That would have been the perfect song to sing to Turner Wilson’s handmade skin-on-frame kayak as I ooched my way down off the back deck & into the not-an-inch-to-spare cockpit, then pulled up the lap foam to snug myself in. Pandabonium (who writes Pacific Islander, a blog that tends to leave me a little homesick for the tropics a lot, plus offers a fascinating look at life in Japan & occasional appearances from the too-darned-cute Momo the Wonder Dog...what's not to like?) left a comment on yesterday’s post that makes a perfect lead-in to today’s:
Having done all my kayaking in the tropics mostly with sit on top kayaks, I have to say that even reading about rolling (let alone with legs wedged in) scares the bejeezus out of me.
Well...yeah! What he’s saying is a good place to start 'cause it is so completely sensible. Rolling is one of the more totally counterintuitive things you can learn to do in a kayak, and the very first natural intuitive response that has to be quelled is the one that tells you that being upside-down underwater with the entire lower half of your body stuck inside a boat which you are attached to at the waist is a very bad thing. One of the usual first lessons in any beginning paddling course is going to be the “wet exit”, which is all about learning to get out of the boat calmly in case such a situation should accidentally arise – you tuck forward, you flip, you smack the boat a couple of times, you run your hands forward along the coaming of the cockpit, you find the grab loop that lets you pop the sprayskirt, you run your hands back along the coaming to make sure the skirt is loose, then you push yourself out and come up – the whole sequence can be done quite calmly in about 10 seconds, and I’ve seen a lot of people improve instantaneously after completing one of these successfully – one slightly perverse thing about kayaks is the tenser you are, the more likely you are to capsize, and when people are afraid to capsize, they automatically tense up – a couple of good wet exits eases the fear as the mind accepts that it’s not really that bad. That’s a fine first step, and there are plenty of paddlers who never get to rolling – as long as they’ve learned & practiced self & assisted rescues & know the limits at which they would have a hard time pulling that off, it’s not really a problem.
To learn to roll, though, you have to go past the point of just knowing that you can get out fine and on to the mindset that STAYING in your boat is actually DESIRABLE. That’s not always easy! Personally I only remember one time that I ever really freaked out after a capsize – this was maybe my first or second year of paddling; I was surfing in a little whitewater boat for the first time, I was being taught by Richard Chen See of Manhattan Kayak Company, who is a person in whom I have utter confidence, but I think it may have been my first ever unintentional wipeout & I landed leaning back instead of in the forward tuck I’d practiced. My instant reaction was to pop my sprayskirt by pushing it up with my knees. The thing was, at the same time as my knees were popping the sprayskirt, my brain was registering the fact that Richard was saying “Stay in the boat!”. Too late though. Boy did I feel sheepish.
Aside from that, I can’t remember any specific occasions when I’ve felt scared of being upside down (I did have to work through fears of dislocating my shoulder but that was a different matter, that was ‘cause I almost did once & it was really yucky – but being upside down I’m generally fine with). But I do have to admit that the combination of being wedged so tightly into this little Greenland cockpit, and knowing from my surprising 2nd experience in the Stealth that my usual rolling technique was just not going to work right brought on an unaccustomed visit of the heebie-jeebies!
Only thing to do was work through them gradually, the same as I’d done with the Stealth in Connecticut – start with a balance brace, and from that static float, work on edging the boat further and further over until I’d convinced that sorta spooked side of my brain that this really WAS ok & that the absolute worst thing that was going to happen was that my roll wasn’t going to be at its’ prettiest & Cheri was going to have to pick on me to do it better (which in fact not only isn’t bad, but is exactly what I expect when I pay good money for classes – if I took a class & the instructor didn’t have any constructive criticism for me, I’d feel gypped).
Two things made this second try at getting reconciled with the Greenland fit work MUCH better than my first one in the Stealth in the pool. The first was that this time I was expecting it – and the second was that this time I literally had all day. I’ve already mentioned how tension makes you more likely to capsize – it also makes you less likely to roll, and I think that part of why I remembered the Connecticut session as having a very high frustration quotient was because I only had so long in the Stealth and when I discovered that I was starting from square 1 instead of whatever square where you get to do elbow rolls and go “WOW!!!!” – well, I knew that tensing up was just going to screw things up even more, but I suddenly got very aware aware of the minutes trickling away & I know that that made me just tense enough to complicate matters even more.
This time, though – this time, I had all day. So I didn’t rush. I let the other students go first and I gave myself the time to get to know this boat & gradually introduce the muscles of my legs & hips to this new approach to a familiar task.
Got the onside roll working, the side on which I’m more comfortable – not perfect, still a bit clumsy, but serviceable. On to the offside. That worked too – also clumsy, though. Mushy. Not good. Repeated it a few more times trying to figure out what was wrong – and would you believe that what gradually began to dawn on me was that I was not in the boat tightly enough? Each time I tried an offside roll, I was righting the boat – but I was also ever so slightly slipping loose from the seat that I’d started out feeling like I was squeezed into like an absolute cork in a bottle!
Cheri’s explanation for the Greenland fit, both last winter and as I was kvetching a bit as pulled up the lap foam at the beginning of this class, was that it actually negated the need to consciously hold yourself in your boat. I’d listened, but suddenly I actually GOT IT. I don’t know how many times I’ve given novice paddlers a spiel about how you don’t so much sit in a kayak as wear a kayak – well, the Greenland fit is just taking that to the ultimate extreme – and suddenly, just like I once had embraced the concept that staying in the boat and rolling was WAY better than coming out, I was now ready to commit to truly melding myself with this boat the way Cheri said I was supposed to.
I paddled back to the beach.
I got out.
I took off my booties and left ‘em on the shore. Wasn’t going to be able to do what I wanted to do with them on – had to be barefoot.
There was a crossbrace in Turner’s boat right where my feet wound up when I got in the boat. Cheri had said when I got into the boat that I could work with that in 2 ways – I could either rest my feet against it, or if my ankles were flexible enough I could point my toes & slide my feet on past it & hook onto it from the other side. At first, that seemed scary. Now that was EXACTLY what I wanted to do – and it worked. I was IN there, I was NOT coming out, and that was GOOD, that was MUCH better! YEAH!
I don’t know if Cheri had been watching this whole getting-acquainted dance I was doing with her boyfriend’s boat, but right about then, she released the student she’d been working with, turned to me & said “OK, let’s see a sweep roll”. The rest of the morning was just her fine-tuning some points that helped that and the rest of the layback rolls. Keeping the paddle on the breast bone – “hold the blade close to your heart” – that one I should have known, but again, that’s why I pay good money for classes, because when I go too long without someone watching me, I feel like I start getting sloppy. Keeping the torso flat to the water – another thing I know but evidently wasn’t doing. The third point, though, was a new one – really using the frontal abdominal muscles to raise myself to the back deck. Imagine doing a crunch, only with your upper spine & neck totally loose – that’s the general idea! That way my head really was the last thing out of the water – without that, I wasn’t raising it, but it was coming up a bit sooner in the process, and if you’ve ever done any rolling work at all you’ll know that you want that 20-pound weight on the end of your neck to stay down in the water until the last possible second (that probably the most counterintuitive piece of the whole counterintuitive process – your natural desire is to get your head up to breathe – overcoming that impulse is a make-or-break step for the novice roller). Before she gave me that point, I was using more back muscles – she likened it to the difference between sitting up from a prone position and PUSHING myself up. I think this may be particularly demanded by the narrower & lower-volume Greenland boats than a boat like my Romany, but I think this is going to be a really good general point for me to keep in mind – my basic roll is pretty good, but every now & then I’ll do one that just doesn’t feel too strong, feels like I’m pulling down on the paddle & that’s another no-no. People don’t always see what I’m talking about when I finish a not-so-hot roll ‘cause it’s a pretty subtle thing, not bad enough to make me blow the roll except for the very occasional really fluky offside (usually after a really tough run of stressful days at the office when I’m tense anyways & haven’t been getting enough exercise – that always messes with my paddling!) but I know exactly when I do it ‘cause it just feels weak. Concentrating on the lower abdominal muscles really lets the upper spine & neck relax in a way that takes ALL the pressure off the blade at the finish. Fantastic.
Finally, right before lunch, layback rolls tuned up & working to Cheri’s satisfaction (and mine too, yep!), she passed me on to Turner to start working on some forward finish stuff. Just the barest start – my layback rolls are solid, with just the odd occasional mushiness which I hope these pointers will help solve – front-deck finishes are much more elusive – I’ve done them, but they come & go with an emphasis on the “go”. So for the last 10 minutes or so before we broke for lunch, Turner just started working me into this less-familiar area with some basic assisted forward-recovering drills. Good way to finish the morning.
And speaking of finishing, that’s MORE than enough for one post and I must turn in – last session at Sarah Lawrence tomorrow, need to get to work a bit early to ensure leaving right at 5 – really want to get there early enough to have a little time to practice what I got before it all goes away again! No post tomorrow – well, don’t you need a break after this one anyways?