Rocky Mountain News


Roll with it

Learning to right kayak a tough skill to master, but payoff is priceless

Published May 1, 2004 at midnight

Bam, bam, bam.

Mad Max is pounding on the kayak again. Even underwater, the sound resonates like a drum. My cue to execute an Eskimo roll.

I've been hanging out upside down in the Misahualli River, supposedly getting calm, searching deeply for my inner roll, trying to find that place Max describes as, "more intuitive then mechanical."

Put simply, rolling a kayak is a movement of the paddle blade and a snap of the hip that turns an upside-down boat upright.

Because it isn't a matter of whether you flip a kayak so much as when, rolling is an essential skill. Ecuador is not where you want to discover that you've left your roll at home.

What began as a confidence-building exercise at the head of a rapid, doing a few rolls to warm up, has produced exactly the opposite effect. After my third failed attempt, I grab the bow of Max's boat with my hands and come gasping up for breath, totally shattered.

Bobbing together in a turbulent eddy, holding onto each other's boat to remain steady, Max gives me The Talk.

If Max wore an eye patch, he would look exactly like a balding pirate. He has been teaching kayaking for 17 years and is absolutely fearless in white water.

Though he won't admit it, I know I am his most challenging student.

I have heard variations of The Talk many times. I heard it after a brutal mauling on the North Fork and after getting worked in Hollywood Hole. I've heard it at the head of Cemetery and Tombstone and on the lip of Skull. I heard it yesterday after a nasty swim on the Anzu.

"Deano," Max says, "you're not focusing on the task at hand. You're too busy worrying about what's down below."

Of course. What's down below is pretty worrisome. I have definitely decided that I do not want to die in South America. I also have decided that if I live through the day, I will quit this foolish sport.

"The roll is about fighting your fears," Max says, oblivious to my leaning over the side of the boat while I throw up. "If you have a successful roll, you've overcome your fears. If you don't succeed, then there's something going on in your mind.

"It's a Zen kind of thing. People who achieve a successful roll have no mental static. No mental fear. They eliminate everything. You must have nothing in your mind. If you have frustration in your mind, that affects other parts of the body."

Frustration. Fear. Mental static. No roll. Check on all of that.

I tell Max that I think I'm too old for this sport. Too fat. Too inflexible.

Perhaps too stupid.

I confess to him that I am, in fact, scared of the water. I don't want to be a brave Kayakero anymore.

"Hmmm," he replies, wrinkling his brow, "those can all be factors in not hitting your roll."

Then he smiles brightly and asks Tarquino, our guide, what his take on the subject is.

"First you must be calm," Tarquino says, in slow, syrupy Ecuadorian-inflected English. "You must have a little less of this," he adds, tapping a finger against his helmet, "and a little more of this." Using his hips he violently rocks his boat.

Just how hard can this business of rolling be? In the swimming pool I've watched beginners execute flawless rolls after an hour's instruction. My 14-year-old son does hand rolls without a paddle. I, on the other hand, have devoted countless hours to pool sessions, lessons, instructional videos and books.

I've spent thousands of dollars on new boats, paddles, workshops and clinics. I am haunted by rolling Eskimos. I curse the first one. I am embarrassed to tell people how long this has been going on.

"The kayak roll is often the focal point of most people's connection with kayaking," says Don Dowling, manager of Confluence Kayak in Denver. "If you can roll a kayak, then you are a true kayaker. It is an individual's association with skill versus equipment."

There is an alternative to the roll: The wet exit.

You swim.

"It's better to die in your boat than swim," two-time world champion freestyle kayaker Eric Jackson says. "You're safer in your boat than out of your boat in every situation except a pinning situation."

"I guess that statement could be easily misconstrued," Jackson says. "The point is, you've got to make up your mind to roll, no matter what, before you ever enter a rapid. With your kayak, you've got a 47-gallon life jacket. Does it make any sense at all to pull off the spray skirt and fill the boat full of water?"

Of course it doesn't make sense. But some of us (and I suspect there are others like me) have run out of options.

By Jackson's standards I should have died in my boat a hundred times. Let others wax eloquent about their finest runs. Me, I'll savor my most desperate swims.

"Why in the world do you torment yourself?" my wife, Alisa, asks me.

"Because it's fun," I reply.

Not the torment part of course. You don't have to be any good at kayaking to be madly in love with it. Sitting down low in the water, a kayak provides one of the most intimate experiences a boater can have with moving water. A kayak's thin plastic skin responds to every river tremor. Every eddy line, every rock, every ripple is felt. Every nuance of current does something to the boat.

The trouble is, some of those nuances can flip you like a pancake.

Which brings us back to the roll. Though I didn't swim on the Misahualli that day, I did swim on the Jatunyacu the next. Four months later, I'm still packing a bruise on my hip from the adventure.

But hope springs eternal with the melt. A fine April day brings me to Meyers Pool in Arvada and a lesson with American Canoe Association instructor Derrell Manceaux. Soft spoken and lean in that willowy boater way, Manceaux has been teaching the roll for eight or nine years.

We do hip snaps off the side of the pool, off the steps, off wake boards, off Manceaux's hands. Then we use the paddle, first while I'm cradled in Manceaux's arms, just doing the movements, then with foam boards sandwiched on both sides of the blade so it floats high. Then Manceaux takes the foam away.

Presented with a naked paddle, I flail. I use too much muscle. Not enough hip. My head comes to the surface first. The head has to stay down. My wrists aren't cocked enough and the paddle dives. My paddle goes too far behind me before I initiate the snap.

All this over and over and over.

After an hour, I'm spent.

"The roll looks simple," Manceaux says. "But it is a complex series of movements that have to be synchronized. The best rolls are effortless."

Manceaux paddled for three years before hitting his river roll, and has only missed his roll once since then. In the Grand Canyon.

"Paddling skills progress faster then rolling skills," Manceaux says. "That means you swim in more dangerous water. A Class III swim is just a good workout. A Class IV swim is not fun, you can get hurt. In a Class V swim you can die.

"You have to be patient. This is not a sport for tense people. You have a roll. You just have to relax enough to let it out. You don't have to get it. You just have to have fun."

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