This low down bitchin’ got my poor feet a itchin’,
You know you know the duece is still wild.
Baby, I can’t stay, you got to roll me
And call me the tumblin’ dice.
Before I go too deeply into boat fit here I want to be clear I’m mostly talking about sea kayaks and to some extent white water kayaks. Recreational boats that are shorter, wider and have a big opening on top simply will not provide the sort of fit we talk about when talking about rolling a kayak. This does not mean you can’t roll one, but it’s a challenge to say the least. Still, if you currently paddle one of these sorts of kayaks, you’re welcome to follow along as well. I’m sure we’ll cross a couple of useful points for you as well.
How you fit into your kayak can be seen as an issue of control. Simply put, you need places where your body connects to the kayak in order to make it do what you want it to do. Of course that’s a little too authoritarian for my mind. Another more organic way to look at it is that on the water you become one with your kayak, it becomes your body, your skeletal structure and your skin. Your relationship to your craft is symbiotic. You don’t ride in a kayak, you become one with it. You are the heart and mind of the creature, where you connect is simply the nervous system reaching out to the skin sending and receiving messages. The more connections we have the more we are able to sense our environment and control our reaction to it. We are not paddlers but creatures of the sea.
Keeping that more fanciful thought in mind, boat fit must be seen as something sensual and individual. A “correct” fit varies from boat to boat, person to person, and even day to day. At the same time, ability to roll your kayak is not dependent on each and every connection point either. The points of connection we do discuss here are not the end of proper boat fit, only a foundation.
So at this point I’m assuming you’ve been paddling your kayak around for some time. I mean, we’re talking about rolling after all! So chances are you’ve sort of found your comfort zone. Your back band is where you like it for an all day paddle, your foot pegs are in the right place for you and your legs and bum are not going to sleep regularly. If they are going to sleep or you are just not feeling all that comfortable, maybe we need to start at the very beginning.. So, in that case loosen everything up. Put your pedals back and loosen your back band. Let it all hang out! For everyone else, maybe we’ll find a tweak here or there.
Lower Back and Backbands
To exert force on the kayak we tend to push with our legs and feet against our pedals while the back of our seat or our back band holds our bum & torso in place. So it’s simplest for me to talk about the lower back and back bands first.
To state the obvious, back bands are intended to provide back support. Yet to my mind they are usually total over-kill. One guideline I have about back support is that anything at or above the natural curve in our lower back is too high. It’s simply an issue of the backrest becoming an unnecessary obstacle to self rescues and a hindrance to good body rotation.
While some will say a back band can correct your posture, it’s my experience that they often encourage paddlers to lean back. What’s more, in order to actually correct your posture they need to be too high and too tight which causes problems elsewhere. A high back band or one adjusted too far forward will trip up paddlers trying to perform a self rescue. After the rescue they can cause another potential problem if the paddler has to readjust or “flip” them up in order to sit back down. Some backrests especially the lounge style seats, will interfere with layback rolls as well. I’ve also had a couple racers tell me they can potentially limit your torso rotation by not allowing you to twist your body properly.
So do you need a back band?
Thing is, these days most new kayaks come with seats that have enough curvature at the back to provide support for the paddler as it is. One could suggest that with most modern seats and good posture, a back band is not really necessary at all. It’s your call. Certainly if your seat does not hold you in place when you push on the pedals you will need back support of some kind.
So I guess we should get those pedals in place and see what happens.
Foot Pegs, Pedals…
Jump in your kayak. For those of you who’ve loosened everything, adjust your foot pegs back up just so that the heal of your foot remains on the floor or hull of your boat and the ball of your foot is resting on the pedals. The pedals should not be in the arch or “toes only”. You should not need to stretch for the pedals or conversely feel confined when you are sitting relaxed in the kayak. Feeling comfortable is a good guideline. Again, the main contact points here are your heel, and the ball of the foot.
Different boats, different pedals, different connections.
Some kayaks don’t have pedals at all. Some paddler’s prefer resting their feet right up against a foam bulkhead, or even have the bulkhead customized so they can place their foot directly on it. In my Rockpool there is an adjustable footrest that acts like a bulkhead allowing me to place my feet anywhere I wish. So.. do what you do to get your feet comfortably in place. Set? O.K. there’s always fiddle room, but this gives us a starting point.
My Rockpool Alaw Bach has an adjustable footplate instead of standard paddles. However, it cannot be adjusted without a bit of effort.
Now sit up straight. If you can have someone stand beside you to coach you on your body position, it’s helpful. What sitting up straight feels like and actually is, can be very different. Often we tend to lean to one side or another or more to the back or front. Yoga or time spent on a WiFit can help with this. We have to be sensitive to our body positions. But not to get sidetracked, just sit up straight with your feet on the pedals as we discussed. For the moment leave your back band loose behind you.
Back Band Revisited
Push against the pedals with your feet. Do you slide back in your seat? Push with one foot, relax, and then push with the other like pedaling bicycle. If you are sliding off the back of your seat you need a back band. If your seat is holding you comfortably in place you probably don’t need a back band at all. Remember, with proper posture only the lowest part of your spine needs to be supported. That said, if your seat is not holding you in place, adjust your back band forward just enough to allow you to push against it for support, but don’t bring it any more forward than you have to. It should not be squeezing you. The fit is relaxed and the pressure only comes when you push off the foot braces (pedals) to move the boat in the water.
My Rockpool had no need of a back-band as the seat had enough of a lip on the back to support the paddler. I removed the band.
Knees & Thighs
So where are we? Hopefully we can sit comfortably in our kayak now. Our back is supported and the balls of our feet are on the pedals while the heels of our feet are resting on the bottom of the kayak. We’re not tight by any means. Just comfortable. Chances are that while we were moving around inside our kayaks our knees and thighs were bumping around under the deck as well. Where are they now? Are you splayed out under the deck with your legs pressed down and wide like an old grey bearded Yogi? Are your knees high and bumping against the top or deck of the kayak? Are you being jabbed by the skeg control box? Maybe you’re not touching anything with your thighs or knees at all!?
Sometimes you simply have to get out the mini-cell
When it comes to your knees and thighs making contact with the boat, I once again defer to relaxed comfort. There are many kayak designs and styles. Where your knees or thighs touch the skin of the boat will be different from kayak to kayak. For some of us only our upper thighs touch. In some boats we are snug enough right away and we can lift our thigh and lift the boat at the same time. For some the sides of our thighs will touch as well. For some it’s the top of the knee. Maybe both our thighs and knees connect. In a Greenland rolling kayak there is a thing called a Masiq which is a piece of wood or foam that goes right across your thighs and locks you right in! Suffice to say we do want some connection here. Some kayaks have adjustable thigh braces that you can slide forward or back to make a better connection. Most however are “as is”. If you are not making contact with your knees and/or thighs, the thing to do is cut some mini-cell pads to make up the distance and complete the connection. Now, you should not need a ton of foam. If you find yourself putting an inch or more worth of paddling between your hull and your body.. you may want a smaller boat!
Depending on the size of your kayak (and the size of you) there will be more connection points than the main ones mentioned. Each person is unique.
Thigh brace in a white water kayak which can be adjusted forward or backward to fit different paddlers.
One more thought on thigh and knee connections. As I said, fitting in your kayak properly is comfortable and not tight. It can be a challenge to find that line. When it comes to thigh/knee connection (and boat fit in general) here’s a good test. Get your boat on the water and roll upside down. You should, if you choose to, easily remain in your seat without much effort. Your body shouldn’t drop inside your boat. If the volume of your kayak is too high and your thighs are not connecting well, you will have to resist your body wanting to fall downward within the kayak. A good fit, while allowing you to basically fall out if you wish it, will just as easily keep you in place with just a very slight tensing of your lower muscles.
At this point we’ve dealt with our back, our feet and now our thighs and knees. I’ve not mentioned our behinds because I assume we all know where our butt goes.
The next and maybe one of the most important connection points is our hips. The hips are a major component in rolling and bracing and need to be connected to the kayak as well. Our seat should be providing that connection. Is it? You need not be squeezed in there, but what you don’t want is to be sliding side to side on the seat. You want to be connected well enough that your kayak becomes sensitive to your wiggle. (We’re back to Roy’s salsa again. My preference is high energy blues, but whatever works …!) Regardless of tastes, on the water you want your boat to go with you when you when do your hip thang.
So what if your hips don’t touch anything? Well, either you adjust your seat, or glue in mini-cell foam spacers or get a new seat, or new boat. I’ll tell you right now, that without good hip contact a low impact, low energy roll will be hard to achieve.
Some hip and thigh connections – Notice the foam seat wraps around the hip forming a lot of good contact.
Testing Your Connections
So.. Butt, lower back, hips, thighs, knees, feet. But that’s not all there is to this story. Let’s assume you’ve made all these connections. You’re not tight in your boat, but you feel you are connected. How do you know the connections are good enough? Just sitting in the grass doing the hula is all about the hips and won’t really tell you the whole story. As I said above, one way to get a better feel is to roll your boat upside down and see if you can stay in your seat with little effort if you wish, while at the same time being able to relax and fall out easily as well. (Unless you have an ocean cockpit of course!) On land I have another test called the, “Damn You, Harold!” test. That’s where you sit in your kayak and someone comes up behind you and pokes you in the ribs. At that moment (Right before you say.., well.., you know…) when all your muscles tense up, all your connection points should be solid. When you relax, you’ll hardly feel connected at all.
Now there is more to boat fit than simply these 5 or 6 points. Fit as I said, is a sensual thing. After you’ve gone through these basic points I’d invite you to set your boat out on the water on a day when there’s just a bit of waves (under a foot) but not quite calm either. Sit in your kayak and close your eyes. As the boat shifts with the slight movement of the water, as your body slightly tightens and relaxes to react, feel your connections. Maybe you’ll find that not only the ball and heel of your feet touch. Maybe your toes will touch the top of the deck, maybe the side of your foot contacts the side of the boat. Maybe the side of your thigh and not just the top connect. Just quiet your mind and feel the connections that appear and subside as the boat rocks beneath you. Let your nervous system reach out until you can sense the pulse of the water through your feet, your hips, your thighs… (and yes even your bum). The stronger you can make this sensual bond between your body, the boat and the environment surrounding you the better, more sound your roll will be in the end.
Next we’ll be talking about some exercises that may get us looking at rolls a little differently. We’ll focus on our bodies and learn how every one of us can perform the legendary “straight jacket” roll right now with only one minor proviso… As I tell my students, sometimes you just have to go along with my crazy mind.. there is usually some method to the madness.. Well, usually.