
Veteran kayakers sometimes forget about this simple pleasure because at some point the roll becomes something automatic, something you don’t have to think about, something that is always there–until it isn’t.
I went through a 12- year period where my roll was not something I ever thought about until one day it didn’t work and I swam. Once I got over the initial shock and embarrassment I began to think about my roll—a lot—and that began a downward spiral of self-doubt, a loss of self-confidence and a second guessing process that took a good bit of enjoyment out of my kayaking. Not one to quit, which at times looked like a pretty good option, I instead got mad and forced myself to do anything and everything to get my bomber roll back.
People talk about losing their roll but the physical process of rolling isn’t something that you lose. So let’s talk about how you can get your roll back and gain your confidence. First you have to accept the fact that you aren’t any different than who you were before you started having issues. Talk about your swim, no matter how difficult it is for you to do so. You will find that the closet swimmers start to come out and admit their roll shortcomings and you begin to gain insight into what works and what doesn’t work for people. You will be surprised to hear that your boating heroes also have or have had issues with their roll and can hear some good thoughts about a bomber roll by opening yourself up to moving forward and not dwelling in the negative past.
Issues with rolling happen to everyone, like I said, but they start showing up on a more regular basis the longer you paddle—which can also mean the older you get. I paddle with both young and old paddlers but the common theme with older paddlers seems to be that the roll somehow seems to be harder to do than it used to. There are several things at work here. If you have boated long enough, you probably started in a longer, round bottomed, narrow boat, which is pretty much the ideal boat to roll. Boats have progressed to the point that they can be so short, wide and deep that they are totally alien to someone used to an older style boat. Newer paddlers are at an advantage here since they are learning to do their first roll in the new style boats and don’t know any difference.
Flexibility also can decline with age. You can actively do more stretching to gain back some flexibility or you can learn some adaptations to rolling for less flexible people.
Lung capacity or the ability to hold your breath under water also may diminish. This is frustrating and can lead to panic and rushed rolls. Counter this by tipping over and re-learning to be comfortable upside down. If you find you are taking more than one roll attempt to get up, learn to get a good breath as you try a second roll so that oxygen is not the driving factor in a hurried attempt. Most people, if asked, will admit to holding their breath for however long it takes to roll—get over that and resupply whenever you can.
If you recently changed boats or are now paddling a boat that is shaped totally different from what you had, you still have a roll, you just need to adjust some things to adapt to your new boat. Don’t expect your roll to translate perfectly to every boat that you get in. Get used to rolling different boats and don’t get frustrated if your roll feels different with different boats—that’s normal at first. Practice until every roll feels the same—effortless in any boat.
People that only do one style of boating can sometimes put themselves at a disadvantage for rolling. If you constantly playboat you are probably in a small compact boat that for the most part is fairly simple to roll. You are also getting used to rolling using momentum because of the dynamic nature of playboating so a lot of time your boat and body continue a move to roll you upright with little or no input from you. You have probably gotten away from a start position for a roll and just go with the force on the paddle.
When your roll begins to feel awkward it’s time to go back to basics and reinforce good muscle memory into the roll motion. This includes exaggerating the start position of the paddle by wrapping yourself around the side of your boat, setting a neutral or slight diving blade angle, and making sure the front paddle blade is out of the water before you begin any sweep.
Concentrate on a good start position and a perfect finish position—at the end of your roll your body should be centered over your boat in a fairly upright position with your arms close to our torso—the back hand of the roll ends in a position close to your ear with that elbow jutted forward. Your front hand ends up close to your opposite shoulder with both wrists cocked back. This wrist cocking sheds resistance on the blade as you roll and you can’t do too much of it in your roll. If you find your front hand extended too far from your boat at the end of your roll you can save your roll if you quickly slide the paddle blade across your lap and in to the cockpit of the boat. Doing this braces you up and you end up in a good stable position, ready to paddle away.
We have all been told: “You are lifting your head”. True, in the most basic sense, but the lifting of the head is generally a symptom of extending both arms as you sweep. Try this–Lift both your arms above your head and see what your head does—it stretches out to see your hands. That is what happens under water when you let your back hand reach out away from your body—your head naturally lifts and extends and kills your roll by diving the paddle. Concentrate on keeping that back arm close to your torso as you sweep. “Arm in” is a good mantra for most roll situations.
Speaking of mantras—they are good to have for a couple reasons. They can calm you down if you focus on your inner voice and they can remind you to do the basics. Don’t have too many. You don’t want to be scrolling through a huge list of “to-dos” when you are rolling. Find one or two that apply to you and say them as you roll. They might be different for your left and right sides but keep them simple.
Different people learn best using different input. Some of you are visual learners, some analytical, and some kinesthetic. Figure out what kind of learner you are and then actively seek input each time you boat. Watch people with a great roll and imprint that in your brain. Read all you can on the internet about rolling. Have someone that knows how to teach give you some touch or sensory input to use when you paddle. Mix it up and soak it all in—at some point something will click!
Rolling that works when you plan it doesn’t always work when you don’t. Force yourself to roll in difficult places. Rolling in the river is usually never planned and unless you know what to expect you are putting yourself at a disadvantage by only doing set up practice rolls. Spend a day on the river with a good friend and have them spot you and be available to assist if things don’t work out. The goal is to find the hardest places to roll and do it in a surprise situation. It is hard to force yourself to roll in difficult places so bring a friend and trade off doing the spotting. Surprise each other by yelling “Roll!”, knowing that you are there for them each time.
Above all, don’t get discouraged, practice each time you go boating whether it is hot or cold out. Have fun, keep it simple, and keep building that good muscle memory.