Thursday, September 10, 2015

River vs. Ocean Rolling Mentality

I was kayak surfing at Big River the other day, and on my paddle out I saw a big one coming and decided to turn and take it in. My takeoff was late but I managed to find the shoulder and start my run. That's when it hit me.

One of the features of that location is the near vertical cliff wall on one side of the river mouth. It often creates reflected waves that come at ninety degrees to the wave you're riding. The reflection comes down the line like a pulse of energy, and just as my ride started to crumble the pulse hit me and launched me into the air. I landed vertical, nose down, and drove deep into the building foam pile.

I tried to balance myself and even put my paddle out for support with the hope I could pop back up. My boat (a Necky Jive) is too long to loop even if I actually knew how to loop. But I thought if I could hold position my buoyancy would shoot me up and out and I'd at least be on the surface. That's when the rest of the wave collapsed.

The freight train flipped me over and drove me deep under. Now I was upside down with a pile of water on top and nothing but twisting, violent currents surrounding me. This is the spot where many ocean kayakers will wait for the wave to pass and then roll up. Here's why that's a bad thing.

While you're waiting, other waves are coming. The longer you wait to roll up the closer the next wave will be to hitting you. To fully take advantage of the lull between waves you need to be upright and paddling. It's great to be comfortable upside down, to think clearly and maintain your composure and awareness. But physically you can't accomplish anything. You're there to kayak and you do that upright. Take a lesson from river kayakers.

On the river, waves don't pass. They stick around. Holes can be even worse. It's possible you'll flush out and have a calm pool to roll up in, but you can't count on it. Being upside down is dangerous for the fact you might not go anywhere and for the fact you might go somewhere you don't want. It's essential if you're paddling hard whitewater that you roll up right away and get on with your paddling.

It's a normal progressioin in rolling on the river to wait. You get flipped in class II and there's probably a relatively calm patch of water after every feature. There aren't sticky holes. But as you move into class III, and definitely class IV, the rapids get longer, there are more features, and you can't always hang on until the flat part to roll. So you learn to roll in the mess.

Photo: Darin McQuoid
The first key point is simply the mentality. There's no thought of waiting. If you're upside down you start rolling up. Ideally you don't even worry about a set-up position. From wherever you find yourself, tucked or leaning back, however your paddle is oriented, whichever side it's on, you simply roll from there. If you can use the momentum of the water to help you all the better.

That's the goal and it takes practice - the second key point. Everyone starts out rolling in flat water so it's natural to get used to that. And it's good to practice in the pool. But get your approach away from setting up and finding the right position. Stop looking for the surface. Change your understanding of rolling from a specific sequence of motions to a general concept of using your paddle and your body to bring the boat underneath you. Practice it from every position. Practice it in the current. Throw yourself in a hole or the foam pile and practice it there. There's a reason why playboaters have the best rolls - they flip themselves over in dynamic water on purpose all the time.

This is what you do if you want to paddle difficult whitewater. It's also what you need if you want to paddle rough water in the ocean. Too many sea kayakers seem content with the wait and roll approach. Their rolls depend upon specific techniques, often ones that bring them up lying on the back deck in unstable positions. That's fine to start, but don't stop there and let it become the habit. Learn some different rolls, work on both sides, and get really comfortable being upside down. Make your goal right away to be able to roll in the chaos and come up ready for more. It may take time and practice to get there, but you'll be a better paddler and a lot safer on the open ocean.

I don't know how I rolled up from my wipeout at Big River. It was all very confusing, but I felt water pull on a paddle blade and I anchored myself on that blade and used my hips to bring my boat underneath me. I felt the air and I was up - facing backwards and still in the middle of the foam pile. One stroke in the smooth water behind the pile and I was free. I saw the next, larger wave coming and paddled to the side to avoid the hit. After making my way outside, I picked my waves a little more carefully and caught better rides without needing to roll again. That's how it should be.


  1. oh you missed the opportunity to do a popout pirouette!
    when you bow goes down put your blade across the deck onto the opposite side of the boat...and then pull....the boat should spin on it's nose..and then if you do a half spin you can land backwards flat on the hull and surf out....

    The old Dagger GTX8.1 i surfed for years did this VERY well.....once I learned to control it my need for rolling dropped nicely!