by Tsunami Ranger John Lull
While paddling south one day from Point Arena on the northern California coast, I spotted an inner passage through the sandstone cliffs, cut deep into the uplifted marine terrace. After exploring the passage for a considerable distance, it became obvious it would dead end up ahead, so I entered a narrow slot that would take me back out to sea. Large waves were crashing on the cliffs outside, but there appeared to be a deep channel at the mouth of the slot where the waves were surging, rather than breaking. I watched for a bit, then made my move to paddle out. I should have waited and watched longer.
Just as I left the slot, I noticed a huge wave steepening up directly in front of me. There was no turning back because the surge had already swept me south of the slot so my only option was to paddle forward at full speed and try to break the wave barrier. I still recall an instant of terrible beauty when the wave reared up way over my head and I could see the sheen of the setting sun piercing the translucent wave face. Then the whole world was demolished in a welter of whitewater. I was tossed end over end backwards and shaken like a leaf in a typhoon. This was not a good place for a swim because there was no access to shore, due to the vertical cliffs. And trying to re-enter a swamped kayak, up against the cliff with waves pounding in, would have been nearly impossible, assuming the boat wasn’t smashed to pieces. So it was a ‘roll up or die’ situation. I was aware of this uncomfortable fact, but before I could process the thought I rolled back up and paddled for my life, just making it over the next wave and finally out to the safety of deeper water. A reflexive combat roll had turned what would have been a major survival ordeal, suitable for an article in the “Deep Trouble” section of Sea Kayaker Magazine, into a non-event.
The combat roll is any roll you have to perform due to an unintended capsize, especially in rough conditions due to wind, surf, tide rips, ocean rock gardens, and storm seas. You want a roll that will work in all these conditions, especially given the fact that you are far more likely to capsize and need to roll in rough water than in calm, benign seas. At the extreme end is a situation where the roll is your only recourse, where rescues are difficult to impossible and swimming is highly undesireable and dangerous. Ideally you avoid such conditions, but you never know for sure what you’ll encounter at sea. Storms can arrise suddenly or you may find yourself caught inside a rock garden by a rogue set of large waves. An effective combat roll may save the day, or your life, in such a situation. A combat roll is one you can perform consistently, almost a reflex action, without having to think about it.
The main difference between a combat roll and a “pool roll” is psychological. The technique is identical, but the shock of capsizing in cold, rough water out at sea can make it seem more difficult. Also, wind, breaking waves, or current can make it difficult to roll on one side or the other.
1) Learn to roll. This is the obvious first step. You can find the techique described in numerous books and articles, but you’ll eventually have to get on the water and learn it first-hand, preferably from a good instructor. My favorite roll is the “Sweep Roll” because I think it’s the most powerful and versatile roll, especially in a sea kayak. But whatever roll you can perform consistently and well is fine.
2) Practice, Practice, Practice. The goal is to be able to roll without having to think about it. Start by practicing in calm water close to shore or a swimming pool. Then graduate to controlled training sessions in real conditions. Make sure you have an easy bailout, either close to shore or with partners standing by who can perform a rescue, and practice in wind, moderately rough water, and small surf to get used to rolling in such conditions.
Tips for the Combat Roll
1) Set up is crucial. If you don’t set up properly, you won’t have a chance of making your roll. After capsizing, immediately tuck forward (“kiss the deck”) into the roll set up position, holding your paddle close to the surface and parallel to the kayak. This has the added benefit of being a very protected position, especially when being thrashed in the surf or upside down in a churning ocean rock garden.
2) Relax. As you move into the roll set up position relax to conserve oxygen and prepare to roll. Panic will only hinder you.
3) Keep your head down when rolling up, using a good “hip snap.” Your head should come up last, following your torso. Pulling the head out too soon is by far the most common reason a roll fails.
4) Be prepared to hang in the set up position and wait a few seconds before starting the roll. If you are being pushed around by surge in rock gardens, or bounced in a breaking wave, it is often best to wait for things to calm a bit before rolling. Experience will be your guide.
5) The roll needs to be automatic. If, after capsizing, you have to think through the tips above, you need more practice. Ideally, you aren’t thinking about roll technique at all; your body knows what to do and does it.
6) Learn to roll on both sides. It is often necessary to switch sides when your roll fails due to the water dynamics (see next section on “special circumstances”).
7) Once upright, be prepared to deal with the situation. You may have to paddle quickly out of a rock garden before the next wave set, or break through an uncoming wave, or immediately brace when hit sideways by a wave. Do whatever is necessary to get out of the situation that resulted in your capsize in the first place.
Strong wind, current, and breaking waves can hinder your ability to roll on one side, but actually help you to roll on the opposite side. If you attempt to roll and feel like you hit a brick wall, relax, set up again on the opposite side, and roll. It turns out that in strong wind it is much easier to roll on the up-wind side, in surf on the wave side, and in current on the downstream side, all for the same reason: The relative motion of the kayak along the surface of the water. For example, wind will push the kayak along the surface, making water pile up on the downwind side and hindering your ability to right the kayak on that side. The upwind side is the ‘trailing edge’ and the kayak will roll easily on that side. The same is true in a breaking wave which will push you shorewards; the trailing edge is seaward on the wave side and the boat will roll up easily on that side, into the wave. In current the trailing edge is on the downstream side. Of course when upside down you may not know which side is the trailing edge, so just try rolling up and if you don’t make it, switch sides and try again.
For situations where your normal roll is not working (for whatever reason), it is good to have a backup using the extended paddle roll (aka Pawlata Roll). This is a variation on the sweep roll using the entire length of the paddle shaft for added leverage. Normally, you don’t want to depend on paddle leverage to roll, but we’re talking about a special circumstance. When setting up, slide the shaft outward and grab the paddle blade on one corner, with your other hand on the shaft. Then perform a sweep roll. The added leverage will make the roll much easier. This isn’t a first choice because you have to shift hand position on the paddle; use it as a backup when all else fails (you might want to learn this roll first, then progress to a roll keeping your hands in normal position). I’ve avoided some potentially dangerous swims using the extended paddle roll. As always, you have to practice it.
A well-honed combat roll will increase your confidence and allow you to explore a wider range of conditions at sea, with a much higher degree of safety. The key to developing the combat roll is to practice rolling in a variety of conditions. Practice switching sides by rolling part way up on one side, then capsize and roll up on the other. The goal is to make the roll a reflex action that you do automatically following a capsize.
The above is only an overview. Please feel free to comment, ask questions, and keep the discussion going.