February: Falling Back in Love With Sea Kayaking

By Mary Fairchild

In water, any rescue takes a lot more time and energy than an elegant roll.  A reliable roll is one that can be done when not expected. Rough water, or skookumchuck, can psychologically make things difficult. Find ways to practice in all conditions. A roll will help you get more proficient at your bracing skills. Don’t plan to just set up to roll when faced with a possible capsize. Sweep your brace stroke just like you would at the end of your roll.

Warren Williamson rolling at Skookumchuck Narrows; 8/09:

It is common, during the initial learning stages to perform several excellent rolls one week, and then lose the ability entirely the following week.

If you have incorporated and reinforced mistakes, a good instructor will be able to catch your mistakes and help you.  I will be completing my 3rd class at the Yorkville Recreation Center this Sunday with Haris Subacius who is an instructor for Geneva Kayak Center.

If you start missing your roll, even after you have mastered the roll, look for the following mistakes:

  1. Poor setup: your roll is doomed from the start if your body is not tucked properly and your paddle positioned correctly.
  2. Relax: take the time to set up properly, and then perform the roll in a precise and relaxed manner.
  3. Paddle blade: Set up with a flat front blade. The working paddle blade needs to be oriented in a horizontal position so it can slice near or just below the surface. Tuck your chest out over outside so your paddle raises above the surface. If you tuck forward this may pull your blade in the wrong direction. Feel your forearms against the boat–gets your hands out of the water. Once paddle is in the air place the front blade on the water. Hold the paddle very lightly because a tight grip translates tension to the rest of your body making you more likely to pull the blade down. Twist your torso while watching the blade. With your hands lose on the shaft think of letting the paddle blade float across the surface of the water. The flat blade of your paddle is just gliding over the surface. Resistance on the blade causes you to lift your head which disengages the rolling knee. Too tight a grip can lead to the blade diving if the wrist and torso steer the blade toward the bottom. Use your torso to sweep the blade away in a wide arc. Avoid pulling the paddle toward the bottom by using just your arms. Practice a few “false sweeps.”
  4. Use one knee at a time: Your connection at the knees is what allows you to roll your boat upright. An efficient roll uses one knee at a time. If both knees are pressuring the thigh braces it may be impossible to roll the kayak. Extending the torso out starts the pressure on the rolling knee. Twisting the torso moves the blade and maintains the pressure on the rolling knee. The only reason the paddle moves is because your shoulders are turning. If you raise your head it results in engaging the wrong knee and that pulls the boat over on top of you. Going for air (lifting your head), means that your knees are not working to roll the boat. Keeping your head position correct assists the rolling knee in righting the boat. You need to leave your head down so that you can pull the rolling knee up.
  5. Finish position: Your torso is twisted around and you are looking down the shaft. The back hand is at the shoulder with the elbow jutted forward. Knuckles curled back to your shoulder. You can see the stern of your boat. Come up with a mantra to help you remember something that helps you. My mantra has been “relax,“ and, more recently, “remember your knee.” 

The San Juans are the site of many kayaking accidents due to insufficient training and practice in a place that has many treacherous currents as well as boat traffic. Deception Pass, 11/16/10.

Warren Williamson rarely instructs though he is a mentor to many paddlers. Interesting interview clips with Warren Williamson from above video:

Have you optimized your boat? “No. I haven’t optimized it for anything it’s just a very ‘Plain Jane West Greenland.’”

Any plans to go touring? “You know, I haven’t even camped out one night in a kayak yet.”

This run is about 6 nm. And so 45 mn—is a screaming time for this. “I don’t know. I don’t keep track of anything like that… You know, I’m not a racer. I don’t keep track of all that.”

But you do go out to Skookumchuck and go backwards! “I can do that.”

Warren Another View; 5/4/11:  Note Warren’s detailed preflight approach to taking a new kayak out into conditions.  During the first five minutes, Warren familiarizes himself with the craft to eliminate surprise and allow him to proceed with confidence.


  1. John Lull, Sea Kayaking, Safety & Rescue: From Mild to Wild, the Essential Guide; 2001.
  2. Derek C. Hutchinson, Expedition Kayaking; A Falcon Guide, 5th Ed.; 2007.
  3. Derek C. Hutchinson, The Complete Book of Sea Kayaking, 5th Ed.; 2003.
  4. “The Kayak Roll” with Kent Ford; Performance Video; 2003.

Mfairlady Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.