Hand rolling your whitewater kayak is a really useful thing to be able to do, whether it’s because you broke a paddle, got it knocked out of your hands, or threw it to the side after securing your boof on a 90-foot waterfall. Ha! Oh wait, I forgot – not a joke for some people. Anyway, you may have noticed that some kayakers make it look incredibly easy, and I’m sure it can be, but learning it can also be a real challenge. Here’s a good instructional hand roll video made by Freya Glendenning, who does kayak polo in Wales.
I actually made a hand roll on my very first attempt a couple of years ago, but after that it was hit or miss (mostly miss) and now my form has morphed enough that I’m not even coming close. Watching Freya’s video I realized that I got into the habit of leaning too far forward for the initiation phase, when I should be out to the side or even further back.
Ken Whiting has a good article on Paddling.net that shows and explains more of the technique. Here’s his video showing how to hand roll, which I think is also very good. Yes, he is in a sea kayak, but try to ignore that, or just mentally chop off part of the bow and stern. There, see? Insta-whitewater kayak. Phew! Deep breath…
Notice how he and Freya are not pulling their heads up at all? In Freya’s video when she’s doing the pool practice hip snaps it’s really noticeable that her head is the absolute last thing to leave the water. One thing that will help you with that, aside from the actual muscle memory derived from doing that drill at the side of the pool, is doing standing side stretches to improve flexibility. Every couple of degrees by which you increase your flexibility makes a difference in how long you can keep your head down as you roll up, and little things like that add up to critical mass surprisingly quickly.
Here are two sweet videos of whitewater kayakers running the Little White Salmon River in southern Washington. The first is the Little White Salmon Race in 2012 – while we’re at it I should mention that the 2013 Little White Salmon Race is coming up soon, on May 26. Congrats to local kayaker Darren Allbright on tying for 2nd place in a super-competitive field in 2012!
The Little White is a really hard Class V river that is challenging enough that it’s not even on a lot of peoples’ bucket lists. The first major rapid, Gettin’ Busy, is around half a mile of solid Class V boulder garden that I’ve heard you really need to have some cardio endurance to get through reasonably well. Spirit Falls is the crux of the run, a 33-foot waterfall with a challenging entry and difficult landing zone with a secondary crux move below it, Chaos, for which you need to be upright and in your boat in order to go far left to avoid a (massive potentially killer, I think) hydraulic on the right. Obviously speaking from second-hand info here, it’s not where I hang out but my husband Mike has run it a few times. In fact, here’s a great photo of him doing Spirit Falls in the snow.
Here’s a cool helicopter-view video of Rush Sturges and Steve Fisher running the Little White. It’s a nice alternative to the usual head-cam view, and the shots through the trees along with the music give it kind of an other-worldly feel – I’m a fan.
Since a lot of people are taking whitewater kayaking classes and learning how to roll right now, I’m posting a video or two that I think teach it reasonably well. I’m saying reasonably because I didn’t learn how to roll from a video so I really don’t know how these will go over, however I do know people who learned from YouTube or just from watching people, so it can be done.
Here’s a German video that I found, I swear, through work-related real estate research. But don’t ask, it’s a long story.
I love how the guy wags his finger, thus making it a multiple-language-friendly teaching video. And this looks like a regular roll, not what I learned was a screw roll – I think they mean sweep roll. The one thing I noticed is that when they say ‘turn the paddle’ he cocks his wrists back – in the beginning part of the sweep I either do nothing or bend my wrists forward (not back), since this angles the leading edge of the sweeping blade more flatly along the water line and makes it less likely to slice deep. But by the end of the roll you do end up cocking your wrists back.
Here’s a really great kayak rolling video by Ken Whiting that also explains the difference between a C to C roll and a sweep roll.
Notice how his non-power elbow stays bent and close to his side during every roll. More on this below, after the ‘kayak roll mistakes’ video. There are a lot of other good videos like this on the PaddlingTV YouTube channel.
Here’s one on common kayak rolling errors:
Love this guys’ voice – from the Midwest, anyone? This is more of a C to C roll – notice how the paddle is at a 90-degree angle from the boat before the hip snap starts.
One thing to note on the failed roll attempts, i.e. at around .26, is when people are ‘punching out’ with their non sweep arm. The elbow that is not on the sweep (power) arm needs to stay bent and close to your side even as the paddle swings out. Try the movement just sitting in your boat and notice how if your non-power elbow leaves your side the angle of the paddle changes dramatically so that the power blade gets pushed deep into the water – not what you want. Sometimes instructors will have you hold a little styrofoam float thing between your non-power elbow and your rib cage during the roll to help you keep from punching out.
OK, if you can’t get to water to practice your roll, here’s how to do it on dry land. Also a C to C roll, since it’s harder to do the sweep roll movement when you’re not in water.
Here’s a Ken Whiting video on combat rolling in whitewater. (A combat roll just means a non-practice roll after you’ve flipped over by mistake.)
Notice how even when they finish the roll over the back of the boat (typical of the classic sweep roll), they immediately get forward afterwards. This is really important for combat rolling and I wish I had trained myself from the very beginning to add a forward tuck and forward sweep at the end of every roll whether I needed it in order to stay stable or not.
They don’t talk much about this, but a strong hip snap and keeping your head down are absolutely crucial. Not doing those two things will blow your roll on flat water, Class V, you name it. Here’s a video on the hip snap, and notice on the hand roll how the person’s head is the last thing to leave the water.
Which is the best type of roll to learn? It really depends on the paddler. With the C to C you come up more over your boat (not in the back seat, which is a less stable position), but I personally feel the sweep roll is easier to learn, and in the beginning I think just rolling up is the top priority because swimming a lot can lower your confidence and make kayaking less fun. There will be time as you progress to learn rolling technique that keeps you more over your boat. Often a good combat roll eventually morphs into a combination of the two styles.
Finally, keep in mind that learning to roll a kayak doesn’t have to be hard! Some people pick it up quickly, so if someone starts out by telling you it’s going to take a long time to learn, please try to disregard that – it might take a long time, you might get it immediately. Keep an open mind. The part about working on your roll the rest of your life… well, sorry, that’s true. Join the club.
If you’re thinking about whitewater kayaking in Ecuador I highly recommend checking out Ecuador Paddling, my friend Abe Herrera’s whitewater kayaking tour business down there. Word on the eddyline is that this is a great way to get a non-touristy and authentic version of the whitewater experience in Ecuador.
“Ecuador is all about Class IV fun,” Abe says, “very classic, continuous, but very clean.” Everything I’ve heard about it is that it’s beautiful, fun, and there’s a good range of kayaking trip levels for people to go on. Ecuador Paddling does trips in the Class III to V range, and Abe is an experienced instructor with a ton of safety certifications: 2006 ACA Level 4 Instructor for Whitewater Kayaking and Rafting, 2006 Certified Instructor for Rescue 3 International in Swiftwater Rescue, high angle rope rescue, ice rescue instructor, motorized boat handling instructor, and 2012 NOLS WFR (National Outdoor Leadership School Wilderness First Responder). In other words, there’s a good chance he can get you out of whatever you might get yourself into.
Abe basically has things set up so that you can get guided whitewater kayaking trips while not feeling squanched (technical kayaking term) into a big pre-set routine. He also rents boat, which is pretty charitable seeing as, in his words, “Boats come to Ecuador to die.” It’s all the boofing, I think. And it appears that his rates are definitely on the reasonable side of reasonable.
I think he is planning an Ecuador whitewater festival in January 2014 with a downriver race, boater cross, sprint, the works. Something tells me it will be epic. In any case, I can definitely vouch for his whitewater skills and Mike and I are hoping to head down there to paddle with him sometime in the next year.
Spring 2013 whitewater kayaking classes are gearing up around the Seattle area. If you’re thinking about plunging into this ultra-fun sport, here’s where you might want to start out:
The Washington Kayak Club Beginner Whitewater Course starts March 11 and goes to April 6, 2013. Cost is $175 for WKC members, $255 for non-members. It’s for ages 16 and up, with a parent participant required for students 16 to 17. (You will find people of all ages in this class, just so you know – the great thing about whitewater kayaking is that you can take it up later in life, after you’ve quit Australian rules football and professional gymnastics.) As per the WKC, “You will learn basic paddle and bracing strokes, rolling a kayak, river hydrology, and safety, all in a relaxed and friendly environment!”
Pros: Taught by nice, competent people, and membership in the WKC means that you are in the loop with a bunch of people who are very good at organizing trips for Class II, II+, and III boaters – which can be a struggle to find when you’re looking to get out on the river after a kayaking class and everyone you know is either a non-boater or getting on stuff that’s harder than you’re up to.
You need to come up with your own gear, which can be a challenge when you’re new enough that you’re not sure you’re going to stay in the sport and/or don’t know what to buy. (Craigslist is your friend here, but I understand that you also need to know what to look for.) Update: Since I wrote this I heard they have a gear rental arrangement with Kayak Academy for class participants, which is awesome news.
The Northwest Outdoor Center Whitewater Fever Class (6 days total) starts April 15, June 3, July 8, and August 12, 2013. Cost is $225, plus $60 for kayak rental and $30 for drysuit rental. As per NWOC, “The six sessions include a 2 lake sessions, 2 roll classes in a warm swimming pool, and two full river days. During the river sessions we’ll practice eddy turns, peel outs, ferrying, river reading skills, wet exits, rolls and self-rescue techniques.”
Pros: Also taught by nice competent people. Since this is the class I took way back when, I can tell you that Herbie (one of the co-owners of NWOC) is really, really good at teaching the roll, not to mention one of the most laid-back people you can find anywhere. I will say that if you’re in one of the two roll classes and are not getting the roll, ask Herbie to come over for a troubleshooting. After getting the roll during the class in like 2000 I then didn’t kayak for around 5 years and after that, realizing in my friend’s pool (with nobody around – not the smartest thing) that I no longer could roll I went back to a NWOC roll class. The person helping me couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong, but Herbie came over and adjusted my non-power hand elbow angle just a bit (I was holding it too far out from my body, so digging my blade too deep) and all of a sudden I was rolling again.
Another nice thing about the NWOC class is that you can rent gear, which alleviates an up-front expense and helps you get a chance to figure out what you like and don’t like.
Cons: NWOC doesn’t run a lot of post-class trips, so it’s not like you’re necessarily hooked in with a lot of people you can easily run rivers with.
Some thoughts: I took the NWOC Whitewater Fever class, then (after 8 years off the river) joined the WKC. The WKC kayakers were integral in helping me build my skills on Class II and II+ rivers, and I still recommend them to everyone I can. I’m always kind of surprised when I hear people complaining about their Class IV and V friends who don’t take them on beginner runs often enough. With pretty much everyone working a lot, kayaking time is at a premium, and while most decent boaters have good intentions and will take the time to help out newer boaters when they can, it’s kind of a tall order to ask them to run a lot of the kind of trips that make it easy to dig a Class II boater and their gear out of every other eddy. That’s kind of exactly what the WKC is great at, so why not let them do it? The $65-ish that you cough up for a yearly WKC membership and American Canoe Association insurance is basically an investment – an excellent investment – in a huge part of your future. So regardless of what class you take, I highly recommend the WKC for building your skills afterwards.
When you’re getting through and past the Class III stage you’ll probably find more trips on the Professor Paddle website. Although I should warn you, you’re likely to end up boating with people like this:
Good luck – if you have any specific questions drop me a line.
Update: Since I wrote this I added a Kayaking Classes link to the sidebar and included Outdoor Adventure Center and Kayak Academy. Both of those places have really experienced kayak instructors, I just didn’t write about them here because I don’t have personal experience with the instruction part of those companies. If you’re reading this chances are you’re a newer paddler, so I’ll just point out that Kayak Academy lots of times has specials on drysuits.
Here’s what I’m hearing is a stellar video by Fred Norquist and Evan Garcia of their whitewater kayaking trip down the Grand Canyon of the Stikine with Eric Parker, Ryan Lucas, Matt Baker, and Ben Marr (I think that’s everyone – I haven’t watched the whole thing yet but seeing as I know if I wait I’ll never post it I’m taking a break from work to throw it on here.)
The Grand Canyon of the Stikine is pretty much one of the hardest rivers anywhere, from what I hear. The description that sticks in my mind is a quote from kayaker Jeff West (originally taken from his blog post on the Jackson site) in a Playak.com article that was written after he died in September 2012 on a solo run of the Stikine, shortly after successfully completing a one-day descent with Erik Boomer and Todd Wells. Here’s what he had to say about it:
“Stacked, huge, complex rapids with monster holes, crushing diagonal waves, three-foot tall surging eddy walls all surrounded by 1,000-foot cliffs. The Stikine makes other rivers seem two dimensional. I had always thought of water flowing downstream, side to side and sometimes upstream. Additionally, on this river the water is constantly exploding upward and sucking down. It felt like a giant roller coaster and monster trampoline combined.”
I highly recommend reading his Jackson blog post to get the full story, not just about the rapids but also how he felt about running them. Anyway, what I’ve seen so far of this video looked amazing. Keep in mind everything looks smaller on helmet cam (not that it looks small, but in real life it’s bigger regardless) and also for those watching at work, at least one f-bomb in here.
OK, I’m not exactly a guru of whitewater kayaking, but I have done enough things wrong in the past four years of paddling that I feel like pointing out some tips to new people in the hopes that it will save you time, stress, maybe injury, and very possibly extend your time in this sport. A lot of this has to do with the fact that I see a lot of people (including myself) deal with a fear element that can actually push people out of paddling. Some of that is just part of the deal (and part of the attraction), but there are some simple tips that make life easier and can help you progress faster.
By the way, this post is pretty much for beginner-stage paddlers, although if you’re more advanced and ever in a situation to give newer kayakers advice you might want to read through this and see what you think.
“Find a happy place, find a happy place!”
First of all, here’s a basic and very important concept: The experiences you have whitewater kayaking tend to get hardwired into your brain strongly associated with certain emotions. Those can be joy, exhilaration, fear, humiliation, excitement, etc. But in the end, the fact that we’re dealing with a sport that at times involves the inability to breathe and/or leaves us out of control should not be underestimated. Humans are huge fans of breathing and not being helpless, and we are created to do everything we can to keep on doing those things. When we can’t, panic often ensues, and that’s not something you want connected to your kayaking experiences.
So… do everything you can to not experience actual panic more than you have to. (It’s so simple! ) You will still probably never feel shorted in the fear and helplessness department, trust me. My point (yes, I do have one) is basically this:
Fear is fun, terror is traumatic. If you love whitewater kayaking you love the part of it that is scary along with everything else and that’s a huge part of the thrill, but when fear devolves into terror (too frequently, anyway) you are now at risk of injuring your kayaking career, either because the ensuing mental baggage starts to override the fun and shortens your time in the sport, or it affects your mindset to the point that you’re paddling gripped all the time. I’ve seen plenty of strong kayakers – often people who progressed quickly because they had a go-for-it attitude and a roll that bailed them out of stuff that was over their heads – tell me they’re taking a break for a while for that very reason. And there are far more kayakers who still paddle but who would be better at it and enjoy it more if they weren’t dealing with that kind of stuff.
Please understand, I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie myself and I’m not saying you should be paddling around on a lake. But I now look at terrifying kayaking experiences (not plain old scary ones) the same way I look at shoulder injuries – in a way they can be just as debilitating to your kayaking career, and maybe even worse because they can take the actual fun out of it. And as my husband Mike reminds me frequently, the whole point is to have fun.
As silly as it might sound, the stuff that leaves people with mental baggage can start in the pool, and this is a post for beginners, so here goes. Everything I’m pointing out here has either happened to me, or someone else has told me about in a semi-traumatized kind of way.
First Step: Practice the Wet Exit
This should be the very first thing you learn when you are learning to kayak, but often it’s not. Wet exiting involves getting out of your boat when you’re upside down in water, meaning that while underwater you reach forward, pull the grab-loop of your sprayskirt to release it from your cockpit, then push yourself out of your boat (and shortly afterwards, breeaathe….)
Here’s the catch. The absolute last thing your mind wants to do once it realizes that your body is attached to a solid object upside down in water is force you to push your hopeful nostrils even deeper below the water line and serenely reach for your grab loop. If you haven’t specifically practiced the wet exit and suddenly realize mid-roll attempt that you can’t roll and need to wet exit, your first impulse might instead be to thrash as close as you can to the water line, which means that your nostrils are still under water but your eyes are not and you now have a good view of the other people starting to cast concerned glances your way as they realize a ruckus is starting up in your corner of the pool.
So first thing when you’re beginning to kayak, practice the wet exit. If you’re afraid of being under water, put the grab loop in your hand before you flip over, and from there progress to finding it under water. Many things involving successful kayaking have to do with developing muscle memory that kicks in when every molecule in your body is telling you passionately to do something different.
Do A Pre-Flight Check
It’s hard to pull a grab loop that mistakenly got tucked under the front of your sprayskirt. The best way to prevent this is to always (always, even if you can see it plainly) run your fingers around the front of your sprayskirt until you feel the grab loop where it’s supposed to be. Make this a habit, so that you automatically do it no matter what – the same way that if someone hands you a gun you’re supposed to check to see if it’s loaded, even if you just saw them unload it.
It has to be muscle memory, so that someday you could be putting your sprayskirt on in some challenging eddy getting ready to ferry out into a scary rapid (scary could be Class II or Class V) and even if you have 50 other things on your mind you still check to make sure your grab loop is free.
Some Other Pre-Flight Checks:
- Make sure your relief zipper is zipped completely. I always do this when I take mine off its hook to pack it before a run. No matter when you do it, I think always doing it at a specific time makes it easier to remember.
- Never partially zip up any zipper. If you do, counting on remembering to completely zip up before starting the run, just know that someday you will almost certainly experience the joy of snowmelt gushing into the comfy warm interior of your drysuit during a swim. (And as Mike says, seeing as you also end up weighed down with gallons of water you’d pretty much be better off naked.)
- Feel around the side and back of your sprayskirt to make sure it is securely around the rim of your cockpit every time your put your sprayskirt on. One of these days you most likely will realize that it was starting to flip up on one side and would have come off in the next rapid.
Practice Wet Exiting While Keeping Hold of Your Paddle.
Yes, gear is less important than human life and sometimes you’ll decide to ditch your gear and just swim for it, but it should be a conscious choice, not something you need hypnosis for later on just to figure out what happened. I only recently started trying to learn this and my first instinct when I’m going to swim is still, “I’m out of here!” No forwarding address, no looking back, and usually… no paddle.
This is incredibly inconvenient, and there are many times that it’s not at all dangerous to keep hold of your paddle while you rescue yourself. Paddles are also much harder to find in the river than boats, and they’re expensive. So, practice wet exiting while keeping your paddle in your hand. If you decide to ditch it later at least it will be on purpose instead of something you can’t remember doing. Again, you want to make it muscle memory because when you’re running low on air and at the pull stage your first thought is generally not “Wait, what am I forgetting?”
There’s more, but I guess this is a start. I love the “gnar” videos that I put on here, mostly because they often involve my friends or people I think are amazing boaters, but I always wanted this blog to also be a source for people new to whitewater kayaking or the Seattle paddling scene. Those posts take more time, which is why you don’t see them too much. I am calling this Part 1 though, in the hopes that it will encourage me to do a Part 2.
It was December of 2008 that I splurged on my Kokatat Tropos drysuit at Kayak Academy (a great deal for around $500 on sale), knowing that it was my only ticket to getting out on rivers during any kind of cold weather. After 200 rolls in the pool that month I joined the Washington Kayak Club for a New Year’s Day paddle on the Lower Green River (thank you Dave Bowman for patiently leading me through the snow to the easier entrance at Kay’s Landing), nailed two combat rolls, and was “in” for the long haul. Seeing as I’ve met many of my close friends and my husband paddling, I have to say it was a decent investment.
Anyway, fortunately I got some good advice before picking my suit, and I thought I’d pass it on. Keep in mind that if something else works better for you, then that’s the best option.
Buy a Drysuit with Dry Socks
The dry socks on my suit are made of a thin material that has a papery feel and they are way bigger than my feet (they are made to fit loosely). The advantage of dry socks is that you don’t have to deal with getting your feet in and out of ankle gaskets. Considering the time, effort, potential for the ankle gaskets to break, and the addition of another water entry point with gaskets, I highly recommend going the dry sock route.
Get a Drysuit with an Overskirt
The overskirt is an extra flap on your drysuit waist that goes over the tunnel of your sprayskirt. Unless you’re sea kayaking or paddling flat water on which you don’t expect to do a lot rolling (and if you’re planning on whitewater kayaking, please plan on doing a fair amount of rolling, or else a fair amount of swimming – it will be one of those two), then you’ll be very happy if you get a drysuit with an overskirt.
Don’t Get a Drysuit that Zips Along the Back
I have friends that use Palm drysuits and I have nothing against the brand personally, but when your drysuit zips up across the back of your shoulders you’re pretty much dependent upon having an able partner with you anytime you put on or take off your drysuit. If you’re not already the kind of person who gets mildly claustrophobic just thinking about that, then consider that you might want to do lake practice on your own one of these days, or your faithful paddle buddy might end up with dislocated shoulders mid-river and gee, wouldn’t you feel silly if you weren’t able to save the day and/or pee when you needed to just because you weren’t able to zip up or unzip your drysuit on your own.
When In Doubt, Go Big
I have a drytop that I’m giving away because getting into it is like squeezing into a sausage casing. (Still better than the drytop that while I was trying it on I had visions of being found weeks later by emergency responders, suffocated by the gasket in the basement.) Basically, if a suit is too small it can hamper you, but if it’s a bit large, who cares? You may end up paddling in very cold weather, and a larger suit gives you the option to put on multiple layers and still feel comfortable.
Test Out the Drop Seat Zipper
My drysuit has a front relief zipper, but a lot of women use the drop seat zipper. The one time I tried a suit like that I couldn’t even sit comfortably in the boat, so if you want a drop seat zipper I recommend sitting in a relatively snug boat with the suit on first. A lot of women wear them happily, so you never know. If you go with the front relief zipper you’ll also want one of those things like the Whiz, which Kayak Academy was nice enough to give me to try out but I never did and ended up giving it someone who ultimately reported that on her first test run she peed into her drysuit. Although I think the verdict was operator error.
I think that’s about it, except for: don’t feel like the less expensive Tropos drysuit is a huge trade-off. It may not be true Gore-Tex, but my first drysuit was a Tropos made by Kokatat, and even though it’s supposed to be less breathable than the higher end Gore-Tex one, the main difference I noticed is that the Tropos is less heavy-duty material. It served me well in very cold weather and a few slides/tumbles down to the put-in, and more importantly, at around $500 on sale it was the vehicle that got me out on rivers during a time of year when you really need a drysuit in WA – which is the whole point, right?
After years of taking awesome whitewater kayaking photos and videos, Dan Patrinellis has finally started a blog to share it all with the rest of us. Here’s the link to his new Fluid As A Lifestyle paddling blog.
Anyone who’s been fortunate enough to paddle with Dan knows he’s one of the first people on the river to smile at anything, and, as I’ve mentioned before, one of the few people on the planet that you can drive eight hours with through the dead of night in the middle of nowhere without wanting to toss from the vehicle before reaching your destination.
He’s also a huge believer in the philosophy that “kayaking is 90 percent mental,” which always leads me to the obvious question of whether my 89-year-old mother could run Tumwater Canyon if she just attended a kayaking motivational seminar first. (Wait – they do have those, right? )
Here’s another one from the video chronicles of Dan Patrinellis – highlights of local whitewater kayaker Sam Grafton running all sorts of incredibly huge and difficult stuff in 2012. Some of the drops are on Tumwater Canyon (Wenatchee River), Top Tye Creek, Robe Canyon (Stillaguamish River), Skykomish River, the Chelan Gorge, and some BC runs (pretty sure I saw 50 50 on the Ashlu in there).
If you’re not familiar with the difference between Go Pro view and actually paddling the stuff, keep in mind as you watch this that the waves and features are way bigger in reality than they look on the helmet cam. And most of these look pretty huge on helmet cam.