No, you don't need to be able to roll a kayak ...
... most of the time.
However, just working towards acquiring the skills, techniques and coordination that would be needed if you were eventually to roll one, will stand a paddler in good stead in many ways.
The above sequence illustrates possible forms of boat control during various stages of recovery from an inversion. The important point here is not "the roll" or whether you ever want or will be able to perform one.
Much, perhaps too much, is made of rolling a boat through 360 degrees. Why? A complete roll is certainly useful if you can utilize the momentum of capsizing to roll back up on the opposite side to the one on which you went under.
Typically folding boats roll too slowly to make use of the momentum of capsizing. Once you are inverted it makes no difference on which side you make your attempt to recover.
My first preference is always not to invert in the first place. Therefore I find it most important to practice the final phases of a recovery from inversion, the bracing and sculling, the motions of the torso and head, as well as boat control through the legs and hips. These techniques allow me to make a good attempt at preventing an inversion altogether. I practice "inversion recovery and prevention" under great control and most of the time I recover on the same side on which I capsized (or started to capsize) to begin with.
Practicing the elements of technique that can make up a recovery from inversion - or, indeed, a roll -- will greatly enhance your feeling for the boat, as well as your confidence in your abilities to handle it even under unusual circumstances.
One prerequisite of being able to effect boat control techniques is a solid connection between the paddler and the boat. Not only must the paddler be able to prevent a shift in seating position with the boat heeled hard, or even an involuntary exit when inverted, but the forces generated by the control techniques must be transferred to the hull with as little loss of energy as possible. Feet (heels only if the toes are to operate the rudder pedals!), knees, thighs, hips and buttocks must therefore be in solid contact with the frame, at the same time leaving the paddler's torso free to move in all directions at the waist ("ball joint"). [see also "The Importance of Fit"]
Also, if you expect to be subjected to inversion, angles of heel that submerge the cockpit coaming, or waves climbing aboard in surf or turbulent rivers, then a tight spray deck is essential:
For the training session, during which the pictures above were taken, we used a one-piece spray deck. It seals quite effectively at the coaming, to which it is solidly attached with the same star nuts that connect the coaming itself to the rest of the frame. Raised funnels over each seat, with top-edge drawstrings and front-installed waterproof zippers (dry-suit type), permit entry and egress for the paddlers.
We experimented with these funnels worn both under and over the PFDs. In the former case water ingress was slightly less during capsize, but egress was made more complicated during inverted exits. When we wore the PFDs over the funnels, only a little more water entered the hull (partially because it was possible to keep the funnels up higher around our torsos), but inverted egress was somewhat eased.
Every five or six inversions we paused to clear the bilges of four to six inches of water, which took one to two minutes under the combined action (to more or less equal parts) of a foot operated bilge pump and a second plunger type pump operated by hand.
Inverted exits did not require opening of the zippers at any time. To right the boat after such an exit, you merely close the funnels by means of the drawstrings and roll the hull back up. Very little additional water enters during this phase. For this reason in this context a single piece spray deck may have an advantage over a three-piece unit, i.e., one that consists of a spray deck with individual coamings, to which normal individual spray skirts for each paddler can be attached.
Of course it is possible to effect unassisted, as well as group rescues and reentries following an inverted exit. However, these do expose the swimming paddlers to the potentially life draining effects of cold water and put any would-be rescuers at some risk also, if the conditions were such that an inversion occurred in the first place.
(For safety's sake, we recommend that you practice under controlled circumstances only and in the presence of qualified instructors. The above brief overview does not replace proper instruction.)
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