Why your roll sucks (and what you can do to fix it!)

Let’s start with something we can all agree on. Rolling a canoe isn’t easy. Once you learn proper technique and practice it often, rolling becomes less of a challenge, but it still requires a combination of strength, flexibility, finesse, and mental toughness that separates the roll from most other canoeing technique. Put another way, if you take a crappy forward stroke at 50% effectiveness, you’ll still go forward somewhat, just not effectively. If your roll is only 50% effective, you aren’t going to be able to right yourself, at all.

Over time, I’ve come full circle with the roll. When I first started canoeing, I struggled for years, flailing in pools, eddies, and in the middle of rapids without ever rolling. There were times when I thought I would never learn to roll, and that I’d never be able to run the difficult whitewater I dreamed of. Finally, the combination of quality instruction and putting in the time in led to my first combat roll, followed by a few more after that (like this one right above Gorilla).

Now, I help others with their roll, and monitor my own in case I ever fall into bad habits. In teaching, and in the years of struggling with it myself, I’ve noticed a few commonalities amongst paddlers who are struggling with the roll, which I’ve laid out here, in no particular order:

  • Problem: You aren’t getting quality instruction

I have a running joke that anyone can teach canoe rolling. All you have to do is stand on the side of a pool and shout, “Keep your head down! Snap your hips!” But the simple fact is, getting proper instruction can be difficult. Your buddy who just learned how to roll last week might help, but getting the world-class instruction from an Eli Helbert or a Paul Mason or a Judd Lefeber can make the difference. It’s one thing to know how to roll, it’s another thing entirely to be able to articulately and efficiently instruct a complicated sequence like rolling in a way that suites different learning styles, and to be able to troubleshoot just what isn’t working as someone is learning.

This also cuts at another issue with rolling. Some canoeists find themselves believing that there is only one way to roll (or one way to do anything, but that’s for another blog post). This is simply false. There are a variety of different rolls a canoeist can use, and even within the basic low-brace roll, there are multiple set-ups, paddle orientations, and other variations. There isn’t a single right way to roll. I’ve watched an excellent instructor try to teach rolling, only to have other canoeists paddle up and tell the student, “Hey, that’s wrong, I do it this way!” So if you’re learning, be open to variations that might be more effective for your body type, paddling style, or overall strength. And once you’ve learned to roll, don’t fall into the trap of believing that your way is the only way that works. This “roll protectionism” doesn’t serve anyone.

A quality instructor won’t just say, “snap your hips!” he or she will be able to tell you how
  • Problem: You’re your own best critic

Regardless of whether you’ve rolled a canoe before or not, if you’re having trouble rolling your canoe, it’s hard to troubleshoot underwater. Especially when you’re getting the crap kicked out of you. You might not realize that your body is too close to the back deck, your head is coming up early, etc. Without this information, how can you ever determine what is wrong with your roll? The key is to have someone else providing feedback, preferably someone who knows how to roll! Don’t have someone? Use a camera to record video, and analyze it yourself. You can post video to paddling forums, where hopefully others can provide quality feedback.

In this Age of Youtube, there are a bunch of videos that show not only the basic low-brace roll, but some of the intricacies of the roll, potential trouble spots, and important cues. It can be tempting to try to learn solely through watching video and then going out and givin’ er. But videos don’t provide the feedback that a competent observer does, particularly one who is a great instructor. So if you’ve watched all the rolling videos on the internet but still can’t get it, try getting feedback from someone.

  • Problem: You aren’t rolling enough

Once you’ve gotten your first couple rolls, be it at a pool session or at the takeout, you need to practice. Rolling is a perishable skill, maybe the most perishable skill in canoeing. I liken it to starting a fire. Once you’ve gotten that first flame, do you just sit there and watch it burn out? Or do you feed little bits of kindling and oxygen to help that flame turn into a roaring fire? Learning is similar, with slow, methodical practice leading to an instinctive skill. So how do you practice? Commit to rolling at least five times per run. Pull into a big deep eddy and need to dump? Bang off a roll. If you swim, so what? You needed to dump anyways. Surfing on a wave? Try flipping over to flush and then rolling in the tailwaters.

Some practice spots are prettier than others

  • Problem: You’re panicking

Part of rolling is training our minds to do something they do not like to do: accept a sudden loss of oxygen. Our brains are hardwired to hit the panic button the moment they sense they are in an oxygen-deprived environment, in an effort to get you to find some air. But part of rolling is training our minds to realize that we’re better off staying calm and waiting. The best way to train our minds is to learn how to roll in a safe environment…if only there was a type of paddling where you had to roll many times in a safe, approachable environment. Oh yeah, playboating!

Playboating is the single best practice you can have for bombproofing your roll. Playboating leads to flips and inversions of every kind, offside, onside, getting backdecked, etc. But, the danger is typically minimal, with swims usually resulting only in bruised egos. So if you have a pool roll, and you want to bombproof it for creeking season, go out to the local playwave and start flipping. Soon you’ll be trying to roll in the hole to stay on the wave, and rolling up in time to catch the service eddy for another surf!

  • You’re too fat/inflexible

The years I struggled with my roll, this was my problem. I weighed about 225lbs. As a side-effect of getting really sick in Mexico, I lost a bunch of weight, and suddenly I was able to roll. This wasn’t a coincidence. It’s a lot easier to roll without 50lbs to flail around with. During the winter, if I skip a few gym sessions and eat a few too many cookies, I’ll notice that my rolls aren’t quite as snappy as they should be.

The fact is, if you’re a big guy (or gal), it’s going to be harder to roll. That doesn’t mean that it’s impossible, but my big friends who can roll are typically contractors, laborers, or work a physically-demanding job that has given them excellent core strength. Without that core strength, it’s going to be very hard to roll.

Similarly, I’ve worked with people who aren’t as flexible, be it because of age, injury, or general lack of flexibility. The bio-mechanics of rolling require a basic level of strength and flexibility, it’s just a matter of leverage. Working on flexibility, particularly hamstrings and back muscles, can help a ton. Phil Prince’s rolling exercises can also help.

Rolling Exercises from Philip Prince on Vimeo.

  • Putting it all together

If you’re still learning to roll, don’t get frustrated. The road from swimmer to roller takes time, practice, and dedication. Hopefully you can recognize some of the issues that might be holding your roll back, and work to overcome them. Because the best self-rescue is the one where you never leave the boat!

Ask me about the time that I didn’t roll…