Reflections from the Cockpit "Roll or Not to Roll"
May 2002

"To roll or not to roll, that is the question." Do you know how to roll your sea kayak? More importantly do you need to know how to roll your sea kayak? In all of my years of sea kayaking and instructing I can tell you there are certain topics that can get a room full of sea kayakers into heated debates. This topic is one of them.

When kayaking began wet exiting was not an option. Kayaking was not a sport, it was a way of life and survival. Training began when one was a boy. I say that because all that I have read indicates women were not allowed to kayak. In fact there were times women were not even allowed to touch a kayak.

In modern day sea kayaking anyone who wants to kayak has the means as long as they can buy or borrow a kayak. The life long training concept does not exist because kayaking has become a sport and hobby. For many a wet exit doesn't mean immediate death due to cold water. New materials and techniques have given us alternatives. A roll is not necessary to survive as a sea kayaker.

The ability to roll gives the paddler the most efficient of all solo recoveries. It is the fastest recovery with the least amount of exposure to the elements. A roll can provide a paddler more options. It is also the most counter intuitive skill there is in sea kayaking. As mammals, we like air. We naturally want to bring our head up to breathe. In order to roll you traditionally bring your head out last. Once a paddler learns a roll they will often say it is not difficult. When you watch a roll done properly it looks effortless. However, are you willing to put in the time to learn a roll? If you are, what are your motives and is it the best use of your time?

I ask these two questions NOT because I am against learning to roll. I wish everyone knew how to do a reliable roll. I ask the questions because I have seen a lot of frustration when folks can't roll and they seem to waste precious training time on just one skill. Perhaps some of that training time should be put towards other and more important skills.

Derek Hutchinson once told me (Yakism's Spring 2001) "Rolling is a sign of success. Having to roll is a sign of failure." If some of that rolling desire were spent on bracing skills then the roll may not be needed. Since you are bound to miss a roll sooner or later how much time have you spent on your solo and assisted recovery skills? Also, are you dressed for immersion when you do end up swimming? Did you bring a paddle float and a pump or did you think you would just roll up? Read Derek Hutchinson's "Eskimo Rolling" book. He has great stories of many famous paddlers telling their tale of the day when their roll left town without them.

Again, I am all for learning the roll but not at the neglect of other skills which I personally believe to be more important. I recommend you perfect your foundation skills (solo recoveries, assisted recoveries and bracing) before you perfect your roll. These skills are foundations for the roll and a great back up in case your roll fails. Trust me, your reliable roll will fail at least once in your life.

Let me take a moment to talk about the "reliable roll." I define the reliable roll as one that can be done when not expected. If I came up to you to point out a bird in the distance and then knocked you over when you were looking for that bird, the roll you use to get you up would be a reliable roll. I am amused when one has to prepare to do their reliable roll (i.e. nose clips on, take deep breath, set up, count to three and then roll over) I bring this to your attention because my experience has shown me more than half of those that sea kayak do not have a "reliable roll." This is not meant to be a negative statement, just an FYI. The belief that the rest of the sea kayaking community can roll their kayak is a fallacy. I have seen a lot of self imposed pressure by kayakers to learn the roll believing in the myth. If this false belief keeps you from learning your foundation skills in lieu of rolling then I suggest you rethink your priorities.

Can you lead a productive and happy life as a sea kayaker and never know how to roll? YES! YES! YES! If you want to learn the roll I encourage you to do so but not at the cost of other skills. If you do take the time to learn the roll get experienced help, it will make a world of difference. Once you do learn the roll don't forget to practice your other skills.

There are many different rolls to choose from. Check out the May 2002 "Skill of the Month" for one of those options.


Wayne Horodowich


USK Home Page

© Copyright USK