By Aaron Kiander

So there I was, sitting in my kayak, floating in the pool. My goal was to learn how to roll this winter, and the first pool session finally arrived. After weeks gathering advice from anyone willing, I had visions of pulling off a roll on my first try. Instead, I was scared to even flip over, wondering what I had gotten myself into. Wondering how I could discreetly sneak out of the pool without anyone noticing.

My nature is always to over-prepare for challenges, so I thought this would work for learning the roll. I studied videos, listened to advice from different sources, and took pages of notes. I carefully reviewed each stage of the roll, trying to understand each step as well as the common pitfalls to avoid. I even increased my running and strength training to prepare my fitness. I thought I was ready. 

But I was not prepared for how scared I would be to even try a roll. As I floated in the pool, my mind conjured up images of getting stuck in my kayak upside-down, unable to breathe, unable to escape and no one noticing until it was too late. I practiced wet exits many times before but I never let myself get entirely upside-down. In my standard wet exit, I wasn’t even underwater before I launched myself out of the kayak with roughly the same speed of a torpedo from a submarine. Sometimes I wouldn’t even bother to pull the skirt off the correct way. I just shoved myself away from the kayak with so much force that the skirt had no choice but to detach. Why I thought rolling would be easy is beyond me. 

Pushing aside my fear, I decided to just start with small steps. First step, I removed the skirt and got my legs out of the kayak cockpit and flipped over that way. With my legs out, there was no fear of entrapment and my legs could hug the kayak to keep me upside-down. This helped calm my nerves a bit even though it must have looked strange to anyone nearby. After that, I did the same thing but with legs inside the kayak. Each attempt gave me more confidence and allowed me to hang out a little longer underwater. 

Slowly, after an hour of wet exit practice, I was starting to feel more comfortable. So I decided to take a few half-hearted attempts at a roll. Humbled by my fears, I no longer expected any success. I ran through the motions of the roll before each inevitable swim to try again. 

The first roll attempt was a big surprise. I discovered my profound lack of flexibility. I must have watched a million videos of people doing C-to-C rolls where they effortlessly extended the paddle out to 90 degrees to start the roll. Their paddle blade was always up at the surface, ready to grip the water for a powerful roll. At once, it was apparent that this was not going to work for me. My body just couldn’t stretch far enough. Even with concerted effort, my paddle stayed too far below the surface. Groaning, I added this to my learnings for the day.

I remembered hearing that people who are not very flexible should try a sweep roll rather than a C-to-C roll. So I switched gears and started playing with the climbing blade angle of the sweep. By now I was pretty tired from all of the wet exits followed by back deck scrambles to re-enter the kayak.

In the days after that pool session, I struggled to understand why kayaking has such an important skill that is so hard to learn. Isn’t this some flaw of kayak design where someone needs to make it harder to flip over? Couldn’t someone invent a device to make rolling easier or to make sitting upside-down under a kayak less stressful? I conjured up thoughts of having a spare paddle with an inflated paddle float attached, ready to grab and use if I flip over on a trip. Or a modified snorkel to breathe calmly underwater as I collect my thoughts and perform a few roll attempts. But like most things in life, there is no easy way out. I just need to put in the time and effort to learn it. 

Shortly before my pool time was up, one of my sweep roll attempts worked. I rolled up and sat there in disbelief, trying to figure out what I just did. No one saw it and I wasn’t able to repeat it before leaving, but there it was. My first roll. So I left the pool with a mixed bag of learnings. I was surprised at how much fear I have and how little flexibility. But I also left that pool with a glimmer of hope that with more time and effort, I will eventually learn to roll.