the kayak fits, Roll it! by
Every year at pool sessions the same problems occur with paddlers who are relatively new at kayaking and arrive to learn how to roll. I personally find this quest commendable and never lost my close association with the struggles and strains of going through that process. I’m sympathetic and aware of the Catch 22 pattern of kayak buying that has made this illusive technique out of reach for the one group that desires it the most - the beginning paddler.
New paddlers buy kayaks that feel comfortable to them - not just in the seat but mostly in the larger initial stability that the wider/larger boat offers. The manufacturers of these kayaks unfortunately also assume that everyone who desires this greater initial stability weighs 400 lbs. or more. Not only are they wider, but they have enough volume to carry the kitchen sink. The other assumption by manufacturers is “there’s no way these people need to roll - we’ll put in a little foam for their thighs and that will keep them quiet! Besides, this way it will fit more paddlers; we sell more kayaks and we make more money”. End of discussion. The same manufacturers will put out white water kayaks with great thigh bracing because they know that a roll is mandatory in that sport and... the white water paddlers demand it or won’t buy the kayak. White water kayaks are designed by white water paddlers whereas sea kayaks are sometimes designed by naval architects who have never done a roll or attempted one.
This half hearted attempt that some sea kayak manufacturers make with their products is truthfully based on the fact that the greater population of paddlers will go along just fine with what they have ... and possibly so. However, when learning to roll, you really have to be locked in with a very positive grip or you just won’t ever be able to roll - period! Once you gain skills - like in a few years of practicing an exkimo roll, you may be be able to roll any kayak, but you won’t do it with the grace and effortless motion like you do in your own custom tailored kayak.
Some people luck out and buy a low volume boat and it fits them like a glove, but this is not the norm. Or... you’re a big person and you fit in your big boat nicely. Most people however, have to add foam or bracing to be able to truly master the roll.
Most of the paddlers I know who have good skills have all padded out their boats. It’s unfortunate that people arrive at the pool sessions in kayaks that seem to fit well while paddling but when push comes to shove and they’re upside down, there’s not enough grip to twist the kayak up without their thighs slipping out of position. I think this is the number one reason for sloppy or failing technique especially when I notice they have the paddle movement fairly well.
I’m very obsessive about this because I remember what a difference it made for me when I was slipping out of position in my Hydra Sea Runner. The technique is difficult enough without having to swing two bats during the learning process. Once I finally glued in a couple of blocks of foam to prevent my thighs from slipping out, my weak, inefficient roll became reliably weak and inefficient. Hey... at least I was coming up every once in a while.
I used to practice in secrecy because of embarrassment. One time I was hanging upside down at lake Quanipaug trying to figure things out and when I rolled up a man was standing there in thigh deep water in his street clothes who ran in to rescue me. From then on, I use to find secret sandy spots where I could practice in peace and push off the bottom if I had to.
I think when paddlers arrive at the pool and see others hand rolling or doing fancy rolls etc. there ‘s an untold story of the years of practice and sometimes obsession that these paddlers put in to get there. There’s also the untold story of the various kayaks they purchased and outfitted to finally come up with a kayak that fits them like a glove.
Rolling is truly one of those techniques that’s easy to learn but a long road to refine because it’s a marriage of physical technique and the kayak itself.