Rolling My Kayak
By Warren Williamson
When I was a kid, I spent the summers in Quebec and I lived right on the Ottawa River. I paddled a canoe almost every day. I remember I would practice capsizing and then try to figure out how to get the water out and get back in. It just seemed like a good thing to know, incase of accidentally capsizing. I thought I was really good because I could paddle on one side and still go straight. About nine years ago I was thinking I might get a canoe and start paddling again. I thought I would try a kayak first and see what it's like. I got in one, put the spray skirt on and started paddling. In no time at all I was thinking, I get it, I really get it, this is so much better than a canoe. All I have to do is learn how to do what they call the Eskimo roll because I'm sealed up and water tight so capsizing is not a problem.
I came back the very next day to buy a kayak. I'll never forget how the people at the kayak shop wanted to sell me a paddle float and a pump. I asked what this stuff was for and they told me, when you capsize, you jump out, use the paddle float to get back in and then pump out the water. I thought they were kidding, I thought this stuff was for rafting or something and they were just pulling my leg because I was a beginner. I also thought this is what I needed when I was a kid, capsizing my canoe on the Ottawa River in Quebec. I figured out that they weren't kidding so I bought the paddle float, the pump, and a rolling video. I went home, watched the video, went out the next day, and started to learn how to roll my kayak.
I switched from a euro blade to a Greenland paddle after just a few weeks of paddling and learning to roll. I figured out how to do a good layback roll on both sides. As I went out and about with my kayak on stormy, windy days, I would find myself in rough water. I didn't like this at all. I could paddle through this rough water just fine but could I roll it in was the question. My common sense was telling me that just being able to paddle in it doesn't mean anything, I need to know how to roll in what ever conditions I'm paddling in. So if I went out on a stormy day, I would start rolling in the calmer water in the bay, just to get warmed up. I would paddle into the rough water just a little and do some more rolls , then go a little further into the waves and keep working on rolling as I went. I would always baby step my way into it. I never paddled in conditions that I thought I might not be able to roll in, never.
So with my very strict policy about being able to roll, I started looking for rough water to practice in. There's a place not far from where I live called deception pass, it’s a tidal exchange rapids. I would go to this place just to work on rolls. I bought a video called rolling with Maliqiaq. I started to learn some of these flat water rolls. What helped me the most with rough water capsize and recovery was to learn the sculling brace.
In my opinion, you can never practice the sculling brace enough. What I like to do is to get into a sculling brace position, looking up, hands under the paddle, let yourself sink and come up on the other side, to the sculling brace. Doing this back and forth very slowly is a good workout. It's good for learning orientation when you’re under water, teaches you to relax and be ok with being in the water. Within the first three months of kayaking, a typical day of going out on the water became, going to bowman bay , working on Greenland rolls, paddle over to deception pass, work on rough water rolls, then back to bowman bay to work on more Greenland rolls. It's like weaving a basket. Working on Greenland rolls or what I refer to as training rolls, develops your technique, it forces you to have good technique. Working on rough water rolls you use this technique and you work on you confidence. In my opinion there are two rolls in rough water. You can finish to the back deck, hands under the paddle or you can finish to the front deck hands over the paddle. Combining a sculling brace with a roll and breaking it down into a two part roll works really good in rough water. So which ever way you finish, if you stop at the surface of the water and go to a sculling brace position then finish your roll, it makes a big difference . Let’s say you have perfect technique, when you get smashed over in really nasty rough water, it's so easy to go into a panic and when you do, your perfect technique is going to go flying right out the window. What will most likely happen is you'll try to come up head first, you won't make it and you'll be back under water. If you go to the sculling brace position after being capsized, your not losing your technique, your not trying to get your head up out of the water, your not going into a panic, you can breath now, you can wait for the water to stop crashing on top of you or holding you down and then finish your roll. It's really easy to practice this, you just capsize, go under the kayak, come up on the other side just to the surface, hands under the paddle, looking up at the sky, breathing, sculling the paddle and then finish. As you work on this you can get to where you do just a very little pause at the surface so you’re blending a sculling brace with a roll.
Working on Greenland rolls or training rolls, will really help your rolling skills over all. I find it so amazing, I hear kayakers a lot of times say, in regards to Greenland rolls, "why would you ever need to do that roll." The way I see it, it's not that you would ever need to do that roll but what that roll can teach you. If all you know how to do is let’s say a few standard rolls with the paddle, you really don't know just where you’re at with your technique. Rolling with a paddle is just about the same as reaching up and grabbing onto a fixed object. You can literally come flying up out of the water because you have so much leverage with the paddle. You can get away with bad technique time after time and not know it. Hand rolls for example will really fine tune your technique, you don't get away with any bad habits, your technique has to be perfect, you will learn how to be very disciplined and focused. Simple things like keeping your head down, staying square or flat to the water , arching your back, not trying to sit up too soon, are not just simply things, they are all very important things and will make a big difference when you need all of this technique for being able to roll in conditions. Some of these Greenland rolls may seem very impractical or abstract but they all have something to teach you about being at your best when you’re upside down in your kayak. My common sense has always told me that the ability to stay in your kayak is very important. Working on your rolling skills is how you train to stay in your kayak. If you go kayaking by yourself, if you go with a group of kayakers or if you’re the leader of a group of kayakers, you need to be at the top of your game, you need to have good rolling skills. In my opinion it's not a good idea to take the lazy approach and simply say, "it's ok to wet exit and not worry about all of this rolling training.” The only problem is, it's not easy, and you have to work on it, all the time. It took me years to be able to do a forward finishing hand roll. I never gave up, I kept working on it until I got it. Also, when you get to where you can do a roll, you don't just say, ok that's that, I got it, I can stop now. You always need to keep working on your rolls, it's like any other physical activity.
In this day and age that we live in, it's very easy to get help with learning these Greenland rolls. There are kayakers from Greenland, the United States and around the world that are dedicated to teaching these rolls. I think as modern day sea kayakers, we should be thankful for all of these rolls that have evolved over the years from Greenland.