How to Perfect a Combat Roll in a Kayak

Rolling a kayak back up while bouncing upside down in a rocky stream is a very challenging endeavor, but this skill must be mastered, if a paddler wants to attempt serious rivers. A good combat roll requires solid skills and a cool head, but patience and lots of practice will usually result in success, and swimming rocky rivers is not very much fun.

Practice, Practice, Practice

A swimming pool or lake makes an ideal location to master rolling techniques. The paddler is advised to complete hundreds of rolls on both sides of the kayak, and to perform drills that simulate combat. One good drill is to roll many times in a row while holding on to a single breath. The paddler should also switch sides of the boat frequently, so that the roll becomes ambidextrous. It is advised to have a qualified instructor critique the technique to ensure that the roll is being executed the proper way. A marginal roll may work fine in a lake, but the added challenges of currents and nervousness will often make it fail in a combat situation. Learning to roll without a paddle is a good way to perfect rolling technique, and also a great emergency asset. Knowing alternate rolling techniques is also a good asset. The most common problem for failed rolls is lifting the head too soon. The paddler’s survival instincts want to do this, but it will almost always prevent a successful roll.

Find a Safe Surfing Hole

Surfing and hole riding are great ways to master kayaking techniques, and practice combat rolling. A carefully chosen play spot allows the paddler to simulate extreme whitewater in a relatively safe location. The ideal play spot will have a large hydraulic feature with a safe eddy below it. Many communities have constructed kayak play parks, which are perfect for this type of practice. Surfing the hole will usually result in frequent upside down time, and the paddler will have many opportunities to practice the combat roll. The paddler should feel very confident with rolling in this environment, before moving on to difficult whitewater.

Keep Practicing

A good combat roll needs to be like a reflex, and constant practice is necessary to keep the skill precise. Many paddlers have died, lost their boats, or had harrowing experiences because they failed to roll in a combat situation. A bombproof role is a great asset but many other skills are required to paddle difficult whitewater confidently. An accomplished boater should also master bracing techniques and should rarely tip over. Even with a perfect roll, there is a high possibility of circumstances where the boater is forced to swim. If the boat becomes pinned under a rock or log, or if a hydraulic feature seems impossible to escape, swimming might be the best option. If this happens in a challenging river, the best advice is to look for an eddy or rock, and stroke as hard as you can. The boat and paddle are replaceable, but your life is not. Paddling challenging whitewater is an incredible thrill, but it is also very dangerous.

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