I have several first-time students contact me every year wanting to learn to roll their kayaks. As with any of these first contacts, I’ll try to get an idea of what their experiential background with, and goals for kayaking are. In a surprising number of cases, the roller-to-be has had no training in other kayaking technique and frequently, little other experience or time in the kayak at all. I will usually try to convince these folks that there is a wide world of skills and experiences to be had out there in kayaking that will help to build toward developing a good roll, or for that matter, prevent needing to roll to begin with.
I recognize that the roll is a sexy part of being a kayaker (or canoeist). It’s a pretty cool looking trick to be able to execute one with apparent ease and astound and amaze onlookers. Depending on the boating you’re doing though, it’s not necessarily an absolute must-have to be able to enjoy kayaking with relative safety and enjoyment. There is no doubt that a roll adds an important self-rescue technique to your repertoire and gives you a skill that will ultimately increase the slope of your learning curve by giving you the confidence to try new skills on the outside of your “envelope”. I want to build an argument though that learning the roll as among the first skills you learn in a kayak may not be the most effective path to take toward being a well-rounded kayaker.
Two of the foundations we learn in the process of becoming kayaking instructors are that 1) the feedback loop of success is important in a student’s overall success in a class. The more we, as instructors, can do to allow students to succeed, the more they will continue to learn. 2) A building block of that success is the use of appropriate learning progressions toward a skill. You don’t start teaching/learning a skill at its most complex form. Rather, you break that skill into smaller parts and learn and practice those parts until you’re proficient and then start linking those parts toward a more complex goal.
In regard to rolling, I see a set of more simple skills that all link to the components of a successful roll; all of which can be learned and practiced in a less dichtomous environment (in the case of the roll: rightside up/upside down). I’d list that composite skillset as:
- Comfort in a decked boat wearing a sprayskirt.
- Comfort being upside down and underwater in a decked boat with a sprayskirt.
- Competence and ultimately mental comfort with wet-exiting the boat, gaining the subconscious confidence that self-rescue is available and reliable.
- The “head dink” or training the body to connect the motion of the head with that of the lower knee/edge in direct contradiction to the body’s natural reaction on land to pull away from the direction of fall. Newton’s third law of motion (action/equal and opposite reaction) has a much different consequence on water when the “foundation” of your stability has little friction against your motion. You have to teach your body that much different necessary reaction.
- Edging, to be able to:
- engage and move the lower parts of the body independently of the head and torso, even in different planes.
- use that motion in combination with that of the upper body to the desired effect.
- recognize and use differential pressures on each leg/knee.
- Blade force and paddle dexterity or learning to be able to instinctually place/replace the blade in an orientation and position that will achieve maximum effect (Remember action/reaction?) in the desired plane of motion.
- Bracing skills to begin to tie the prior motion skills together into cohesive actions directed toward stopping and recovering from an imminent capsize. Depending on the type of roll a student ultimately builds toward, the low-brace or the high-brace contain one or more actions that marry perfectly into the process of learning to roll. The Newtonian motion, paddle blade orientation (though in this case back face vs. power face of the roll) and the shaft angle (relative to both to the boat and the water’s surface) of the low brace carry over well (though are not identical) to teaching and learning the C-to-C roll. The Bernoullian counterforce of a sculling high-brace mimics the slice and body rotation of the sweep roll and can serve as an excellent introduction to paddle and motion “feel” toward teaching and learning that roll.
Under ideal conditions, I would like to have gone through these progressions with a student and given them a chance to spend some time on the water practicing these skills on their own. By “time” here, I write in the scale of weeks or several weekends and not of minutes. Building these skills effectively requires a transition from conscious action to subconscious reaction: One rarely has the opportunity to think through the steps of a brace to be able to execute it with desired outcome. I’d then start with rolling instruction by building mental bridges back to these components with the student to instill comfort and confidence that they already have and can use the building blocks with which to work. I’ve become a big fan of making and using videos of students learning and using these building blocks. Video review in slow motion allows students (and instructors) to clearly see where not only form can be improved, but where the physics of the attempt itself succeed or fail.
Finally, I offer a few anecdotal observations on rolling instruction and invite comment and validation or contradiction to my own experience with teaching the kayak roll:
- My rolling students, though representing a wide range of ages, tend to be middle-age+.
- Students with good to excellent comfort in and under water usually learn a roll more readily than those without that level of comfort.
- Younger students (teens to 30) tend to be able to acquire and develop a serviceable roll more rapidly than older (45+) assuming similar experience in a kayak to begin with.
- Students who have attempted self-education of a roll will frequently have poor form that needs correcting back to better form and frequently require more time/work than starting from “scratch”.
- Students who have relied on learning a roll from peers will frequently demonstrate roll attempts that mimic a variety of roll techniques (e.g. combining components of sweep and C-to-C) without understanding or effectively accomplishing what each component should do.
- Students who have attempted self- or peer-based roll education will frequently key on one particular aspect of a roll setup or sequence and not see the bigger picture or be able to identify fail-points in their rolling technique.
I welcome comments or observations from other instructors that support, build on or even contradict these observations.