For some reason, kayakers-in-training tend to focus a lot on the roll. I guess that makes sense. It is critical after all to know what to do in a worst-case scenario. If your kayak flips over with you in it, you need to be able to get upright as fast as possible, otherwise you’ll drown. Capsizing is a frightening thing, and it is going to happen to you more than once. So yes—all kayakers do need to learn how to roll, and roll effectively.
But sometimes I think we focus too much on the roll to the exclusion of other important techniques like bracing. There is a great quote from Derek Hutchinson on this topic. “Performing a roll is a sign of success,” he says. “Having to roll is a sign of failure.”
I am in full agreement. If you are able to perform a roll and get yourself out of a mess, you did well. But it’s better if you can avoid ever getting into that situation in the first place. That’d make you a better kayaker. It’s kind of like driving. I always feel a rush of confidence after I avoid a near-collision with another driver. Sometimes those situations are unavoidable, so you have to know how to take evasive action in an emergency. But if you can possibly avoid getting into a near-collision in the first place, you should!
Another advantage to learning how to brace is the fact that ultimately it will help you to conserve energy. Yes, avoiding going over is challenging, but actually managing to get yourself upright again once you have gone over requires a lot more energy output (not to mention adrenaline). You want to use your energy as efficiently as you can when you are paddling, both for reasons of comfort and safety. If you are battling harsh conditions, you need that energy to get safely to your destination!
It’s tough for kayaking students to learn how to brace, because practicing these techniques is scary all in itself. When you know you might capsize, you tense up. But the tenser you are, the harder it is to perform the movements you need to brace. At that point, ironically, a full capsize becomes more likely, at which point you will be forced to perform a roll. For this reason, a lot of students just perform repeated rolls instead of braces—or avoid practicing braces at all.
There are ways you can work around this problem. Here are my suggestions for learning how to brace and stay upright in your kayak:
1. Start by learning out of the kayak!
If you start by trying to learn in the kayak and you get nervous, you ingrain bad habits and you don’t really learn the movements. You’re too tense. So remove the fear of capsizing and start learning the techniques outside of the kayak. Get to the point where you’ve taught your body and brain the movements and you’ve gotten comfortable with them before you try them in the boat.
2. Focus on the right movements.
Slap braces are important, but sweep and sculling braces both provide you with longer support times. Low braces are also excellent and tend to be overlooked in favor of high braces. With a low brace, you can expend less energy and prevent capsizing more quickly.
3. You need to go for a longer lever so that you can get the support you need.
Extended paddle techniques are absolutely necessary with shorter paddles. Sometimes, however, what you really need is a longer paddle. You have to learn how to coordinate the movements of your paddle, your body, and the boat together to prevent yourself from going over.
4. You need to develop awareness of your environment, not just keep going through the motions.
Learning how to brace is about more than just ingraining a specific set of actions. Different conditions can call for different paddling styles. Certain conditions may also make it more likely that you will capsize in the first place, or call for different strokes. You need to know how to become alert to these conditions as they are forming so that you can utilize the right techniques. At that rate, you need to have a thorough understanding of boat stability.
Learning how to brace in your kayak isn’t easy, and it can be very daunting. Every time you go to practice in your kayak, there is the possibility that you’ll fail, and then you’ll tip over. But it’s much better to have that happen when you are practicing in predictable conditions in a familiar environment with other students and instructors than it is to deal with capsizing out in the wild on your own. The more work you are willing to put into learning to brace now, the less you will capsize and have to roll in the future. Ultimately, you will feel and be safer on the water.