I Wanna Roll Like A Girl

Back in the day, I had a bombproof kayak roll. But gradually, I fell out of the habit of practising it. When I first abandoned whitewater and surf paddling in favour of exclusively ocean kayaking I kept it up. But over the years, I persuaded myself it wasn’t really essential for sea kayaking and probably wouldn’t work anyway with my sail on the boat. Besides, my brace worked fine (except when it didn’t.) Somewhere along the line, I convinced myself that age made it unlikely I could recapture my roll.

A kayaker surfs a breaking wave

Displacement Hull Boat? Check. Wood Paddle? Check. Chunky PFD? Check. This must be me, surfin’ the 90s.

But this year, one of my personal and professional goals is to regain my roll. And to do it like a girl.

Trigger warning: sweeping gender generalizations ahead!

When I’d been a regular roller and watched (and sometimes helped) other paddlers learning the technique,  I’d been struck by the different ways men and women approached the roll.

Guys tended to want the basics explained, to see a demo or two, then to have at it, using their greater upper body strength to lever the boat back up.

Women wanted to watch a roll over and over, and then to break it right down, quizzing me about why I did this or that (including a lot of things I hadn’t even been aware I’d been doing.) They sometimes took longer to make their first successful roll, but when it came, it was built on a solid foundation of balance and timing, not brute strength.

Naturally, there are exceptions to this stereotype in both directions: There are female paddlers who can crank more torque than a tugboat. And males whose relaxed finesse transforms rolling into aquatic ballet, with the kayak as dance partner.

A paddler in an inverted kayak sets up a roll

The fast-and-hard approach to rolling I saw so much of in those days was probably because we were mostly paddling rivers. There’s a lot to be said for not loitering upside down in whitewater: swift currents can suck you into an unforgiving feature, or woodpecker your head along riverbed cobbles.

But with the exception of unrelentingly technical rivers, in whitewater you can generally eddy out after a roll or two to catch your breath. Not so in sea kayaking. If you’re ambushed by shifting weather or changing tides, the only refuge may lie on the far side of endless acres of curling swells – seas that require you to roll. And roll again. And again. Which is why I aspire to roll like a girl: rolls based on brute force quickly exhaust you; rolls based on balance and skill can be sustained almost indefinitely.

So how’d my first attempt at relearning go? I scored near misses on my first two tries, then had to wet exit. After that, I pulled off three successful rolls in a row. Not bad for a skill I hadn’t exercised in years. And great to know the basic muscle memory endures. Unfortunately, the water was too murky to see my underwater set-up on this video (I’d been filming so I could analyze my technique.) But I’ll be out there again soon, solo or with knowledgeable friends to learn from. Appropriately, I’ll be wearing a tight black skirt.

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4 thoughts on “I Wanna Roll Like A Girl

  1. hey, what do you make of that guy from Victoria who posts all of his paddling tips on Facebook? I don’t know anything about rolling, but he seems to make you think that ‘you’ve been doing it all wrong…” also, must be hard to roll a sea kayak loaded down with a week’s worth of food and gear, I would guess.

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    • I haven’t seen the facebook page you’re referring to. But, if you’ve packed a kayak for touring correctly – heavier stuff down by the keel, lighter stuff higher in the boat – it’s not only more stable and less likely to capsize than an empty kayak, it’s easier to roll if it does go over. It takes a little more push to get the roll started, but once it hits the tipping point, the boat is almost self-righting.

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  2. Great post! Love your explanation of women’s vs men’s techniques to rolling. I would love to know the things ladies watching you noticed you doing! Frustratingly so, I used to roll 50 times in a row in the pool, but when it 40 degree whitewater wet exit so fast. Now I’m a sea kayak guide in Hawaii and haven’t had a chance to use my whitewater skills lately!

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