How do I develop my kayak “Eskimo roll” from something I can do most of the time in a calm lake or pool to something I can trust to work close to 100% of the time in real sea or river conditions?
Summary: Develop muscle memory for the basic move through instruction and repetition, develop robustness against external water conditions, and address the internal panic response.
Develop muscle memory: get some instruction and then practice the basic mechanics of a roll until you can do it thoughtlessly. The investment in the instruction is well justified by the subsequent investment of time (you want the habits you lock in to be good habits). This becomes the motion you will do almost automatically when you flip. Learn to do this on both sides (see below). Learn to do this not from deliberately setting up and flipping, but from leaning further and further into a brace until you lose balance so that transitioning from bracing into rolling is part of the habit.
Develop robustness against external conditions, in the form of “offside” roll, extended paddle roll, and other self-rescue techniques: there will be wind, wave, and current conditions during which your practiced muscle-memory move on your preferred side will not work. Specifically when your body is being swept one way under the water or (equivalently) the hull is being pushed hard the other way along the surface by wind, it may be hard or impossible to roll on one side of the kayak. Fortunately the same conditions make it very easy to roll on the other side. Additionally, other circumstances conspire to make a boat behave strangely sometimes (partially swamped kayak loaded with camping gear for example, or draped in kelp) and in that case an extended-paddle roll that is slower to set up but always gets you upright is valuable. You can strengthen the above by flipping with your paddle in odd positions that make you orient and set up underwater. Finally you want to develop skills with other solo self rescue techniques like cowboy (fast) or paddle float reentry and roll (reliable in all conditions) and assisted rescues such that you can be safe while developing your rolling skills.
Develop robustness against internal conditions (i.e. panic): it is foreseeable that a land mammal upside down in cold dark water, with their feet stuck in a plastic box that is simultaneously unwieldy and claustrophobic, might lose their composure and forget simple skills. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, lucky you, otherwise I would encourage you that in my experience you just have to train through it. Two techniques I found helpful: First, try to schedule training in a warm lit pool, then in calm sea, then in rougher but safe sea (ie wind chop or gentle surf over sandy bottom) then real adrenaline-inducing surf, scheduled in close succession to preserve the good habits through the transition into real conditions. Second, practice holding your breath as follows—when your heart rate is high (from running up stairs or climbing a hill on a bike) exhale fully then count long enough to perform two leisurely setups and rolls (perhaps a slow ten count). I am amazed how few seconds it takes before urgent discomfort sets in and it makes me understand why unexpected rolls are so challenging especially if I am held under by the surf or miss the first roll. If I only experience this sensation on the worst wave of the day and I only surf once or twice a month, I have no chance to develop a better response. A tiny amount of this training (ten or fifteen seconds a couple times a day until I got more comfortable) went a very long way.
The most important factor is to have some slack in your roll.
If you're only just coming up in flat water you're not going to be coming up as soon as there's an additional factor against you. Make sure that as you practice your roll you're not at the end of your movement as you come up.
The places to find that slack are to:
- improve your hip flick movement, ideally this alone could bring you up (hand roll, body roll)
- improve your paddle movement, adding a bit of scull during the initial movement (C to C) and making sure your paddle is coming out wide enough to get additional leverage.