Editor’s Note: Much gratitude to my teachers Ashlee and Jon from Sundance Kayak School in Galice, OR; TR’s Jeff and Cate from Liquid Fusion in Ft. Bragg, CA; Jackie from Ashland, OR for the feedback; son Nick and brother-in-law John for taking videos; and niece Kasey, sister-in-law Patty, bro-in-law John, and TR Admiral Kakuk for the photos. Thanks also to Adm. Kuk for the boat and to Jeff and Cate for the paddles. I appreciate you all so much!
Last November after the Baja expedition when I dropped Jim off at his Guerneville home he loaned me a whitewater kayak. A gentle nudge meaning get your ass out there and roll! So in mid-March the Perception Pirouette accompanied me south to Ft. Bragg for some lessons from fellow Ranger Jeff Laxier. Three consecutive days in a pool would give me enough impetus to continue to practice on my own.
Jeff is a fantastic teacher. One of the most valuable things he taught me was the extended paddle roll. If I have trouble rolling the extended paddle is a useful backup. Although the sessions went well I only rolled unaided twice, once with a regular paddle grip and once with the extended grip. But I took home two crucial drills: the hip snap and the sweep to finish.
The hip snap was familiar from when I took Cali Collective‘s Holistic Paddling Clinics but the sweep to finish drill was new. Hip snaps cover lower body action but the sweep to finish drill covers the upper body and putting the pieces together helped me get going. The sweep to finish goes like this: starting in the finish position, paddle out of the water, torso rotated, eyes on blade, the paddler leans forward and sweeps the blade across the water from stern to bow and then from bow back to finish. When the blade reaches the finish, Jeff told me to pause and check that the left hand was at the left shoulder, elbow pointing to the bow. This drill helped build muscle memory so that when I rolled I could make a smooth arc with my body. It also helped me understand that the body not the arms move the paddle. I could feel how it worked.
Back home, the virus thing had blown up, but shelter in place mode didn’t stop me from practicing. Despite rain, hail, and 50-degree water, I drove to Emigrant Lake, about 20 minutes from my house, and put in at Songer Wayside where a small “boat ramp” formed by a submerged road runs into the lake. Wearing a 4/5 ml wetsuit, I practiced almost every day. No one was around so I wasn’t worried about catching covid, but I was worried about drowning.
Since I’ve always paddled custom designed Tsunami washdeck kayaks I never learned to roll, and since I’m a bit claustrophobic until recently skirted boats gave me the heebie-jeebies. However, a nudge is a nudge and I wanted to up my whitewater skills. I needed better skills in order to join Jim and some friends on their Eel River trips. Covid-19 turned out to be an opportunity to learn.
Day after day I practiced, becoming comfortable getting the boat down to the water and the spray skirt on, which in itself was a process. Then I’d do hip snaps, sweep to finish drills, forward stroke and bracing drills. Finally I’d find a big rock on the bottom of the lake, fix my eyes on it and paddle in tight circles around it in both directions in a version of the “creepy eyes” drill I learned at the clinics. But I never rolled. After about three weeks the drills got a little boring but I was still chicken to flip over. Fantasies of drowning and hanging upside down in the kayak till someone found my body days later were daunting.
To change things up I modified the drills. Doing hip snaps I’d let go of the supporting rock and complete the snap with my upper body in the finish position. I’d do five snaps on each side with eyes open and then five more on each side with eyes closed, ending with five extra on the good side to build muscle memory. With the sweep to finish drills I did five repeats with eyes on blade and then five more eyes closed. To address drowning phobia I’d do a wet exit at the end of every session. First, for five days I used the pull tab. The next five days I used my fingers to pull the skirt off one side of the coaming. After that for five days I released the skirt on the other side. Two more weeks went by.
The weather improved. People showed up to the wayside. Technically the area was closed but there was no enforcement. Then one day the weather turned hot. Suddenly there were LOTS of people at the lake. Next thing bollards went up and the lake shut down. Not wanting to give up before I even tried to roll, I kept going back. Someone moved the bollards aside so you could drive into the parking lot but that wasn’t going to last. After over two weeks of wet exits I felt okay going upside down so one day I flipped over and gave it a shot. I tried to roll once, failed, bailed, and swam to shore.
Driving home I figured out what had happened. For one thing, I hadn’t used the extended paddle roll which was supposed to be Plan B. Instead I panicked. I had to try again, but then someone I know got a $600.00 ticket for being at the lake. Also, word came down from my teacher in India that obeying the authorities is a must. It wasn’t very Tsunami-like but for three weeks I stayed home, visualizing.
Then I remembered Applegate Lake, a remote reservoir about an hour’s drive from the house. I knew there wouldn’t be many people there, so one day I drove to Copper Boat Ramp and put in. It was quiet and there were no bollards and no people in sight, just a few trucks with their boat trailers parked out of the way. I performed my drills then took the plunge. When I rolled up the first time I could hardly believe it. I rolled two more times, nailing it. Totally stoked, I decided to quit while ahead. When I got home I emailed Jeff. He said to start marking the calendar every time I rolled until I had done 100 rolls. Then, he said, I would have a competent roll.
I started going to Applegate three times a week. The very next session: seven successful rolls, once with the extended paddle when the first two attempts didn’t cut it. After that I started rolling at least ten times a session. Then I’d go for a hike. It was an awesome routine. The rolls got better and I rarely had to use the extended grip. Over time I explored pretty much all the trails in the Applegate, hiking anywhere from 1 ½ to 5 hours. The weather was great, cool and sunny, with sometimes a bit of rain. Wildflowers were popping up everywhere. I felt super healthy and fit. It was heaven.
Toward the end of May I hit 100 rolls and emailed Jeff to let him know. He said to get into some current so I signed up for the Womxn’s Holistic Paddling Clinic hosted by Cali Collective and Sundance Kayak School on the Rogue River in mid-June. In July’s post I talk about the clinic so I’ll skip that other than to say that I can now roll in mild current but boiling eddy fences are troublesome. The clinic was great. I paddled the Pirouette in Class I, II, and III whitewater and successfully performed my first combat roll. Equally important were the drills that instructor Ashlee Rice gave me to take home: flip on the off side, then roll up; flip over and hold my breath for 5, 10, or 15 seconds before rolling; flip over flailing and then work the paddle up to the surface; flip over and let go of the paddle, grab it again then roll; and roll repeatedly multiple times without stopping. Jeff continued to coach me via email. He recommended flipping over in shallow water so that I’d hit my head if I didn’t roll promptly. (Haven’t tried that one yet.) He also advised doing a sprint/flip/roll progression.
Probably the most important thing was the paced learning progression, taking baby steps, getting familiar with the kayak, and building muscle memory by repeating those hip snaps and sweep to finish drills over and over. I’m still surprised that I rolled up on the first try after three weeks of not being on the water but the down time probably allowed everything to sink in. Wet exit practice convinced me I could self-rescue and not die. Finally I could release fear and focus on skills.
In July I did at least ten rolls a week. One of the women I had met at the clinic joined me for a roll session at Emigrant Lake, which is now open. It was helpful to have an observer. I was rolling but it felt slow. Jackie pointed out that my paddle blade wasn’t flush with the water’s surface. Having someone critique me was huge. Later I went down to California to visit my son and we went to Lake Natoma so he could take a video. That was helpful too. I still wasn’t getting the paddle blade quite right in the set up but I did five sprint/flip/rolls successfully on the first try.
Slowly I added more skills. Each new skill required overcoming a new challenge. For example, the first time I tried the sprint/flip/roll the boat was bouncing around and I ended up using the extended grip. Then I tried flipping and counting under water before rolling. The first time it worked, but the second time it took two tries to get up. After that I tried the sprint/flip/roll again. I forgot all about the extended grip and ended up doing a wet exit for the first time in over 200 rolls. Back to square one, as my martial arts instructor Sifu Le used to say.
Repetition bred success, but then I had a rough session. It was the beginning of August. The first roll took two tries and by now this was unusual. A couple of rolls later I needed the extended grip to get up. Two of the counting drills took two tries as well. It was a weird day; I felt off. Looking back, I’d probably hit a low point in the learning curve. As my jujitsu instructor Professor Musselman explained, a learning curve is like a sine wave travelling gently uphill. The student goes up, then down, then up a little higher, then down again but not quite so low as before. As learning continues, the highs are always a little higher and the lows are always a little less low. I took time off and went camping.
Back on the lake ten days later I rolled up on the first try six times in a row. Maybe I’d just needed a break. I changed things up again, emphasizing sweeping my body instead of sweeping the blade to be sure I was stretching myself out and getting a nice big arc to the back deck. And I flipped over on the port side which I hadn’t done since I moved the foot pegs up on the Pirouette at the Rogue clinic. Making that adjustment improved my body’s engagement with the boat, but it had the unexpected effect of preventing me from going completely upside down when I flip on the port side. When I flip on the starboard side, that doesn’t happen. So I flipped to the left really hard. And there I hung, under water parallel to the surface. Dang it! I used the paddle to pull myself over to the other side of the boat, then positioned the blade, flexed to the surface, set up and rolled. Finding I had the ability to automatically make those underwater moves built confidence.
Next session I did seven rolls and only once took two tries to get up. Since it was now too hot to hike I went for a long swim after practice. This program continued during the hot weather. Strong swimming ability will serve well if I wet exit in rapids or gnarly ocean conditions. We’re all just one flip away from a swim.
It was nearly the end of August when I tried to roll the X-15. Conditions were rough – it was windier than I’d ever seen it out at the lake and there were actual waves. I tried to roll and failed three times. I was able to come up high enough to take a breath but even the extended grip wasn’t enough to roll the longer, heavier X-15. Without an observer it was hard to tell what was wrong but based on past experience I’m guessing that adding another level of difficulty resurrected all the old errors. I need more commitment, and I’m probably not keeping my chin down and stretching out enough, getting that big arc that completes the finish. Three attempts tired me, so the X-15 went back on the rack and I tried the Pirouette. The first roll was successful, but the next one took three tries and an extended grip. Determined to finish on a high note, I rolled one more time. Nailed it!
As of September 5 I’ve rolled almost 300 times with only one wet exit. I may have a competent roll but it’s still a process. I went out to Emigrant so my brother-in-law John Soares could take a video to send to Jeff and Jim for feedback. It was ten days since the last session so I did a practice session the day before. The first roll was fine. The second two were slow, so I reminded myself to get that big arc in the body. The last two were among the best I’d done. The next day everything went great. After looking at the video Jeff advised me to rotate my torso more to the right, loosen my left hand, and blow bubbles but he said overall it’s a great roll and looks effortless. Jim added that when rolling the X-15 there’s a trick where you use your right foot to facilitate the hip snap. The plan now is to work on Jeff’s tips in the Pirouette and then roll that X-15! My fall and winter covid project.
Once again, devout gratitude to all the teachers who helped me on my covid rolling journey, most of all to my Tsunami brother and sister Vice Admiral Jim Kakuk and Captain Deb Volturno who pushed me and to Deb especially for suggesting I write this post. A big thank you too to Jim who loaned me the Pirouette on trial. Ima buy that boat!
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