Friday, May 21, 2010


Several weeks ago I went to the East Coast Kayak Festival, and I took the time to watch a class taught by Ben Lowry. His class was a dryland rolling class, and I had observed it two years before and it gave me some insight into the roll I hadn't had before. Ben is a virtuoso - a highly skilled kayaker in many different venues. Surf ski, whitewater, and sea kayaks. But most importantly I think he is a wonderful teacher. I wanted to see the class again, primarily because I wanted to see him teach it. He talked about the phrase 'onside' roll, and 'offside' roll. He asked if people had onside rolls and offside rolls, and everyone said they did. He said that was wrong. That if you think about things as being onside or offside, they will be onside and offside. By giving them names that imply that one side will be more difficult than the other, guess what, it will be more difficult than the other. He says we should call them 'A' and '1', or something like that. I like Fred and Wilma. So now I have a Fred roll, and a Wilma roll, I like them both. I sat in the class that day wondering if Ben knew how zen that kind of thinking was.

Earlier this week I took the time to go to the US National Whitewater Center with a friend who is an avid whitewater paddler. I had never paddled a whitewater kayak and found the experience frustrating, infuriating, and finally eye opening. I found that most of the things I do instinctively in a sea kayak will instantly flip you over in a whitewater kayak. In five hours I spent more time unintentionally upside down in a kayak than in the past five years. I also learned that my bomber roll in a sea kayak, while fundamentally the same roll, is in such a different environment, that it made me think. It made me think things like if I don't hit this roll I will end up in the next set of rapids -upside down. When you think that way guess what happens to your roll? It doesn't work. With some work, and incredible patience by my friend - my roll started firing the way it should. But I definitely discovered that my offside - or Wilma - is much weaker. I will be working on that.

I had a similar experience in my dojo. I was asked to perform a spinning hook kick. I hate spinning kicks. particularly spinning to my right side. My Sensei - not to be confused with the paddling instructor I call Sifu, as they are two different people - made me do them to the right over and over again. Then he had me do one to my left, and he said 'you definitely have a stronger side with that kick' And he was right. It was also my creation. I was better at the left side kick, because it felt more natural, so I did it more, so it felt even more natural. While my right side stagnated.

Labels are just that, labels, nothing more. My attacker wont care that I can't do a spinning hook kick to the right, in fact, he may like it, and attack to that weakness. The waves wont care that it may be harder to roll on my right side, so from now on I will only roll on my Wilma side - or Fred if necessary.

The wind doesn't care that you may not be able to edge all day long on your right to keep heading where you want. This is the dance we do with the wind. Sometimes we lead, and sometimes the wind does. We have to be prepared to follow her lead. We get that ability with practice, and patience.


  1. Welcome to whitewater kayaking! I hope you had a good time, despite all the time underwater. Looking at your video, it looks like your biggest challenge was getting in and out of eddies. Eddy turns are probably the hardest part of whitewater kayaking. I'd recommend focusing on eddy turn technique next time you're on the river. You want to paddle hard out of the eddy, with an upstream angle of about 45 degrees. That way you carry enough momentum to fully cross the eddy line. Then once your boat is fully in the current, you want to edge your boat downstream and do a bow draw or a low brace on on your downstream side. Don't bring your boat back up off that edge until you're moving with the current, or you'll catch your upstream edge and get wet.

    Also, don't worry too much about being upside down in rapids. I have a weak roll, and on Sunday spent about half of a class IV rapid upside down before I hit my roll on my 5th try. It's worth it to hang in there and keep attempting rolls, especially in a whitewater park where a T-rescue from a friend is possible (something else to practice!).

  2. Agreed, I definitely had problems with eddys (eddies?) I was told that at this man made park they are particularly unforgiving. I am going to do a post at some point on the experience, which I why I didn't link to the video. But it's on vimeo for anyone interested.