Mentally Preparing to Roll a Kayak
At a very basic level rolling is an entry level skill that allows a margin of safety for paddlers looking to paddle in textured water. Having an unplanned swim can be life-threatening under the wrong conditions. Cold water is the number one reason for a kayaker to learn to roll. Having a nasty swim in cold water can be the end of you. Hypothermia even when dressed for immersion can debilitate a paddler within a few minutes enough that they cannot perform basic motor functions. In addition to this, there are other obstacles to be wary of when dropped in the drink, breakwalls, rocks. In whitewater add strainers, drops, retentive holes, and so on. In the ocean tide races, or rip currents can really move you into places you do not want to go as well.
Learning to roll a kayak can be very easy. Some can learn in one or two sessions with a gifted instructor. Others may take longer. I learned the physical part of rolling in three or four sessions, but it was over a year before I could mentally hang on underneath the kayak when knocked over in surf and then reliably roll up.
For paddlers interested in moving water rolling is a foregone conclusion. If you head out to paddle on the river, or in the surf, you will have to roll sooner or later on any given day.
When learning to roll, these types of paddlers are preparing for immediate application, where as Sea Kayakers, or flat water paddlers seem to be preparing for an unlikely and unwanted event. This is also true in the case of some traditional style paddlers who may over-prepare flat water practice routines, but fail when in conditions.
What this difference ultimately describes is a delineation in mindset of the two types of paddling. Before anyone brands me as anti sea kayaking I will say one is not better than the other. But what we find is a lack of ability to roll from those that do not mentally prepare for it.
A rather heated post got started by Brian Schultz over at the Qajaq USA forum. Brian has some interesting ideas that he expressed at the forum. What Brian tried to outline that we as coaches might be able to train paddlers to roll mentally as well as physically.The gist of the idea is that learning to roll a kayak is one step in a long process towards being a competent paddler in conditions.
Some at the forum jokingly pointed out that paddlers are not trying out for the Navy SEALS. Well that’s true, but taking a page out of their book for mental toughness couldn’t hurt. How can you prepare for your regulator ceasing to function and your mask filling with water on a dive if you’ve never practiced for it? Kayaking has certain inherent risks involved. Teaching someone to roll on flat water and teaching someone to roll because they will get knocked over really are two different things.
An example of this: In Justine Curgenven’s This is the Sea III, Freya’s Hoffmeister’s swim in the Falls of Lora (a Scottish Tidal Race). Freya who is a Greenland Champion roller swam in a nasty tidal race. She can roll every which way AND Sunday, but failed her roll. Question is why? Broken paddle, no? Ejected from cockpit, no? She was most likely not mentally prepared for the event of a nasty, awkward capsize. I’ve been there, we’ve all been there. I am certainly not picking on Freya, it does happens to all of us.
So the question is what can we do about it as paddlers and coaches? Brian suggested a few interesting drills to practice on flat water at the forum. Keep in mind these are best practiced in the pool where it is warm and well lit.
- Play Games in the pool, such as polo. Pushing the limits of your balance and your reach for a polo ball or an opponent will most likely cause a few capsizes and rolling up will seem easier than having to dump and swim. I learned a lot about my ability to hang on from polo.
- Capsize in an awkward position with your paddle tucked under your arm or decklines
- Toss your paddle a few feet away from you, capsize on the opposite side and then swim to it and roll up.
- Have someone standing next to you hold your paddle for you, capsize then setup and bang on the hull when you are ready for them to hand you the paddle, then roll up.
- My favorite and this requires willing friends and brave students, have people sit on your kayak and knock you over, see if you can roll them up. I do this with my kids in my surf boat in the pool. Practicing it with and without a paddle is fun too. Make sure to be careful you don’t hit anyone with a paddle.
A few other thoughts are that students have to get it into their heads that rolling is infinitely easier than swimming. They have to hang on, wait for the boat to settle, set up, and then roll up. Most often the biggest reason for failure is a rushed setup.
I love paddling moving water, and rolling has become more or less a non-issue. Being able to focus on what I am doing rather than worrying about survival has been a great boon to my paddling.