So it’s that time of year again. The time when the weather is showing us a few more warm days, and the rivers are still full of water. It’s also the time of year when head games can get the best of those trying to learn the elusive combat roll. This article is all about conquering fears of rolling in whitewater and understanding which currents will help or hurt combat rolls. So let’s pull out the gear from the tupperware and put it back into action.
First things first: get comfortable with the idea of hanging out upside down in cold water. Dress warm, go to the local river and practice rolling. Cold water is often a partial cause for the lifting-of-the-head syndrome. Wear a head beanie and ear plugs and stay relaxed through that shock of hitting the water. Relaxation helps to keep movements fluid and the head will be the last thing out of the water. Just as studying for a test works best when the material is studied in the same place as the test, rolling works best when practiced in as close to actual conditions as possible.
Once your stationary roll becomes super consistent, then there is no need to practice it anymore. It is time to work on ways to improve your combat roll. Begin by targeting your biggest weaknesses. Do you struggle with wave trains, holes, eddy lines, fear from rapids, shallow water, or just frustration?
There are several ways to practice combat rolls in flatwater and whitewater. The key to all the rolls is to control movements even though the water is trying to pull your body out of position. The real key is to do the same roll that you practice on flatwater: relax, set-up, sweep and hip-snap, finish position and stabilization.
First start with your paddle pointing forward and flip with momentum. Also paddle straight against some current, or downstream through a wave and then flip. This will cause the water to try and pull you backwards and out of the tuck position. If you practiced your sit-ups over the winter, hopefully it will pay off here. In the river this sort of flip occurs when you hit a hole or wave and get pushed backwards. It also occurs during enders. Relax, tuck forward and towards the set-up side and roll - same advice as usual. If you struggle with this roll try stationary rolls and flip with your paddle and body in non-setup contorted positions; practice unwinding underwater and go to your setup position.
Another technique for rolling from the backseat, which happens in many reaction style flips, is called the back deck roll. A back deck roll starts from the stern and ends up sitting forward at the finish.
The next phase is to have a mean friend spin the bow of your boat away from your set-up. The beginning of the roll is easier because the sweep stroke initiates from the spin. The finish position will be harder, because the sweep will want to continue to the stern. Don’t let it. Sweep the same as without momentum - bow to hip. Once you are comfortable with this go to an eddy line, spin on it in the direction you just practiced and then flip and roll. You need to prevent the slight suction from the eddyline from pulling your front hand or body down and you need to maintain a smooth sweep across the surface of the water.
Now have a friend push your bow towards the set-up side. It is really hard to maintain your set-up position during this drill. Your options are to:
- Fight to maintain the setup and wait out the push.
- Switch to the other side and do an offside roll.
- Try one roll quickly and after it fails try a second one which might work because the spin is gone due to the first attempt. This drill simulates flipping on an eddyline.
Eddylines can be among the more challenging places to roll, and first roll attempts sometimes fail here even with very solid rolls. Perfect practice makes perfect so for sloppy rolls turn down the force until it looks pretty. For good rolls crank up the current until it’s a challenge!
Next have the same helper push your boat in the center on the same side that you are set up on. The helper will need long arms to reach over your setup paddle. The more practice you get rolling with the boat moving around the more comfortable you will be. This drill is helpful because it brings you up to the surface on your setup side. This is very similar to rolling on the downstream side of a hole. Do it. It is also similar to rolling on the downstream side after peeling out from an eddy. Do it. Choose non-shallow areas in the current and, Do it. If you struggle with this, go back to working on the stationary roll and remember: practice, practice, practice.
The next step is to have your helper push in the middle of your kayak on the side opposite from the set-up side. Unlike the last helpful roll, this one is a beast. Ask somebody how hard it is to roll on their upstream side in a hole, and they’ll probably say impossible. That’s this drill. Your options here are to:
- Go to the other side and try an offside roll on the downstream side. If that fails go back to trying the onside.
- Try to take an underwater sweep / forward stroke to spin the boat to the onside and then roll.
- Try and roll. Even if it fails it might spin the boat enough that the second one will work.
- After trying many attempts, swim. This is always an option. We are all in between swims. Accept this as a fact, and again know that this is a hard drill. This is also very similar to being upside down and broached on a rock. When trying these in current pick a weak but deep hole and a very non-undercut rock. Less then Class I current will suffice.
Now for an easier drill: have a friend push up and down on the bow or stern or both. They should let go when they feel you start to hip snap. This simulates rolling in a wave train. Timing can be important; try to roll when the bow is high, not the stern and fight to stay in the set-up position. In an actual wave train, rebalancing is important, so at the end of the roll you should bring your weight aggressively forward to stabilize the boat and then take a forward stroke. Also in a wave train it is often easiest to roll on the downstream side of the wave. This is one time that waiting in the set-up until you feel the wave break over your boat can help. In most other combat rolling situations rolling quickly is the way to go. Find wave trains with no obstructions downstream to practice this.
Shallow water can be frightening, but it can actually make rolling easier. Trust in your protective tuck. The mistake people often make is to try and use the river bottom. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean it stays in one spot. Diving the paddle to the bottom can easily result in a broken paddle and hurt shoulders. It is safer to roll on the upstream side when in shallow water, but this is often not a choice. Think about rolling the same as in flatwater - keep the paddle sweeping on the surface with no resistance. If the paddle happens to hit something it will probably give you an extra advantage. If you try to use the bottom it will likely force your upper body out of the water and it won’t work. Keep relaxed, don’t waste time, roll quickly and smoothly.
Frustration is one of the biggest barriers to rolling. There’s not too much to say about it except that you need to recognize its onset and take a break from practicing rolls until you can relax underwater again. Kayaking is all about the enjoyment of the sport; don’t let rolling slow that enjoyment down. It is plenty of fun with or without a roll. Rolling will come with practice and time in the saddle, so don’t give up on it. Practice with different instructors. Some instructors will work better for you than others. Remember that it is just plain difficult to roll in some situations. Practice drills that make rolling easy, build up confidence gradually, and start with very mild currents.
Once you develop a solid combat roll your confidence will grow, and you’ll be able to push your skill limits. There is no better feeling than when it clicks and feels solid. Have fun developing a bombproof roll!