Rollin’ Rollin’ Rollin’

Students at Riverbank learn the key to Rolling. 

Students at Riverbank learn the key to Rolling. 

I wanted to learn how to roll a kayak for two reasons: the stated, practical reason and the generally unspoken, yet universally understood, reason. I wanted to have the ability to right myself should I capsize, in the fastest way possible. Also, rolling a kayak looks badass. I heard from other Turtles about the volunteer program at Riverbank State Park. In exchange for teaching members of the public the basics of kayaking, I would get access to instructors far more experienced than myself.

After months without paddling, the December day arrived, and I immediately faced several things I never had faced before: paddling indoors, without wind or waves or tree roots, and in whitewater kayaks that were a fraction of the size of anything I’d paddled before. I didn’t know it yet, but these things don’t “track” at all because they are built for narrow, tumultuous rivers that require hair trigger course changes.

Every other time I’ve got into a boat, I’ve put it in the water first and then sat down. But for these kayaks you had to sit in the kayak at the edge of the pool and then plunge the kayak into the water bow first. It looked easy enough.

I got a boat after almost everyone else, I set the boat up on the side of the pool as I saw others do, sat down, and dropped in. I pointed the boat for Lee Riser, the instructor. He had the other volunteers gathered around for briefing before the students showed up. I reflexively stuck the paddle sharply downward into the water to stop my forward momentum, which, instead, spun me around like a top in my stumpy kayak, still heading at Lee. A couple of shakier backstrokes and I managed to avoid both crashing into him and capsizing in my confusion. But I became accustomed to the new water, boat, and entry soon enough.

The volunteer teaching started off lightly. We typically had three to five instructors per student. I did get to teach kayaking basics, namely how to go forward, go backward, turn, stop, wet-exit, and then (later on) I got to teach other instructors how to do a T rescue, heel-hook rescue, Eskimo-bow rescue, and Eskimo-paddle rescue.

Throughout, I reiterated my goal of learning to roll. I had a couple of instructors attempt walking me through the mechanics, but I kept failing at it with remarkable persistence. “Hold your paddle like this, then once you’ve gone over, push up here and lean right and back … No! Your other ‘right’! … No! Your other ‘up’!”

In an effort to pair English instructions with physics, I got a pair of goggles so I could see what actually happens, and especially in relation to this “up” I’ve heard so much about and as gravity supposedly defines such a thing.

Due to holidays and such, I’d end up waiting about a month before I could give anything a shot. By mid-January, I finally got back in the pool! I had goggles, I had watched loads more YouTube videos, and I had the determination to patiently sit upside-down to watch exactly how I manage to screw this up every time.

I asked fellow Turtle Katherine Winkleman to spot me so I could give it a shot or three before thumping my boat for a bow rescue. I leaned in, flopped over, looked out under the surface of the water, turned my paddle to match my gaze, turned my hips, unfurled, and found myself entirely upright, hearing Katherine call me an ass for making it look so easy.

From there, I practiced more with goggles on in order to graduate from repeatedly accidentally succeeding to feeling like I had a good enough idea of what and where and when and how to move. So I took the goggles off and then practiced until I felt like I had a good enough idea of how to set up for the roll. Then, I stopped setting up above water and practiced simply flopping upside down in a vaguely similar manner and position as I imagined I would if I capsized all unplanned and ungraceful-like.

At the very last class, the students no longer attended, meaning fewer folks in the pool, so Lee brought in sea kayaks so we could practice things (nearly) for real, and I did just that. Much to my relief, rolling felt just as natural in a sea kayak as it did in a little whitewater boat.

Next up: practicing on the Hudson River, with wind and waves and weather and whatnot.