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Improving Combat Rolls

Published on 12/6/2014

By Kanako Iwata-Eng

I am not a certified kayak instructor. As a graduate of the WKC Beginner Class in 2012, I don’t have a lot of experience, either. My paddle strokes, boat control, and river reading skills need improvement, and I flip a lot. But I have one skill that often wows my fellow boaters – my combat rolls.

For example, I recently ran Pilchuck Creek for the first time. Despite the good line led by the leader, I messed up in a Class 4 rapid. I dropped into the biggest hole, flipped, and went from one hole to another, but I rolled four or five times (lost count) in 100 yards or so, stayed in the boat, and finally eddied out. Since so many people have asked, I will share my secret to improving my rolls.

Practice Pays Off

The technique comes first. If you cannot roll in the pool, you cannot roll in the river. Your head going up is probably the most common problem to a successful roll, and I had to overcome that, too. One of my roll instructors made me bite the shoulder of my shirt, and it worked for me. I go to almost all Wednesday Shoreline Pool sessions, though I stay for only 45 minutes. I have never counted, but I probably roll at least 50 times each session. The roll practice pays off.


Preparation Pays Off

When practice, I practice rolling with various paddle positions, but in the combat situation, I always find it more successful when I prepare the roll with a perfect setup. To me, the perfect setup means sticking both hands/blades high in the air. As I am a small woman who sits deep in the boat, I sometimes have to straighten my legs in the boat to reach high enough to clear the moving surface before start rolling.


Patience Pays Off

When flipped in a river, be patient. When flipped in a hole, wait until it spits you out. I went in many holes last two-and-a-half years, and only two were sticky. If you cannot roll up on the first try, take a breath and try again. It is hard to roll on an eddyline or with the cockpit facing upstream, but by trying multiple times, you usually get away from the strong eddyline or turn the boat around. When under the water, get to the set-up position as quickly as possible, because it is safer to tuck your head close to the surface. In my first year, I had a few bad whiplashes hitting my head under water, but I rarely do that now because I am quicker to set up.


I also recommend two short videos I watch every so often, in which Eric Jackson talks about improving rolls in the technique and the mental sides.

Improving the Roll:

The Mental Game:


If you were reading this article hoping to learn a shortcut or magic formula to improve your rolls, sorry, there’s no such thing – only practice makes perfect. I just hope an article written by a relatively new kayaker may give someone a fresh perspective and encourage him/her to work on combat rolls. My personal goal, however, is that I can someday say “I forgot how to combat roll, because I haven’t flipped for years.” J


See you on the river!


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