Independent of the style of kayak rolling you partake in it is very helpful to have a kayak that fits you. Kayaks roll because we apply force to the kayak through the connection between our body and the hull and deck, and this force is resisted by the opposite force created by our buoyancy and the water’s resistance to our body and paddle motion through it. If there is not a good connection between your body and the kayak the rotation will be sub optimal and the kayak may not rotate sufficiently to be righted.
Rushing to learn to roll without taking the time to setup your kayak correctly can considerably lengthen the time and effort necessary to learn to roll.
There is no one right way to be connected, or fitted, to your kayak, and there is no one way to set-up the kayak to make it fit you. I will describe the process I use when fitting a kayak for me or when I help someone setup their kayak.
Are you sitting in the correct place?
Many kayaks have fixed seat positions, but for those that don’t it is important to ensure that you are seated in the correct fore and aft location to ensure the kayak is trimmed correctly. There is no point making a kayak great to roll in and a dog to paddle. There are a few ways to help decide if you are trimmed correctly, first on calm flat water have another knowledgeable paddler look at the trim when you are floating, second paddle the kayak perpendicular to a stiff breeze, try and find the location that minimizes weather or lee cocking. Once you have found the balance position try paddling into waves, if the kayak characteristics have changed to cause the bow to go through rather than over the waves you may be too far forward. It is a delicate balance to find the right place to sit so spend the time necessary to ensure you have found the sweet spot for you and your kayak before proceeding.
Many people will suggest sliding your seat or seating position forward to allow you to lay back lower. I do not recommend this approach unless the only activity you will be performing in the kayak is rolling. Most people want to roll as a self-rescue technique, so the paddling performance of the kayak needs to be primary, and the comfort of the rolling experience should be secondary. Hence my suggestion to set the seat up primarily based upon paddling performance not rolling performance.
Who’s stabbing you in the back?
If you are going to be doing layback rolls that finish low and with your back arched towards the stern then setting up the back of the cockpit can be very helpful. The distance between the base of the seat where you butt rests and the top of the cockpit rim set the obstacle that your back is going to have to arch over to allow you to get low, the lower the better when it comes to rolling. It is possible to raise some seats or to sit on a cushion. Neither approach is that great an idea primarily because the higher you sit the less stable you will become as you move the center of gravity of your body further away from the center of rotation of the kayak.
Backs do not bend in an angular fashion, they curve. The curve that your spine follows between your tail bone and the top rim of the cockpit can be either hindered or helped by the back band or back support fitted directly behind the seat. Many recreational kayaks have tall seat backs that stick above the top of the cockpit. These high seat backs in effect raise the cockpit rim and make it significantly harder to lay back. If a back band is too tight it will be pushing your lower back and pelvis forward in opposition to the arc you are trying to create as you lay back. Think about removing or at least loosening any seat backs or back bands. Most are unnecessary for good paddling posture, and many actually facilitate bad, or lazy slumped postures. Sometimes the cockpit rim of the kayak can be quite painful to lay back against. In these situations I like to create a foam back support that matches the curve of my spine as I lay back, this then helps protect my back by distributing the weight along the length of my lower back making it relatively comfortable to layback.
When I am performing layback rolls, in all but the lowest of kayaks, my butt invariably lifts out of the seat. This happens because my back is not flexible enough to arch as tightly as necessary to get my head as low as I want it. Rather than let my head stay high I lift my butt which raises my tail bone and reduces the arch cord. Raising out of the seat is not a problem as long as you remain tightly in contact with the kayak at your thighs.
Are your legs in control?
Most commercially sold kayaks are fitted with thigh braces, many of these are movable. The ideal place for your legs to connect with the kayak is somewhere just above the knee, preferably closer to the knee than the groin, about 80% of the way from the groin to the knee. This will give you a lot of leverage but give you greater comfort than if you connect directly with the knee, which can be very painful and bruising. Many adjustments affect how and where you fit your thigh braces. We now have a fixed butt position, our feet are still free and we are focused on find the sweet spot for our thighs. In some Greenland kayaks the paddler’s legs are almost straight out in front of the them. This is very uncomfortable for many people, it causes cramps for me until I practice enough for my body to adjust. Most people will prefer to paddle, and roll, with bent legs. By bending your legs, raising your knees and angling them outwards your pelvis opens up and this allows you to curve forward and get lower to initiate your rolls, for forward finishing rolls this also allows you to get lower on the foredeck. This seems counter intuitive so try it yourself, raise your knees and you will find you can sink lower onto the foredeck. Obviously there is a point at which they are too high (or vertical) and you lose the ability to apply an upwards force. I would recommend that your thighs are at no greater than 45 degrees from horizontal and the center line for an optimum position. If your legs are too short to connect with the thigh braces consider adding padding to the thigh braces to lower them. Closed cell foam like the MiniCell is an ideal material to glue and shape to make them fit you.
Once you are set with your thigh braces you should be able to lay back over the cockpit rim and your thighs press firmly up against the thigh braces and you feel like you are in contact with just three places, the small of your back and your two thighs.
How snug are your hips?
Unless you are fortunate enough to perfectly fit your kayak (or have built a custom fitting one) there will be difference between the width of your hips and the width of the seat and cockpit rim. For some rolls the position that the edge of the cockpit meets with your hip can inhibit your ability to bend sideways. If there is a lot of room sideways in the cockpit you can slide about too much and lose contact with your feet or thighs. How much padding you need will depend upon the type of rolls you wish to do. Initially I would recommend setting up the cockpit so you are not tight. I like at least an inch on either side of my hips. If the cockpit is deep then I like more room so that I can slide further away from the edge if it is jabbing me in the side when I am lying over the edge of the cockpit. To find the right amount of padding for you try some dry land rolling drills; sit in the kayak on the land, lay back, then rotate your body sideways rolling the kayak with you. If you lose contact with the kayak and find your butt is sliding sideways try placing some foam by your hips on both on both sides of the cockpit. Use this method of dry land “rolling” to get a feel for how much padding works for your cockpit rim height and hip width.
Are your feet helping you?
Your foot pegs should help you not hinder you. The foot position should be adjusted to cause your legs to bend and splay sideways till your thighs are just in contact with your thigh braces. Remember to adjust them while wearing your normal paddling gear, which includes dry or wet suits and your normal paddling footwear. Having your foot pegs back like this does not necessarily hinder good forward stroke. There should still be room for a slight straightening of the power, or driving leg, to apply the forward stroke power to the hull and help with your torso rotation. If you find you are unable to get sufficient torso rotation move the pegs one click forward and see if you can find the balance between remaining in contact with your thighs and allowing you to develop a powerful forward stroke.
I tend to remove foot pegs from my kayaks, preferring to pad the foot area out with hard closed cell foam instead. This gives me two advantages over pegs; first I do not have to “hunt” for the pegs when doing a reentry as the whole front of the cockpit is there to support my feet, and secondly the foam fills a void that would otherwise be occupied with water during a rescue hence making it faster to empty when needed. Fixed foam bulkheads do however have a drawback; there is nowhere to stretch out while paddling, with pegs you can slide a foot between the pegs and straighten your legs this is not generally the case with foam.
Now you are ready to roll
It can be helpful to have a friend measure the distance between your head and the deck, both the stern and foredecks before and after you have set up your kayak. Ideally they will both be touching but few people are flexible enough or lucky enough to have the perfect fitting kayak to achieve this. Aim for these distances to be less than six inches. If they are more then you are going to have a harder time completing your rolls due to the higher center of gravity that distance will create. But don’t despair, if you can’t get below six inches you should still be able to roll, it will just be harder. If you are starting to learn you might want to borrow a kayak that fits you better and then transfer your skills to your own kayak. It can be frustrating to be inhibited by your kayak when learning the body mechanics of rolling. It is possible to roll just about any kayak, but it can be very tough to learn in an ill-fitting kayak. Time spent fitting your kayak to your body is a good investment if you desire to roll.