A quick and dirty sketch of myself rolling my kayak for the first time — loose and low quality because the reference material is fuzzy.

And therein lies a quick story:


A couple of months back, I sold my dear old red kayak, Waterbender, and bought a fancy new sea kayak, the better to have longer and more long-distance adventures. Part of being safe in your boat is being able to recover yourself if a wave knocks you over, and so I made a commitment to learn to roll my boat. Paddling buddy R was generous enough to give me a couple of one-on-one lessons in return for dinner.

Things didn’t go well at first: learning to roll was terrifying for me. The combination of being upside down, with water rushing in towards my brain through my nose and ears, and having my legs trapped triggered a serious panic sensation, and I’d flail and gasp and thrash and wet exit every time, even with patient R holding my shoulders.

On R’s recommendation I borrowed her nose plugs, Paul’s swim goggles, and bought some swimmer’s ear plugs. I found a handicapped ramp at a local lake and used the railing to practice rolling myself back and forth manually. I could only manage an hour or so at a time, and then the repeated visits to the panicky place would just be too much.

But the noseplugs made a huge difference, as did the swim goggles. Once I could see what I was doing underwater, and once all my air wasn’t rushing out of my nose in an effort to keep the water out, I could slow down and actually think instead of just reacting. R suggested that I just try hanging upside down for a bit longer each time, and so I did, slowly building up my tolerance.

I watched videos in the meantime, studying body placement. If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m a thinker-learner, not a doer-learner. Eventually I found a couple videos that showed some dry-land practice drills — which sounds goofy as heck, I know — that turned out to give me the lightbulb moment I needed to put it all together.

Winter was fast approaching, and I maybe had forty-five minutes of daylight each night at the lake. The water was getting progressively colder, which made me less eager to go dunk myself repeatedly. Finally, on the last good warm evening of the year, I was out with my buddy B, who caught my very first successful roll on camera. I rolled three times that night: the first one I popped right up like I’d been doing it my whole life, and on the last two I was able to reset after a failure, which is also a good skill to develop. None of them were pretty rolls, but this winter I’ll be able to polish my technique in swimming pool lessons.

Take that, anxiety!