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Transition from whitewater to sea kayak roll

Posted by on December 6, 2012

What factors make the transition from rolling a whitewater kayak to rolling a sea kayak so challenging? The staff chimes in:

Captain Hank’s Take:

My club has roll coaching and practice year round, employing indoor and outdoor pools. I’ve noticed that whitewater paddlers often have trouble making the transition to a sea kayak and even beginners seem to do better with the short boats. The larger size of the sea kayak was usually blamed…

That never seemed likely to me. A sea kayak is narrower and usually has more arch to the deck. In theory (my theory), it should roll easier. Observing the attempts, I came to the conclusion that it’s the longer paddle, not the longer boat, that makes the difference. The whitewater paddlers were initiating their hip snaps too early, perhaps used to the timing with their shorter paddles. I’ve had some success by starting them in a sea kayak with a whitewater paddle, explaining the difference and then making the switch. Food for thought.

Kayak Dave’s Take:

I agree with Captain Hank’s theory and observations here. It certainly seems like a sea kayak should be easier to roll considering that they’re narrower, more cylindrical in shape and lack the hard rails of whitewater boats. However, this is definitely a case where physical intuition does not match real world observation. My many years of teaching roll clinics and my recent work with the MIT Outing Club during their winter pool sessions has shown exactly what Captain Hank has observed; beginners are more successful at learning the roll in the shorter, white water boats.

There’s a lot of reasons why folks struggle to learn the roll and these reasons can be broken up into three main categories: underdeveloped mechanics, poor boat fit, and being uncomfortable under water. The shorter paddles used with the whitewater boats certainly help to tighten up the mechanics by making the set-up and brace positions easier to achieve. However, I posit that positive boat fit plays a major role here too.

Whitewater boats are designed to be worn; they have tight, well-outfitted cockpits with thigh braces and even hip pads to really lock you into the kayak. In contrast, most sea kayak cockpits, even those that are well-outfitted and padded out, provide a looser position that allows you to float a bit more. The tighter fit of the smaller whitewater boats translates the energy of the hip snap more efficiently into the roll thus allowing beginners to be quite successful at learning to roll in the pool. If you’re sliding around in your cockpit you’ll end up missing the roll more often than not especially if your mechanics are still in the development stage.

3 Responses to Transition from whitewater to sea kayak roll

  1. Eric Slough

    I agree with the two points of view here but I think there is a third factor. From what I’ve seen there is also a mental factor in seeing ww paddlers try to roll in a sea kayak. They’re thinking that’s a really big boat and then mechanics fall apart from there. In their minds they see bigger, longer, heavier and then they try harder and their form falls apart. Once experienced ww paddler try a few times they realize there really isn’t much difference.

    For me the biggest transition for ww paddling to open water paddling is the technique. When we’ve taken primarily ww paddlers out in open water, they have a harder time adapting to holding an edge, dealing with wind and waves and keeping up. They get pushed all over the place and fight nature. They are physically strong, but their paddle form uses more arm than torso rotation. Open water paddlers develop their form over long miles, while ww paddlers can use less than perfect form, read water and either ferry or muscle their way to the next eddy. They are used to short sprint-like moves, instead of having to hold an edge in a quartering wind for a half mile or more. Even the strongest ww paddlers in our group are at the back of the pack when we coax them out on open water.

    • arrudad

      These are great insights, Eric! Most of my experience prior to graduate school was with sea kayaking but when I first arrived at MIT I found myself involved in the winter pool clinics with the whitewater folks. My first ever whitewater trip the following Spring found me on a class 2+ river with a few class 3 rapids. I’ll always remember how exciting (and terrifying) my “introduction” to whitewater paddling was! I’d never missed so many rolls in all my days and this had everything to do with being completely uncomfortable on the river. Lots of pressure to hit the roll when you “have to”! The tables turned themselves around the first time I took some whitewater friends out on the ocean. We had planned to paddle the 2+ miles across the mouth of a local bay to check out a lighthouse. Conditions were no big deal: quartering wind at 10-15mph and ~2-3ft of fairly predictable waves. However, my whitewater buddies were very concerned about the wind strength and direction and we decided not to do the crossing. It blew my mind that the same guys didn’t seem to blink when throwing themselves off of class 4 drops on the river were afraid of a little wind… Anyway, you’re 100% correct that the technique for whitewater and sea kayaking are very different and that each world takes it’s own getting used to! -Kayak Dave

      • Eric Slough

        My first love is sea kayaking and I am more than efficient on whitewater. I think being proficient at both makes you an overall stronger paddler, both in technique and conditioning. I don’t mind being upside down or in the “mix” when out in conditions. Really using my edges and putting a boat over on it’s side comes from my time with whitewater. Making strong and efficient moves/strokes between eddies comes from my sea kayaking background. From those I’ve seen going from ww to sea kayaking their form is all arms and not having current to work with puts them at a disadvantage on long open water crossings or even coastal paddles. It takes time to coordinate the boat, wind and waves together. I like to use the analogy that we’re wearing 18 ft. rudders and it’s up to the paddler to use the boat to his/her advantage. I once had to tow an exhausted ww paddler five miles home from a long weekend of paddling. Watching from behind she was amazed at my torso rotation and how I never broke form even under tow. This was a great compliment from someone who regularly paddles class 4-5 water and someone who I’d follow down any river.

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