My Roll Broke


As we towed the boat in, my friend (a very competent Class IV paddler) sat drenched and wide-eyed on shore. She thanked us, stated how “not okay” the swim was, and then said with defeated and shaky resignation, “My roll… it’s broken.”

Later that evening, I listened to her rationalize why she shouldn’t kayak anymore through a succinct outline of supporting evidence—from her perspective.

It went like this: Last fall, she had acknowledged insidious trouble with her roll. The next spring, she was consciously taking it slow, practiced rolling a lot, went to friendlier waves and stretches of river, everything one would think to do to cure a troubled roll. But despite all that, here she sat today after another “completely uncalled for” swim in “flat water” behind a wave, during the swell of spring’s high water. So the “rational” conclusion was to say goodbye to kayaking and call it. “Not being able to roll as an intermediate/advanced kayaker is just not okay,” She said. After all, there are lots of other things to do out there, and swimming frequently “royally sucks.”

Ultimately, there is no reason for the “my roll broke” phenomenon. To clarify its definition, it should be noted that this phenomenon happens after having a solid roll. You’ve had it—for a day, a year, a decade, three decades—and then, one day…it’s gone.

While it doesn’t happen to everyone, it happens more than you would think, and it feels completely demoralizing, frustrating, stifling, confusing, and really embarrassing.

Personally, I’ve experienced a couple of broken roll stages in my kayaking career, each lasting various lengths of time. The first happened when I was nineteen, just back from taking a semester off and spending it on the Futaleufú River in Chile.

I began to learn to kayak when I was twelve, growing up going a couple of times a year with family, and then finding my own groove with kayaking friends in college. During my freshman year, one of the guys I paddled with came back from a spring break trip to the Futaleufú River, and after seeing a short video of the insanely blue waters and non-stop waves, I decided right then and there I had to go.

The following year, I took off my sophomore spring semester to head down to the siren call of the Futa and paddled almost every day for over two months, more than I had ever kayaked in my life. At that time, I wasn’t confident enough or knowledgeable enough to go on my own, so I saved up from a summer job and signed up to be a “Season Passer” with Expediciones Chile, meaning I was able to stay in their riverside camp, eat fresh-made bread and local meals, and tag along with whatever clients they had for the season.

When I got back to Idaho, excited to explore and paddle the rest of the spring and ride the wave of being on the water almost every day… well, there’s no other way to put it: my roll broke. It was the most bizarre experience. With so many days on the water, I was paddling well, but I simply lost my roll. I went to pool sessions. I asked for help. And even then, no one could figure out the how or why. There were a few chimes here and there from seasoned instructors and mentors of what to focus on and then…“You’re just not rolling. Let it go. It’ll come back.”

Luckily it did. Yet years later, it broke again, but in different circumstances. I had been off the water for an extended period of time recovering from shoulder surgery and jaw surgery (independent of each other) over the course of two years. But I had been under the impression that rolling a kayak was like pedaling a bike, once you learned, you would always just do it… But with time off the water and out of a kayak, I needed training wheels again.

It took a full year of multiple embarrassing swims to recognize that I wasn’t where I was before my kayaking surgery hiatus, and that I needed to take some steps back because clearly, my body and my mind were in different places. Most importantly, I realized that that was okay, and that taking “steps back” and putting in some work, was not only necessary but eventually really fun because it offered the opportunity to re-build a whole progression of whitewater in less consequential environments. I checked my ego at the put-in and rather than focusing on what I used to do and growing frustrated, I finally started focusing on what I was doing right then.

Ultimately, my roll came back again! PHEW! And since that second time, I have been trying my best to mindfully keep it trained up, while full-well knowing, sometimes, we just lose it.

Recently, I looked more into the “my roll broke” phenomenon, asking kayakers about their experiences. Turns out, the ‘problem’ resonated with a lot of paddlers of various ages, genders and skill levels. Of course, there were also a few paddlers fortunate enough to have never experienced it. Who knows why? Maybe it’s similar to broken bones. Some people seem to trip over a shoelace and break everything on the way down, while others seem to take huge diggers and just hop back up and charge on without a scratch.

After my not-really-extensive-but-definitely-curious research, here are the most common causes of a Broken Roll and some remedies for fixing it:

Beginner’s Humility Check
This is when a beginner gets their roll and then after a couple of perfect rolls, or a couple of days of rolling, can’t get it anymore. Common causes of this “roll break” are fatigue, cold, the return to original beginner’s mistakes, and water build-up in the boat usually due to sub-par gear or gear that doesn’t fit well. Often the best cure is to take a break, empty the boat, and get warm if needed, re-set some of the basics, and then try again… maybe the next day. The important thing is to stop when things seem to really be going off course. If you start doing it wrong over and over again without many textbook rolls under your belt, it’s simply training bad habits—take a break!

WTF Just Happened?!
This is what I experienced after coming back from the Futa. This is the, “I have been rolling for years and paddling a lot and was feeling really good and now I can’t roll” roll break. The one that happens when you feel like you’re enjoying the ride downstream and then all of a sudden you’re self-deemed only fit for lake paddles if there’s any chance of flipping. W.T.F. As vague as it sounds, the best fixes for this one are continued practice and, most importantly, being patient with yourself. You can do this, it will come back. It may mean taking some steps back and a big slice of humble pie, but the asset of that is feeling really good when that roll is back and you get to start working your way to playing as you did before. Go to pool sessions, roll in current, playboat at safe and easy spots. Train up and challenge your skills in easy and safe environments… attaining, ferries, etc. In the end, getting back to the basics helps make you a better paddler no matter where you are in your paddling career.

Brrrr, It’s Cold Out There…
Winter paddling in places with cold water and even colder air temps puts a whole new dimension on paddling. The times when ice forms on your gear after the first splashes are a pretty good sign that if you flip, your body and mind will be slow to react. When our bodies are in more extreme and stressed conditions than we’re subject to compromised performance compared to paddling in warmer waters. A couple of paddlers I talked to recounted suddenly having swims come January in the iced-in gorges of Washington, Oregon, and North Carolina… “It’s just sooooo cold.” The best remedy for this break is preparation: Dress warm and be aware of the cold factor.

Photo: Nolan Sawatzky

You’re TOO Good
This is actually quite a common one. This is what happens when you progress to the point where you aren’t flipping very much, whether that involves reaching your limits on high consequence runs or mastering your local gems at any level. The point with this one is that you’re not flipping often, so you’re not rolling often either. “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” holds very true in this case. Figure out how to incorporate rolling frequently, no matter how, whether it’s knocking some out in an eddy every time on the water, pushing yourself to try new moves, or mandating some playboating time.

The Dry Spell
Whether it’s returning from injury, having a kid, an intense stint with work or school, or any other non-paddling time, sometimes our bodies may not be as fast as our minds to jump right back in where we left off. Some people are really good at diving in off the couch, and others (including me) are not. Working back up to things and including lots of rolls as part of that can be really fun and rewarding. Also, consider incorporating roll sessions into your weekly non-paddling routine. You may not have time to commit to paddling, but I’m sure you can carve out an hour a week to get in your boat—in a pool, a lake, or an eddy—and just doing some rolls and strokes. Sometimes it seems questionably worth it when considering this, but whenever I do it, I realize how good and feel-good it is to be on the water no matter what.

I Keep Getting Older, And They Stay The Same Age
Inevitably, we’re all getting older. Word on the street is that when you get old, your roll can start to suck, but this may be attributable to any of the previous “causes.” We can also relate this to the fact that our muscles and joints feel stiffer within our well-seasoned bodies. Stretching is key to maintaining the mobility required to reach an optimal body position to roll, and again, so is taking the time to practice, which you may not have had to do… for decades. So much respect to all of those with life-long kayaking careers that are much to be aspired to, and no shame for any of us in going back to the basics.

 If you find yourself with a “broken roll,” in a compromised position not rolling, learning to roll, or teaching how to roll, cheers to going back to those basics! For those who need a basics refresher (ahem, I’m talking to all of us), here you go:

Re-Set the Basics:

1. It starts with a good set up. Get those hands to the surface of the water, parallel with the boat. Make sure to curve your body around the side of the boat and do not sit straight up—this is crucial. It makes getting into the set up a lot easier and sets you up for a killer hip snap.

2. Don’t forget the hip snaps. Sometimes, the foundational hip snap gets lost in the midst of thinking about so many things at once.

3. The sweep. The beginner’s mistake is sweeping under the boat rather than out. Having someone help guide your paddle away from the boat a couple of times can address that beginner’s tendency.

4. Keep that head down! This is the most common and over-used cue and can also be connected to other basic faux-pas—if you’re not hip snapping your head will come up. But it does, nonetheless, hold true. If you bring your head up, you are a lot more likely to go back in the water. Think of your body as a slinky as you sweep and hip snap, first hips, then ribs, then head looking back into the paddle blade in the water.

5. Hand to chin. If you’re practicing rolling with a right sweep, train that left hand to roll the wrist back and toward your chin, with elbow tucked close to body (opposite for opposite side). If you keep pushing that left hand up or across your body you’ll go straight back in the water.

And by the way, I saw my friend this spring. On the water. Playboating and rolling up a storm. Her roll had officially healed.

Writer’s note: Big thanks to my photographers and models – Kristin Alligood, Fergus Coffey, and Jair!