That’s How We Roll

by Sherri ~ July 15th, 2009. Filed under: Rolling.

The weather could be warmer (in my opinion), but at least the water on our local inland lakes has warmed up nicely.  It’s about as good as it’s going to get for learning to roll this summer.  If you have been thinking about it, or have tried in the past with limited success, let me give you a few suggestions on ways to increase your chances of success.

1. Dress for success! By this I mean you should dress as warmly as possible.  If you have a drysuit, use it.  If not, wear your warmest wetsuit.  Put on a neoprene skull cap.  Wear your paddle jacket.  Whatever it takes.  If you get even the slightest bit chilled, you have a natural tendency to tighten up your muscles.  This will make it that much harder to attain the separation of upper and lower body movements necessary in rolling.  Rolling should be a fluid, relaxed motion.  It won’t be if you’re shivering.

2. Use nose plugs or a dive mask. Don’t be macho about this one.  I know you aren’t going to be wearing nose plugs when you capsize in real life, but when you’re learning, it will make you much more comfortable underwater.  The human brain can only pay attention to a couple of things at the same time.  This is one of the problems in learning to roll.  There are more than two things you need to do at once.  Don’t use up your valuable brain RAM (random access memory) thinking about the water shooting up into your sinuses.  Dive masks also work well and will allow you to see what you are doing underwater.

3. Make sure your kayak fits you. Get some padding in that cockpit so it is easier to hold yourself in place when you are upside down.  I would recommend that you over pad your cockpit a little on a temporary basis (duct tape in a little extra padding).  Again, you have limited available memory when you are learning to roll.  Don’t waste it trying to concentrate on staying in your kayak.  In addition to this, your two knees/thighs need to be doing different tasks in a roll.  One knee is tightening up and rolling the kayak up while the other knee needs to relax.  If you have to tighten up both knees just to stay in the kayak, it will be more difficult to learn the roll.  If your cockpit seems tight enough, maybe consider adding just a very thin layer of neoprene along the sides of your hips to give you some friction to prevent too much sliding in the seat.

4. Learn to hip snap and brace. These motions have distinct direct applications in the rolling motion and will help you get ready to roll.

5. Work on your flexibility. Start a stretching program for your whole body.  You don’t have to be a gymnast to roll, but it doesn’t hurt.

6. Learn to do the Bow Rescue. Being able to do a bow rescue will make it easier for you to practice your rolling skills.  When you miss a roll (and you will), you can roll yourself up using the bow of another paddlers kayak avoiding the need to do a wet exit and rescue which wastes time and energy.

7. Get comfortable hanging out upside down under your kayak. Put on your dive mask or nose plugs, capsize and stay in the kayak as long as you can before having someone give you a bow rescue.  Practice leaning forward, backward, and out to each side before coming back rightside up.  Take your paddle with you and work on moving it around under the water.  Take photos with your underwater camera.  Most paddlers are to quick to try getting back to the surface when learning to roll.  They rush their movements and and their technique suffers.  Rolls do not have to be done quickly, so get comfortable underwater.

8. Get Ben Lawry’s DVD on rolling and practice his dry land rolling techniques. “Dr Ben’s New & Improved Rolling Elixir”, 2007 Cheap Bastard Productions. or

9. Watch rolling videos and visualize yourself rolling. Visualization stimulates the same parts of the brain as performing the actual movements, so visualizing yourself doing a roll correctly will help create the neural pathways in the brain needed to perform a roll.

10. Expect this process to take some time. I firmly believe that anyone can learn to roll, but the older you are or more out of shape you are, the longer it is going to take.  Rolling is not a hard movement, but it is hard for most people to learn.  We don’t learn well hanging upside down underwater.  It takes technique not strength.  If you are 20, you may pick this up quickly, but if you are 60 it may take weeks or months.  You need to commit some serious time to practice and lessons.  You will likely lose your roll even after you have first been successful.  Persevere, it will come back.  You will lose it again, and it will come back again.  Gradually, the amount of time your roll is lost will decrease, and the amount of time in which you have your roll will increase, but you must keep practicing or you can lose it for good.

There’s no time like the present.  Get out there and do it!


2 Responses to That’s How We Roll

  1. Ken

    “You will likely lose your roll even after you have first been successful. Persevere, it will come back. You will lose it again, and it will come back again. Gradually, the amount of time your roll is lost will decrease, and the amount of time in which you have your roll will increase, but you must keep practicing or you can lose it for good.”

    It’s a relief to see this because that’s exactly what I’m going through. I started rolling successfully earlier this season after a great deal of video study, lessons from Sherri and others, and practicing on my own. At one point in June I nailed 11 roll attempts in a row. Then a strange thing happened. My rolling “muscle memory” seem to leave me and during recent paddling outings I haven’t been able to roll at all. So I’m going back to basics, reviewing the videos and working to get it back. I assumed it would be like riding a bike — once learned, never forgotten. But it hasn’t turned out that way. Oh well, it makes it that much more enjoyable when I do roll up.

  2. Sherri

    Hang in there, Ken. It can be a long, frustrating road on some days, but it will get better if you stick with it. This has been a cool summer so far. When you go out to practice, make sure to dress a little warmer than you might think you need to, and go ahead and put on the skull cap. I ran into some rolling problems back when I was learning when I practiced in cooler water temperatures. I don’t know for sure if it was water in my ears or the cooler water causing me to stiffen up, but I had better success early on in warmer water. Even now, my roll feels a little rough in winter when the water gets cold.


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