Saturday, November 27, 2010

Roll that kayak, and some video too

Earlier this month, at an introductory kayak rolling class, the instructor announced, “You’re going to find yourself dreaming about this tonight. Everyone does.” And until that moment, it never occurred to me that a pro kayak teacher might work on the side as a CIA counter-terrorism interrogator. I didn’t have intel to give up. Heck, I couldn’t even clearly explain why I had paid to spend a couple of hours blowing bubbles upside down in a chilly, saltwater pool.

But my paddling pals offered a convincing rationale. Sooner or later, every kayaker needs to know how to self-rescue quickly and efficiently. Rolling a kayak can save a lot of time and energy as opposed to the effort of a wet exit and re-entry. So there we were, doing our drills in an above-ground pool, bobbing around in whitewater kayaks like rubber duckies in an oversized bathtub. (Easier to start off in little boats, we learned.)

Let’s skip the embarrassing details – there’s really no polite way to describe flailing around like a wounded goose while honking water out of your nose. At the same time, no one was ever in danger, as the instructor stayed right by our side. A couple of us actually were rolling pretty darn well by the end of class. Me, not so much. But we all agreed that we understood the concept, and we vowed we’ll work together on roll technique until we get it down.

While there's really no substitute for an in-the-water class and a qualified instructor, it's helpful to watch rolling done right when you're relaxed and dry. Luckily, NorCal Yak friend and kayaking pro Bryant Burkhardt recently posted some pool video on his blog, Paddle California, one of my fave sites. (After clicking to start video, double left-click to expand screen.)

Of course, Bryant makes it look easy, given his experience and ability. For us newbies, the problem is that the moves, while relatively simple, are so counter-intuitive. Your head is always the last thing to emerge from under water. Your actions are calculated to right the boat, not your body. And it’s important to relax the muscles in your torso, even as every fiber of your being screams "tense up!"

So I think that’s where the dreams come in – our instructor wasn’t kidding. Maybe it’s just how the brain deals with actions that seem to defy survival. Personally, I didn’t find it so bad to lie awake at 5 a.m., trying to rotate my arms and shoulders in a side-sweeping motion. One of my classmates has since pulled her yak into her living room to practice rolls and exits while watching TV before bedtime.

While us recreational paddlers may dream but never roll under truly rockin' conditions, it’s inspiring to see how elite paddlers do it. This incredible video, featuring pro Warren Williamson, was shot this month to promote a new yak from Washington State builder Sterling Kayaks. But don’t watch this one right before you go to sleep….