As a kayak instructor it can be really exciting to get your students working towards their kayak roll. This is especially true if the student group is highly motivated and engaged in the learning process. However, as tempting as it may be to begin teaching the kayak roll, I constantly have to check myself and step back to consider how much time I’ve worked with my students in developing their “underwater composure”.
Underwater composure is how calm someone can be underwater in a variety of positions and conditions. I cannot stress enough the importance of developing composure underwater before beginning the process of learning how to roll. I’ve seen it time and time again where someone is rushed through a rolling progression by a friend, or sometimes an instructor, and after hitting a few successful rolls their friend gives them some space or tells them they’re “good to go”. After paddling around for a bit the new kayaker flips over, misses their first roll, their instincts take over their mind, they pull with all their might on the paddle, their head comes up, and they do a frantic wet exit. A situation like this can really do a number on a new kayakers’ confidence and imprint a pretty negative memory about flipping over and trying to roll.
Below I’ve outlined some “underwater composure” exercises that I’ve done with countless students over the years including a lot of students with hyper-anxiety about being upside in a kayak. This this an array of exercises that I selected to help assess and/or develop underwater composure. I usually jump straight into these activities after we carry our kayaks over to the water’s edge and before I jump into the steps of a “wet exit”.
Get in and float: This is an opportunity to just float in the water and to feel how the life jacket floats you. It’s also an opportunity to make any adjustments on gear that may have become loose in the water. After floating for a bit try putting your face down in the water and feel the water surround your face and ears, blow some bubbles under there if you want… Then make sure you try to swim around too, freestyle and side stroke; it’s a bit different with all that gear on.
Somersaults anyone: If you’re up to it, doing forward and reverse somersaults in the water can be a great experience to really feel the water in a somewhat disorienting movement. During this experience you are bound to get water in your nose if you aren’t wearing nose clips, and that’s a good thing. If you don’t have nose clips you might as well begin getting used to a little water in the nose. This experience will either encourage you to purchase a pair of nose clips or help you realize that you don’t need any. If somersaults aren’t your thing, try some “log rolls” in the water. Again, we’re just going through some disorienting movements in the water and focusing on feeling the water around us.
Now take a few minutes to dry off and then hop in that kayak and practice some dry land “wet exits” until you feel like you’ve got the steps dialed. When you’re ready, slide into the water and connect with whomever you’re working with, ideally a trained/certified instructor, and let them know you’re ready to practice some wet exits. You should practice wet exits a lot! This is a tremendously valuable skill and is your first self rescue option. You don’t have to rely on anyone to do a wet exit and that is really empowering. After practicing a lot of wet exits, hop back into your kayak and slide back out into the water with the instructor or friend you’ve been working with for some more kayak specific underwater composure exercises!
Get barrel rolled: With the instructor or friend standing next to you, flip over, get into a tucked position and tap on the sides of the kayak; this is you asking for a rescue. Stay in this tucked position and tapping on the sides of the kayak until the instructor barrel rolls you up, also known as the “hand of God” rescue. Once you’ve done this a few times, start going underwater and holding your breath longer before asking for a rescue by tapping on the sides of the kayak.
Underwater Observations: Now that we’ve established a technique for you to stay in the kayak and to ask for a rescue when you’re ready to come up, let’s move onto some more thought provoking exercises. Now when you go underwater pay attention to the temperature of the water and only the temperature, we’re isolating senses here. Feel the temperature of the water on your cheeks, your eye lids, inside your ears, etc. After a few seconds tap on the kayak for a rescue. Once you’re upright, articulate what you felt to your instructor or friend. If we can get our mind to focus on other things when we are underwater, we’ll be less apt to become anxious about getting right side up.
You want me to do what: Now that you’re really developing your mental underwater composure, let’s try some physical challenges. While upside down try to perform a circular motion with your entire torso; tuck forward with your chest and face as close to the spray skirt as possible, then begin moving clockwise. Your right oblique should be pushing into the side of the cockpit, keep moving clockwise. Your back and head should be arched towards the back deck, keep moving clockwise. Your left oblique should be pushing into the left side of the cockpit, keep moving clockwise. And now you should be back into a “tucked position” and can tap for a rescue. This circular motion should be performed slowly and deliberately with focus and attention on how the body feels in each position. You can obviously perform this same exercise going counter clockwise as well, and you should. This exercise increases comfort under water and also develops a kayakers’ composure moving in and out of different physical positions while upside down in their kayak. Additionally, having an increased awareness of your body position as it relates to the kayak while being under water can greatly improve your understanding of the kayak roll.
You can very easily put yourself at risk of developing a physical injury or a psychological barrier if you don’t spend adequate time developing underwater composure before progressing into other kayak skills. Once you’ve developed your underwater composure and learn a “bow assisted” rescue and a kayak roll, the composure practice doesn’t end. Now you’ve got more tools to continue increasing your comfort underwater in a variety of conditions. Underwater composure is a trained skill that we should all revisit often in our paddling.