“What happens if I tip over?”
“You just swim to shore. My general rule of thumb is to not be more the 50 yards off the shore”
“What about rolling? Can you roll a sea kayak?”
“You don’t have to be able to roll; it’s just a trick people learn to show off.”
This was a conversation I overheard in a nationally known chain of outdoor stores, in the kayaking section. I’ll give you a hint, it is generally known by its initials. The salesman in the above conversation was trying to allay the worries of a potential buyer of a kayak. The customer, clearly concerned about capsizing, asked a reasonable question. The answer was preposterous. There was no recommendation of proper training and education on self-rescue and the comments about rolling are a common sentiment among a large percentage of the sea kayaking population. Imagine, being in the same store and saying that you knew nothing about climbing and you wanted to buy your first rope and you asked what happened if you fall. I suspect the advice the sales associate would give would not be to just climb close to the ground. Most likely, the associate would recommend proper training in climbing safety and technique.
As a sea kayaking and white water instructor, I get asked - often - about rolling. Do I need to learn it? Is it hard? Can’t I just swim? My favorite comment was “I don’t want to do white water I just want to paddle around the San Juans.”
So I’ll address these questions in order; no, you don’t need to learn it, but you should. Rolling your kayak is not hard, provided you’ve had good instruction and you practice – a lot. Rolling is not a skill valuable only to white water paddling. Imagine being halfway through a 3 mile crossing and capsizing. Shore is 1.5 miles away, can you execute a paddle float rescue or a T-rescue, perhaps (have you been practicing?), but doing so takes time and, potentially, puts other people at risk. Rolling would correct the situation in a few seconds, leave your kayak empty and ready to resume your course. Also, the San Juans are the site of many kayaking incidents due to insufficient knowledge, training, practice and attention in a place that has many treacherous currents, shipping and changeable weather.
“Why should I learn how to roll?” You ask? Because it is fun! Admittedly, I do rolls off of piers, and for tour boats, as do many other kayakers I know. Yes, it is showing off and kids in an audience love it. If you learn this amazing skill you will be as cool as I am!
Perhaps a better reason is that by learning to roll and developing a reliable roll a new kayaker will lose their fear of being upside down in the water and realize that it’s just part of kayaking rather that a potential crisis. Just set up, sweep, roll your hips (keep that head down!) and suddenly you’re back in an environment that is rich in molecular oxygen. If it doesn’t work you can always try again or exit and reenter the hard way. After you begin to feel secure using the roll your ability to brace will suddenly increase as will your appeal to the opposite sex. You will suddenly notice that there are people out there doing different types of rolls, perhaps using weird skinny paddles and different techniques and you will want more and more rolls! You can’t get enough, you must have more!
The kayak roll is considered a fundamental skill in the whitewater paddling community. For reasons that are clear to most, upside down, bouncing your head along the bottom of a river through a rapid is just not a safe place to be. If you can’t roll – and not just in a pool but in the thick of it – many whitewater paddlers just won’t take you seriously and won’t allow you on their trips on more challenging runs. The reason for this is that you then become a liability to the group. Others will have to place themselves in harm’s way to help you because you didn’t have the requisite skills.
The sea kayaking community is different. It is generally older and has a more conservative sense of risk. Many sea paddlers are properly equipped and wear immersion protection. Many seek out instruction in boat control, forward stroke and pay a great deal of money for this instruction. Most never learn how to roll (see 1st paragraph).
Why is that? With our ability to travel miles from shore, swimming is certainly not a reliable way to deal with a capsize and in dynamic conditions the time it can take to execute a paddle-float reentry and pump out your boat can seem incredibly long, especially seeing as during that time you are at the mercy of the conditions, those same conditions that caused the capsize in the first place and possibly taking you into an even more dangerous place.
Learning to roll requires time, patience and practice, preferably good instruction, as well. Generally, I don’t recommend learning to roll from a book. Teaching yourself and/or learning from a friend can be dicey, especially if the friend has a dicey roll. To quickly learn the roll it’s best to learn in a pool so that you feel comfortable in clear warm water. To wear a mask so that your sinuses don’t fill with water and so you can see the paddle and what you are doing. After learning the roll in a pool take it too a lake or protected piece of shore line. The water will be colder and it will make you feel rushed, but don’t give in. Keep calm and make that roll smooth and ingrain it into muscle memory. Move it into colder water and into rougher conditions, do a roll or two right after you get into your boat and get wet. Make it into a game. Soon, rolling will feel as natural to you and, if you’ve practiced it in wind, waves, surf and such you will find that it’s there for you when it counts. The process will become automatic and you won’t really have to think about it. Next thing you know you’ll be figuring out the reentry roll and learning other rolls – there are many – and integrating them into your repertoire.
One last thing, rolling is a tactic for correcting an earlier mistake - capsizing. It is not a substitute for bracing or good judgment. It’s merely a technique to limit the amount of time you are out of control to seconds rather than minutes, to make you less a liability at those times and more an asset. As I mentioned earlier, developing a good roll will help your bracing skills develop. You’ll have better control of your body and a more relaxed mindset as a roll is little more than a rather extreme high brace. Just don’t allow yourself to get into the habit of, when you sense an impending capsize, setting up for a roll. Instead sweep that brace stroke, just like you’re at the end of the roll.