by Ken Rasmussen

In Greenland the traditional method of kayak instruction begins with the sculling brace, progresses to the roll, then the strokes, and finally, the student can go paddling. In our culture we begin by going paddling, and often progress no further. That is why we tend to be inefficient and vulnerable paddlers. Those of us who get training often stop short of learning to roll, and very few learn to brace effectively.

If you want to learn to paddle effectively in a short period of time it would be good to base your training program upon the Greenland method, with a couple of modifications. The Greenland boats are very low volume, and the paddles are exceptionally buoyant. Consequently, the Greenland boats are much easier to learn to brace and roll than ours. Our boats can be rolled easily enough, but the sculling brace is more difficult, and should be learned after rolling.

Comfort in water: A prerequisite for rolling:
I have taught a number of people to roll. Some learn in a few minutes, some never learn. You might suppose that athletic ability and coordination would be the difference, but surprisingly, it is not. There are two reasons why many people fail to learn to roll easily. Rolling is physically easy, but mentally tricky. Cultivating a confident state of mind is the most important aspect of rolling. It is crucial that the student be able to function comfortably under water before trying to learn to roll. I no longer attempt to teach rolling until I have had the student perform some underwater tasks. The student must be able to swim underwater with eyes open. (A face mask or nose plugs may be worn.) I like to have the student locate and pick up items from the bottom and bring them to the surface. I have the student tie knots underwater, reenter his kayak upside down, and capsize and slip a paddle float onto his paddle before exiting the cockpit. When the student can demonstrate proficiency at these tasks he is ready to roll. A student who is uncomfortable in the water needs to become comfortable by means of swimming lessons, water polo, snorkeling, scuba diving or similar activities before he learns to roll.

The importance of cockpit fitting:

An unsuitable boat is an almost universal barrier to rolling. Most kayaks can be rolled if they are properly fit to the paddler. Even boats which fit fairly well can usually be dramatically improved by making hip and knee braces out of foam. The hip braces prevent the paddler from slipping sideways in the seat. The knee braces provide a secure grip on the underside of the deck. Some seat backs may prevent the paddler from being able to stretch back onto the rear deck, making some braces and rolls difficult to do. Many paddlers install backbands to correct the problem. I prefer to remove the original seat from my kayaks, and build my own seat, hip braces, knee braces, and install a backband. That enables me to control all elements of comfort, fit, and trim. I cover all surfaces with a high friction fabric for additional grip. For detailed instructions on custom fitting a cockpit see the "Instructions" elsewhere in this website. A good job of custom fitting makes rolling, bracing, and leaned turns much easier. Rough weather paddling, surf, and strong currents become less daunting. Don’t waste your time or money on rolling classes until you’ve done a good job of outfitting your cockpit. All aspects of paddling improve with custom outfitting. It is the most significant performance improvement that can be made to an otherwise good boat.

Choosing a boat for rolling and advanced strokes:
When choosing a kayak for advanced paddling, avoid boats in which the back of the combing is too high or too far forward, making it hard to lay back on the rear deck. Such a boat can be a hazard in waves. I’ve been pounded flat onto the rear deck by a breaking wave. I might have broken my spine if my combing had been high in back. The front of the cockpit needs to cover enough of the knee and thigh to make it possible to attach good knee braces. Avoid excessively stable boats because they require more effort to roll upright. They can be rolled, but it is difficult to be certain that they will roll every time. You want to be certain that your roll will always work. If you can’t be confident in your roll it will not be reliable in emergency situations. Any kayak can be knocked over, regardless of the stability designed into the boat. You want to be certain that you can recover. Since you are planning to become a skillful paddler you can defend yourself with technique. A medium or low stability boat will be safest because it will be impossible to keep you down if you should be knocked over. A low volume boat with low rear deck is the easiest for learning to do the sculling brace. Large boats are much harder to scull. Sometimes it helps to leave the skirt off so the cockpit will take on water, making the boat less buoyant. Rolling and bracing are not your only concerns because you may need a larger boat to carry camping gear, but it is better not to get too large a boat. Size is relative. To a big person with a high center of gravity, a large boat might have medium stability. A small person with a low center of gravity might find medium stability in a small, narrow boat that would seem tippy to a larger person.

Choosing an optimal paddle for sculling, rolling, and the forward stroke:
Although composite paddles (fiberglass and carbon fiber) have become the norm due to the low weight of those materials, you might wish to own a wooden paddle in order to bolster your rolling and bracing skills. Wooden paddles have buoyant blades. Since these have more thickness than most composite paddles, they will produce lift when sculled sideways if the blade is correctly designed. A well designed wooden paddle is distinctly better for rolling. It is shocking to realize how much easier the sculling brace is when an optimal paddle is used. Wooden paddles also have an indescribable "feel" when paddling which can be addictive. I’ve been noticing that many excellent paddlers are going back to wood. When selecting length, don’t buy too long. Knowledgeable paddlers usually use 205 to 220 centimeters unless they are in a very wide boat. Short paddles are conducive to a high angle, quick cadence stroke that is less strenuous, especially into a head wind.  An outward slice with a paddle that sculls well will add lift to the forward stroke. The slice also makes it easy to flick the paddle out of the water.  The flick throws the drops of water off of the blade and helps to set up for the catch of the other blade. (Kayakfit has been testing a variety of paddles to find which are best for rolling.  Read Choosing an Optimal Paddle for Touring, Bracing, and Rolling for details.  The Grey Owl Spindrift is the most successful paddle we've discovered for rolling and general touring use.  The Spindrift is available on our Products page.)

Strategies for learning easily:
It is easiest to learn rolling from a good instructor. I was taught by John Meyer of Northwest Outdoor Center in Seattle. I was getting rolls in about 10 minutes. I am not a particularly fast learner, but I am very comfortable in the water. A person who is genuinely comfortable in the water, working with a good instructor, can expect to make rapid progress. It is important for the student and instructor to understand the normal learning curve. When performing a new task the student will improve for a few minutes, then he will reach a plateau, and, after a few more minutes, will get worse. It is important to rest or work on a different exercise when progress ceases. If the effort continues too long the student will become discouraged. Confidence will be undermined, and confidence is the primary ingredient in the rolling recipe. Rescues make good alternative activities to practice when a rest from rolling or bracing is needed.  Need we add that comfortable water temperature helps?  Don't hesitate to use a mask or noseplugs when practicing.

Maintaining confidence in the roll:
Many of us quit practicing after we succeed in getting a few rolls in the pool. That is a serious mistake! Continue to practice until you can roll equally well on either side. Perfect your technique until the motion is easy and natural. The roll should require no more effort that getting off of the sofa, and should be just as certain. Learn to roll with the paddle in extended and normal positions. The extended paddle roll will be your secret weapon, giving you a huge surplus of extra support (and confidence) in case you need to make a 2nd attempt. Even after you can roll perfectly, continue to practice to maintain the roll. The roll doesn’t require practice, but you have to maintain your level of confidence in order to perform it properly in an emergency. I roll a few times whenever I paddle. If this sounds uncomfortable to you, you may not be dressing adequately, a mistake that has claimed the lives of many paddlers. If you are paddling in cold water and wearing a drysuit, you can keep cool on a hot day by rolling periodically. That way you’ll be able to stay comfortable and safe, and you won’t die of skin cancer (from too much exposure to strong sunlight) several years later.

Learning to brace well:
As soon as you can roll fairly well you can begin to learn to brace. It is much easier to learn bracing when you can roll because you can recover from failed braces with a roll. People who can’t roll are reluctant to jeopardize their balance, so their braces don’t amount to much. When you know how to roll you can learn to brace back up from a knocked down position by means of a high brace. The sculling brace can be used to recover even if the head and torso are submerged. The sculling brace and the roll complement each other. The sculling brace enables one to recover from many capsizes without the necessity of rolling. The sculling brace can be used to salvage a bad sweep, saving a roll that would not work otherwise. The sculling brace also gives a way to rest, compose oneself, and breathe.

Protecting yourself from hazards:
It is very important to learn to brace and roll without overextending the shoulder joint. Many of us figure this out too late, after we’ve already injured a shoulder. Don’t let your elbows get too far from your ribs and you’ll be safe. I don’t try too hard to prevent a capsize if I’m falling fast. It is better to allow your body to strike the water than to strain yourself. The water will decelerate you painlessly, and then you can bounce back up, uninjured. Don’t allow your ear to come down flat against the water when falling. If you land exactly wrong you get a monumental clap that sounds like a bomb exploding in your head. You can rupture an eardrum. Avoid immersing your ears repeatedly in very cold water. It thickens some of the tissues in the ears which can diminish your hearing. Wear a neoprene hood or earplugs to protect your ears from cold water.

A solid start leads to a strong finish:
After you’ve learned to roll and brace you won’t have much difficulty in learning strokes, leaned turns, and low braces. With your closely fitted cockpit and your confidence, you will be the star of the advanced strokes class. When you’ve completed your strokes class you will be ready to take advanced classes in surf paddling, paddling in strong currents, or whitewater paddling. You will find that the excellent foundation you’ve laid will make these activities easy for you to learn. You’ll be amazed to discover how well the skills you learned in a swimming pool have prepared you to learn to paddle rough water. Beginning with the roll seems like a backwards way to approach kayaking, but the bracing can’t be learned properly without a foundation in rolling. The fitted cockpit and bracing skills are essential for developing fluidity in any of the maneuvers that require leaning. The Greenlanders had it right: You need the foundation skills right away in order to be a safe and effective paddler.

I’ve been more fortunate than most in sustaining my confidence when rolling. I grew up living on a saltwater beach where I spent a lot of time swimming, especially under water. It was excellent preparation for rolling. I had some very positive experiences rolling in rough conditions when I was learning to paddle, which gave me a lot of confidence. Later, after my rolls were reliable, I did miss one. I was in Deception Pass, and had tipped over in a whirlpool, on purpose, for the fun of rolling out of it. My first roll missed, which rattled me, and I missed the second attempt also. On the third try I was very deliberate, and did manage a clumsy roll. My confidence was undermined for quite a while after that, and it impressed upon me the importance of following the rolling sequence carefully, and being ready to add sculls at the end of a poor sweep in order to save a bad roll. Confidence is the key to getting rolls that work in real life. I create that confidence by doing a couple of rolls and deep sculling braces at the start of every paddling trip. That way I know I can roll that boat, on that day, in those clothes. I practice frequently, not to improve my roll, but to maintain my confidence. Rolls work outdoors in rough water in much the same way that they do in a swimming pool. The trick is to feel the same, so you can do your rolls the same, and not allow negative thoughts or fear to disrupt the rolling process. It is helpful to wear immersion clothing, have well developed bracing skills, and have alternative rescues well rehearsed, because these all contribute to confidence and a positive attitude. I rely on my braces as my first line of defense, using the sculling brace to recover from a capsize without the necessity of rolling. I can save a bad roll with a sculling brace, and if necessary, I have the extended paddle roll as a back up if more leverage (or confidence) is needed. The boat I use, an Eddyline Falcon, is carefully fitted to me, and is an easy one to roll--virtues I would not be willing to forgo in my choice of kayak.