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Why do you swim?!

In this article I am aiming to address the reasons that people swim and how to avoid it. I am not talking about those life or death situations when it can be deemed necessary to swim. I’m talking about the time you decided to pull your deck on flat water, at your local play spot or in the swimming pool when you missed a roll or two….. When you just know deep down that you should have just rolled back up. I don’t mean to sound harsh but sometimes some home truths are needed to move on to the next level.

If you are struggling with getting your first roll, then there are countless online videos, articles, books & DVDs all designed to teach you. Better yet, go and get some coaching, even if that’s just from a friend who has a good roll.
Let’s assume for now that you have a good roll: one that gets you up first time. I want to talk about the perfect roll, one that gets you up first time every time, and fast. If you can roll every time in the pool, you can roll every time on whitewater, sea or surf.


The reason people swim is lack of confidence in their roll. You might find my earlier post on mindset helpful here:
I was “lucky” in that I got to spend a whole season practising my rolling before I ever had a chance to go on whitewater. Since then I’ve never swum once. I say this not to show off (I know a couple of others who can claim it too), but in an effort to inspire – if I can do it, so can you!
The most important thing to note is that there is zero difference between rolling a swimming pool to rolling in real situations. On whitewater or surf it can feel different but the technique is exactly the same. The disorientation and the fear factor are what we need to address.


Being upside down in a boat can be disorientating, particularly in rough water. So it is so important not to just practise rolls in the ideal set-up position: we are never going to go over like this. You need to be able to roll up from any which way. Practise in this area is key.


Upside down and “trapped” inside a plastic box is logically a nightmare scenario. We need to override this logic, as it’s just part of the sport – in fact, it’s when you are at your most stable. Most beginners are nervous about capsizing, many panicking on first attempt, a completely natural response. We need to override this. We don’t have time to panic, we only have time to think about and address our current situation.

Fear Factor

If you are the sort of paddler who runs a river with crossed fingers, hoping you won’t capsize and worried you might swim if you do, you need to stop and rethink. If you think you are going to swim, you probably will.
Whitewater kayaking requires a clear head; fear should not be allowed to overcome you. You cannot paddle scared, the same as you cannot paddle angry. It will cloud your judgement – and it’s not much fun!

If you are about to run a section that you find scary you firstly need to take some time out to gather your thoughts.
I’ve seen too many people swim on a section of water they know they have the skill level to run because they worried about being stuck in a hole at the bottom of a drop, or because they thought they had hit a certain feature.

The Habit

You may find that you’ve inadvertently made a habit of swimming. You might find that each time you go over you “involuntarily” reach for the handle and out you come. Like any habit you need to break it by making some fundamental changes to your mind set.

Changing your mind set: swimming is not an option!

Pulling my deck is so far down the list of priorities that it does not enter my head. Every conceivable option should be exhausted first. A fighter pilot doesn’t pull the ejector seat lever at the first sign of trouble and neither should you!

If you paddle with a group where swimming is acceptable, a rethink and a new mentality is in order. It can be very dangerous to swim. We’ve all seen videos or know friends who have had horrendous swims. These could have all been avoided by rolling up. The best rescue is a self-rescue, and the best self-rescue is a roll! The decision to swim can turn what would have been a simple capsize into an arduous ordeal. When you are out of your boat you are at the mercy of the river and most likely relying on your friends to help you, potentially putting them in danger too.

Nine times out of ten, it is much safer to be in a boat than out of it. The boat works like a tank, our Buoyancy aid (PFD for my American friends) like body armour, and a helmet to protect our head. At times people opt for a full-face helmet and elbow and forearm protection. These are the parts of our body that we are exposed and vulnerable.

Have you ever seen a kayaker wear kneepads? No, that’s what our boat is for. But take a swim and you’ll be exposing your whole body to potential injury. I have seen plenty of bashed knees. Most injuries I have dealt with have been caused by swimming.

In shallow water the logical side of the brain says, “I’m scraping along the bottom, I should get out!” But think about that for a second. If you are getting scraped then how will exiting the boat help? It is not going to change anything; the water will not magically get deeper. You will only be exposing more of yourself to the riverbed. What will help you is being upright, with a large lump of plastic between you and the riverbed.

What roll should I use?

Whatever roll gets you up. Ideally it will be one that gets you up on the first attempt. Even better than that is a roll that gets you up first time and fast.

Personally I am a big fan of the back deck roll. If this is something you haven’t added to your arsenal of rolls, I would strongly suggest learning it. It makes little sense at first and can be a struggle to get your head round it. But once you give it a go all become clear. You will also find that your standard roll will improve no end because of it.

Usually when I go over I am already in the perfect position to use the back deck roll, making it the fastest option.

There is/was an argument that in shallow water it is best to tuck forward to protect yourself with the crown of your helmet. The reason it should be discredited, if it’s not already, is this: if I go over on the back deck of my boat and decide to tuck all the way forwards before rolling, I will be exposing my whole upper body and more importantly my face, to the river bed. To get forward and tuck, my body will go far deeper and for much longer than it would during a back deck roll. If you get good at back deck rolling, you can even do it keeping your whole face out of the water. So contrary to vintage wisdom, you can back deck roll in shallower water than you can do a traditional roll in.

All being said there are times when I do opt to tuck up. Often when I am at a play feature where I know that it gets shallow immediately after and I am not in a position to do a back deck roll, or can’t do one fast enough then I will quickly tuck forwards to protect myself. I aim to move my body sideways rather than straight down to keep myself low profile and avoid exposing my face.


Nine times out of ten the person who swam comes up with an excuse. They are just that, excuses! Excuses are dangerous because they don’t allow the person to learn from the experience and cover up their mistakes. It needs to be a learning experience and they should seek to correct mistakes that they’ve made. The only goal of an excuse is to cover up the reasons for the swim and make the person feel better about their failure.
“I’ve lost my roll”

What do you mean you’ve lost your roll? It’s not a wallet or a phone. You can’t have left it on the roof of a car! The only reason you can “lose” a roll is because you’ve not practised it.

“My Nose plug fell off, my paddle slipped, I hit something, my paddle broke, I lost my paddle, It caught me by surprise, I would have swum anyway…”

Firstly a note on nose plugs. Despite my nose getting blocked fairly often I don’t wear them. They’re uncomfortable, look ridiculous and inevitably they will fall off at some point and water will rush up my nose anyway. Get used to the sensation and find ways to combat the after effects. To decide to eject yourself from your boat because of it is madness!

Hand slipped off the paddle? Regain your grip and roll up! Lost your paddle? Hand roll! Broke your paddle? Roll up with the other end! All these have happened to me. Twice my paddle has broken in my hands; a paddle has two ends to it, so use the other end (If you can I’d also advise you to keep hold of both parts). I’ve seen many people panic and decide to pull the deck. A simple assessment of the current situation and they’d have rolled up just fine and been able to sort the situation.

I’ve had a friend dislocate a shoulder twice on two separate occasions. He still rolled up both times and has yet to swim (proof that such a concept can be taught) another friend was extremely unfortunate and dislocated both shoulders at the same time, he also rolled up. No excuses, they both have the mind-set that swimming is not an option. Swimming with two dislocated shoulders would have been nothing short of a disaster.

“I tried three rolls”

Why didn’t you try another?! What if that fourth or fifth attempt was the one that would have got you up? Remember that your last attempt is always the one that gets you up. Firstly ask yourself, did you really run out breath?

What did you do to address the reason you couldn’t roll up the first time? Did you panic and stop thinking about the task at hand? Stop, readjust, try again and roll. Think about what you may be doing wrong and correct these. Did you lift your head too soon? Did you forget your hip flick, are you still in the hole? Are you trying to roll up on the wrong side? You have time so try again.

“It was my offside / I can’t hand roll”
The river will sometimes make it impossible to roll up on one side. Perhaps you are being pushed against a wall, or need to roll up in a hole. You need to work towards having an offside roll and then you need to work towards having no offside roll. By that I mean that both sides should feel the same. When you paddle forward do you feel like your offside is working extra hard to keep up? I’d hope not. The same should be said for your roll. There is no offside.

Your “offside” is no big deal. You learn it the same way as our onside. If you can roll on one side, you already have the skills to roll on the other. The only thing stopping you achieving an off side roll is practise; like a bodybuilder you need to put in the reps to achieve the goal.

If you can’t hand roll, you also need to work on this. You can’t muscle it through like you can with a paddle so it works wonders for improving your rolling technique. If you‘ve swum because you lost your paddle did you even try a hand roll? If you didn’t, you should have. You might just surprise yourself – particularly in a hole!
“I ran out of air”

It is always quicker to roll up than it is to wet exit. Rolling up will get you that breath much sooner. If you think you are running out, then try for that roll. I guarantee you have not run out yet! When you come up blue in the face, it might be uncomfortable, it might even be a little scary but you have not run out of air!

Is holding your breath something you practise? It should be something you incorporate into your training. Stop and try it now. Hold your breath and time yourself. What did you get? 10, 15, 20 seconds? Now try again. I guarantee you will beat it easily. Now ask yourself: did you really need to breathe when you did? Could you have held on a bit longer? I guarantee you could have.

Aim for 45 seconds, then a minute. With just a little practise I can get a minute. I have seen a friend do 1.58. When he came up, he was rather short on breath. If he’d known he was that close to two minutes, he could have managed two more seconds. Imagine how many roll attempts you could do in that time!

Of course when we are rolling “in anger” we are exhausting oxygen reserves, which is why we must remain calm and take action when necessary. But training your lungs will most certainly help you.

Without much training you should see an increase in how long you can hold your breath. Get comfortable with the uncomfortable feeling of holding your breath.

It is Ok to fail

It is Ok to fail. Failure should never be a barrier to learning. The fear of failure should never stop you trying anything! Whether that is in a kayak or in life. If every kayaker was afraid to fail then nobody would step foot in a boat. It is a fundamental part of the learning process.
When you first learn to roll, you will fail, but keep trying and you will succeed.

“We are all between swims”

I’m sure you have all heard the notion that “we are all between swims”. Personally I don’t subscribe to this line of thinking. It is designed to keep us humble; however the river has plenty of other ways of keeping us humble.

The phrase itself is a negative thought. If you believe it then you are just accepting that it is inevitable that you’ll swim. If you swim again, instead say to yourself “that was my last swim” say it to yourself and it might just be the case.

As Peyton Manning’s coach once said “One Quarterback fumble is a lifetime too many.” The same goes for swimming. I know we can’t achieve perfection, but we can damn well aim for it!

I hope some of those ideas and techniques help you improve your roll and more importantly change your mind set about rolling and swimming! I’m sorry if some of the home truths hit hard, sometimes these things need to be said. Remember, no excuses.

If you’ve questions then feel free to give me a shout, if you see me on the river and want some advice then come over and say hi.