Know Your Rolls

By Tim Sprinkle

sea-kayak-lessonWhat’s the best way to quiet a novice paddling class? Mention the “Eskimo Roll.” Nothing worries beginning kayakers as much as those two words – I know from personal experience – but the skill they represent is crucial to on-water safety and something that every paddler needs to know. It’s scary, and the learning curve is frustratingly steep, but a good roll will save your life over and over again ­ something you wife/kids/mom will certainly thank you for later. As nerve-racking as it might be to throw your head and torso underwater, twist into ungodly contortions while submerged, and “snap” up out of the water to a sitting position, it definitely beats the alternatives: staying down there for an extended dive or wet exiting into unknown water.

Most of us start our rolling careers in the relative safety of a pool or lake. (Note: winter is a great time to get these rolling classes out of the way because (1) you’ll be ready to go as soon as the spring water starts running, and (2) nothing beats driving down the road with a kayak strapped to your roof in the dead of winter). The basic maneuver is simple: roll upside down, brace your paddle for balance, and then flip yourself upright again with a simultaneous hip snap and paddle stroke.

But, it doesn’t end there. There are as many different types of rolls as there are situations in which to use them. Some rolls are easier on calm water, others are smoothest in the current; some work best from unusual positions or as protective measures in rocky water; some rolls are designed to get you out of tight spots, others to show off your control and prowess. There are literally hundreds to choose from, these are just a few of the most common.


Screw Roll

The most commonly used roll because it is easy to learn, easy to perform on open water, and generally keeps you protected while upside down, the screw roll is usually the first roll presented to beginning paddlers. For all intents and purposes, the Screw Roll is “the roll”. Using a well-timed hip flick and a wide sweeping brace stroke, most paddlers are able to get up with little difficulty when performing this roll. The sweeping motion does, however, take up a lot of space on the water, and has a tendency to move the boat around while you’re rolling, making the Screw a little less stable ­ a.k.a “bombproof” ­ on rough water or in high winds.

The premise is simple: while upside down, make a broad sweeping stroke from the bow of your boat toward the stern on the side you’re rolling up towards. As you reach the midpoint of your stroke the paddle should bring your body to the surface; snap your hips and roll up to a sitting position. The classic Pawlatta Roll is a similar sweep roll that uses an extended paddle ­ in which you hold the paddle by the blade – for additional stability.

C to C Roll

The C to C is named for the two arcs you trace in the water as you complete the roll: one out over your head as you align your paddle for the set up, and the second down into the water to bring you up again. It is considered a vertical roll due to these two strokes, both perpendicular from the boat. This deep stability and smooth execution make it a particularly bombproof roll on open water. Many whitewater paddlers prefer the C to C because it is very fast an obvious benefit in rough current and because it can be done in small passages where there isn’t enough room to perform a typical Screw Roll.

It takes some practice to get the timing right, but essentially all you’re doing is drawing your paddleperpendicular to the cockpit (the first “C”), and then pulling it down toward your head as you snap your hips up (second “C”). This roll offers a bit more support with the paddle as you snap up, but tends to favor stronger paddlers with a little more flexibility.

Reverse Screw Roll

Certain situations call for the unorthodox ­ but extremely useful ­ Reverse Screw Roll. If you ever get off balance and flip, while playboating for example, and end up leaning back toward the rear deck, or have your paddle pinned to the stern of your boat, the Reverse Screw will get you up again without the time consuming effort involved in setting up for standard roll. Everything is the same as the Screw, just done backwards. This ease of execution from an uncomfortable position and the ability to avoid underwater obstacles like rocks ­ by minimizing your inverted time – are reason enough to add this roll to your arsenal.

Hand Roll

The ultimate party trick roll, but also a lifesaver if you ever find yourself upside down without a paddle, the hand roll is just what it sounds like: a roll executed using just your hands. But, like most rolls, the secret is in the hip snap. Letting the boat float up toward their normal rolling side, experienced paddlers will lock their thumbs together to form a giant flipper and thrust against the water while hip-snapping. It’s tricky to do properly, it’s cool to see, and it’s the “white whale” of modern kayaking.

Capsize Drill or the Wet Exit

By Derek C. Hutchinson

I tell everyone that kayaking on the sea is a dry sport – and, unless you are involved in surfing or some such pursuit, it usually is. You should, however, resign yourself to a couple of capsizes during your learning period. I remember that I was somewhat apprehensive before my first capsize, upset by the thought of getting stuck in the cockpit. In fact, this turned out to be a groundless fear: the big problem is actually staying in the cockpit. Without thigh braces and padding you will fall out of the boat. It is difficult to convince novices of this.

Preparation For your first attempt choose a piece of calm, sheltered water and enlist a friend for moral support. Unless you are lucky enough to practice this in a swimming pool you should wear some kind of flotation device. You should not be eating. Remember, chewing-gum and water sports do not mix! To prevent water from getting up their nose, some people prefer to wear a nose clip. Without a nose clip you will soon discover that breathing out slowly through your nose will prevent the water from going in.

The exit

  1. Make sure that the spray-skirt release-strap is on the outside.
  2. Take a breath and capsize. Now let go of the paddle.
  3. Sit still until you are completely upside-down.
  4. Locate the release-strap on your spray skirt. It doesn’t matter whether or not you can open your eyes; most people find the strap by groping for it.
  5. Pull the strap forward towards the bows, then upwards to clear the coaming.
  6. Lean forwards. Place both hands behind you on either side of the boat.
  7. Straighten your legs, then push up and away in the direction of the small arrow .

Once on the surface, grab the boat’s toggle and then retrieve the paddle. Take the boat with you while you do this. If you hold on to the nearest lifting toggle while you swim to the paddle you will find the boat easy to tow; it will also help to support your weight. Remember: if you leave the boat even for an instant the wind may blow it away faster than you can swim after it.

It is natural for you to feel some slight lack of confidence prior to your first wet exit. By all means do the first one without the spray skirt in place. In this case, bang three times on the upturned hull with your hands before allowing yourself to make the exit. Hanging upside-down for these few added seconds will give you confidence so that you will not panic when you need to remove the spray deck. It will also be a signal to your friendly onlooker that you have not expired and are in fact in complete control of the situation.

Remember: the first movement of your exit is like taking off a pair of trousers – you lean forwards. (Nobody leans backwards when they remove their pants!)

Paddling Alone

By Wayne Horodowich

I realize everyone has his or her own perspective on just about every issue. One of the prevailing opinions I don’t agree with is “never paddle alone”. Every time I hear an instructor tell their students “never paddle alone” I am hoping they would add a condition onto their statement but most of the time the warning just stands alone. I believe a blanket statement discouraging paddling alone is a disservice to paddlers.

Personally I love paddling alone. I know of a lot of kayaker’s that paddle alone. In fact I encourage paddlers to learn to paddle alone but I add conditions to my statement. I am not suggesting that you take a rank beginner and say “go and paddle on your own”. However, I do tell my beginning students that they should not start paddling alone until they can meet a list of conditions. By taking this approach I am educating my students on what they need to know before they undertake an endeavor rather than eliminating even the possibility. To tell paddlers “just say no” to paddling alone is not being proactive.

I believe there are excellent reasons why a kayaker should work towards paddling alone. One of the basic tenets I teach to guides and instructors is, “the strength of the group is based upon the strengths of the individuals in the group.” By paddling alone I have learned self-sufficiency. I know every aspect of the paddle is my responsibility. If anything goes wrong I will be responsible for dealing with it. I need to know where I am at all times. I need to self-launch and self-land. The greatest reward of solo paddling is not a measurable skill. It is a change in attitude. The increase in self-confidence alone is worth it. I believe that solo paddlers have a greater sense of awareness. Give me a paddling partner with greater awareness and higher self-confidence any day of the week. However, they will not get that same awareness and self-confidence if they always paddle with me or in a group.

This leads me to listing what I think a paddler should know, be able to do and need to have if they wish to paddle alone. Dressing for immersion, always wearing your PFD, having your own paddle float and pump are givens whenever you get on the water whether alone or in a group.

Before you paddle alone be sure you have the following:

  • Reliable self recovery skills
  • Solo launching and landing skills
  • Directional awareness (navigation)
  • Spare paddle
  • Signaling kit (with vhf radio &/or cell phone)
  • Repair kit
  • Familiarity with the route (when beginning solo paddling)
  • Knowledge of expected weather conditions (listened to most recent marine forecast)
  • Float plan filed with friends (including a call when off the water.)

The equipment suggested is equipment you will probably be carrying with you even on group trips. The skills can be learned and practiced on group trips. Once you feel you are ready then start with a half-day trip in an area that you have paddled before. As your comfort zone increases and your skills become second nature your boundaries will extend farther and farther. Look at Ed Gillette. He did a solo trip to Hawaii from California.

Before you jump in your kayak and paddle off into the sunset (or the sunrise for you East Coast paddlers) be fully aware of the risks and potential consequences of paddling solo. Alone means alone. If something happens you need to have the skills and attitude to deal with it. If you go out with the belief “If I get into trouble I will just call for help”, then you are missing the point. Rarely should there ever be an instance where you need to call for help. Being prepared and being aware of the environment eliminates the vast majority of mistakes made by the sea kayakers who do end up calling for help. The most risky part of paddling alone is the sudden illness that can occur (heart attack, seizure, blackout, etc…) which could render you helpless and unable to make the call. The risks can be higher if you are alone. Keep in mind that paddling alone can be peaceful but there are times it can be lonely.

The other side of the coin is the rewards from paddling alone. There is a great feeling of accomplishment. You are learning to rely on yourself, to trust yourself and your decisions. The motivation to learn and practice is greater because the potential consequences seem higher. The peace and quiet when paddling alone is a wonderful way to center yourself.

One last consideration is the false sense of security that one may have when paddling in a group. Just because there is a group does not mean there is safety in numbers. In the event you capsize while in the group are you sure those in the group will come to your aid? If they don’t help because of inadequate skill level or anxiety in difficult conditions your own self-sufficiency will be your salvation. It can be said that a kayaking group is a collection of solo paddlers.

As I said earlier, I love paddling alone. I could not have gotten to my current skill and experience level if I only paddled with others. I am also willing to take the consequences of paddling alone. I trust my judgment and my skills, which have both been increased by paddling alone. Therefore, I say, “before you paddle alone, it would be in your best interest to meet the criteria mentioned above”.