Bomb proofing your roll

I help a lot of people learn how to roll their kayak. Many people come to a mentoring session and leave having completed a dozen or so rolls that they never dreamed they could do successfully. Many people come back to their next session saying their rolls vanished as soon as they left the first session. Mentors use some amazing mental pixie dust to get people to roll. I call it proximity assurance, the mental benefits of having a friendly mentor standing in the water next to you fills you with confidence and the secure knowledge that whatever happens you are safe and will recover. As soon as the distance increases between the mentor and roller the mental aspects of rolling take over and rolls start to fail. It’s fun to prove to people it’s a psychological effect. Sometimes I will do it by running away while some one is rolling so when they come up they see I am standing a dozen feet away from their kayak and did not help them at all.

Once someone has a roll that is reliable without a mentor being near them I like to put them through my bomb proofing routine. The purpose of the bomb proofing is to help people understand how they cope mentally and physically when they are stressed, tired and in situations that are more realistic than the shallow beach environment or pool where most of us mentors teach rolling. I believe all of us are between swims and it’s just a matter of time before our roll fails or a situation presents itself that is beyond our capabilities. Bomb proofing helps people understand how to recognize and respond to those situations.


Step 1 – one becomes sixteen.

I believe everyone has a strongest “go-to” roll. This is the one roll on one side that is their most reliable. Mine is probably my right handed standard Greenland roll. When people are stressed they will tend to forget all the different rolls they have, and instead fall back on muscle and mental memory of their reliable happy place, their go-to roll. Rather than fight this behavior the first part of bomb proofing focuses on getting the roller to efficiently get into the setup for their go-to roll.

There are 16 basic setups for each roll individual roll (per side). I find it best to show people these 16 setups on land. Have a paddler sit in their kayak and then rotate their shoulders towards the right. Have them extend the paddle right (towards the stern) as if putting in a stern rudder while surfing. Then place the aft end of the paddle by the stern on the right side of the kayak. From this position the paddler can fall in forwards or backwards. (The 1st and 2nd setups). Then setup the same way but hook paddle over the stern so it is on the left side of the kayak (much like the setup for a reverse sweep roll). Then the paddler can fall in forwards and backwards (3rd and 4th setups). Now with the paddler still facing the right side have them extend the paddle forward and in on the right side, again fall in forwards and backwards (5th and 6th setups). Then repeat with the paddle hooked over the bow for the 7th and 8th setups. Then repeat the entire process with the paddler’s body rotated to the left side instead of the right side, this produces the setups for 9th through 16th. For every one of these setups have the paddler recover with their go-to roll. That means they recover on the same side every time (right side for me). Show the paddler how to efficiently move the paddle, sliding it forward and back, rotating their body not the paddle and efficiently getting into their setup position without a large amount of energy or time being spent underwater.

Mentor note: When leading this step keep a low roller to mentor ratio, so either have a group of helpers or control the sequence of who is rolling. Anticipate a lot of failures and the need for rescues. Hand of God or similar recoveries are preferable over wet-exits. Wet exits should be a last resort as they use a lot of energy both for the rescuer and the person being rescued. Only pair up rollers if you are confident that they have strong assisted rescue skills, otherwise keep this step safe by only having one person roll at a time and being ready to present a bow or other assisted rescue technique which you discuss ahead of time with the participants.

This sequence of rolls causes the rollers to do 16 rolls, assuming everyone is successful. This in itself is quite hard work and will tax many people. When someone is very competent and wants to bombproof both sides (a much more desirable situation) then have them repeat the 16 setups but make the recovery happen on the other side, for a total of 32 rolls.

Step two – surprise and stress

In step one the roller is talked through a sequence of rolls. There is setup time and mental preparation. The next step focuses on removing the opportunity to setup. In addition, this step’s process is designed to simulate conditions where there is no respite from the conditions and it becomes important to continue paddling (at least for support) immediately after recovering.

One paddler is designated the pace keeper, they paddle at a constant speed which elevates the heart rates of most paddlers, probably 4.5 mph is a good speed to aim for. The fleet of rollers paddles along behind the pace kayak maintaining position, behind them a mentor follows with a whistle. At random times the whistle is blown and the rollers have to roll in. No setup is allowed, where ever they are in the stroke they must maintain that position and just allow themselves to fall in. Throughout this step each roller again uses their go-to roll. As soon as they are up they must start paddling following after the pace kayak.

Mentor note: It is very helpful to have two or three (depending upon group size) sweepers, people paddling around the edge of the group to help recover people when they blow their roll. As this step progresses people will become more and more tired and consequently will start to fail more frequently. I recommend allowing no more than four failures and rescues  per person. After four they must retire from the training. This helps decrease the risk of injury both of the mentors and rollers. Pay particular attention for vertigo, some paddlers may loose their ability to balance after a lot of rolls (or just a few) these people should be escorted back to dry land by another paddler to ensure they are safe.

It is ideal that all of the training takes place in active water, one foot to eighteen inch waves are ideal, just enough to create a confused water surface and keep the kayaks moving. If the training is performed in calm water then expect to up the pace and duration to have the same effect.

In order to create a more realistic beat down simulation the mentor can do a quick series of whistle blows were people are barely up and they have to roll in again. This simulates the situation where a series of rolls keeps causing the paddler to capsize without respite.

As people become tired it is important they keep going as this is the point of this step, to simulate the stress that conditions and fatigue create. This is allowing people to experience how they perform and how things start to change from ideal conditions to simulated stressful conditions.

Step three – the variety show

People that make it through the first two steps are doing well and should be encouraged. Step three is circuit training. Position two mentors about 50 to 100 feet apart in their kayaks and have the rollers loop around each mentor. As the rollers pass each mentor they must perform a different roll. This can be a different type of roll a different side for recovery or a different setup when they enter. This is now allowing the rollers to experience the impact not just on their go-to roll but to understand which of their other rolls continues to work reliably and which ones are now marginal when attempted with muscle fatigue and shortness of breath.

Mentor note: If the group is easily doing this or too relaxed then turn this into a hair and hounds race with each roller racing to get ahead and roll faster than the kayak in front of them. Who can lap who? This training requires commitment from the paddlers to engage, if they just want to relax and watch what is happening the training will not be creating the learning it is designed to do, you need people to push themselves, so set that expectation early.

Step four – ocean motion

By now the vast majority of people will have failed, it is unusual to have more than a handful of people that make it through the first three steps. The final step happens back in shallow water and requires several strong people. Position a mentor at each end of the kayak standing in chest high water. They then alternate pushing a pulling the kayak up and down to simulate a hobbyhorse motion in short step waves. The kayak bow or stern should be moving through at least a three feet range creating an aggressive motion. The mentor at the stern (out of site of the roller) randomly flips the kayak over without warning. The two mentors continue to oscillate the kayak aggressively. The roller then practices rolling in confused waters and motion where it is challenging to find the surface or understand the kayaks orientation. In addition, the mentors can simulate current by making it so the roller is unable to roll up on one side and has to switch sides after a failed attempt.

This step is a visual spectacle and it is great to have people come and support, encourage and celebrate with the roller as they “graduate” by surviving the maelstrom.



Bomb proofing is designed to tax and test people. It puts them through simulations that are designed to push them to the point of failure, without appropriate preparation and support this is potentially dangerous. As a mentor and as a roller participant it is important you are fully aware of the process and risks.

If you commit to the process it will improve your understanding of your own capabilities and allow you to improve the reliability of your rolling.

Using these four steps the bomb proofing session has become a mainstay at several traditional paddling events. Please feel free to adapt it and use it as a training technique at yours and let me know how you improve it – we are all learners.

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