Why Can't I Do That?

Early in my kayaking career, I would get extremely frustrated when I could not do a skill I had seen illustrated in a book or seen someone else demonstrate. I figured I just had to work harder and I would get it. However, the harder I worked and the more I practiced the more frustrated I became because I still could not do the skill. It took a while but I soon realized there are equipment specific skills and body type specific skills. Please don’t take this concept as a justification for my inability to perform certain skills. It is always easier to blame the equipment or the conditions when we fail to perform. I am not talking about a missed roll. I am talking about certain physical principles that keep some of us from ever doing the skill with the equipment we have or the bodies we are living in.

Here is my first example. I learned to hand roll in a high performance whitewater kayak. With my 230 lbs. of body weight the deck of that kayak ended up at water level. Doing the hand roll was simple because I didn’t have to get my massive body far up out of the water. Also, I was able to lay on my back deck without any interference from a high seat back. However, when I got into my sea kayak, with a high backrest, my hand roll was non-existent. I could not get this large, heavy torso upright when rolling with my hands. My body was too far from the deck of the kayak for me to make it.

Once I clued in to the concept of equipment & body specific skills I was a much happier paddler. It also opened my eyes to a new level of analyzing skills. I look at the parts of the skill while watching the equipment being used and the physical abilities of the demonstrator. Another one of my so-called failures is the idea of lying out on top of the water on my back and floating on the surface while still in my kayak. I saw a Greenland style demo and thought this would be so cool to learn how to do. As soon as I laid out over the water, my kayak rolled over on me and sent me under. However, when I tried the skill in my partially submerged whitewater kayak I had some success.

Not all of my examples are negative. There are some skills I can do because of my size and strength that others cannot do. As with anything else, each of us has strengths and weaknesses just as equipment has pros and cons. The key is trying to get the best match of body, skill and equipment. Remember, kayak width, height, hull shape, cockpit size and even seat shape can have a positive or negative effect on a specific skill.

Here is a list of some equipment & body specific skills I have dealt with myself and/or seen in others over the years:

  • Hand rolling
  • 360 spins when surfing a wave
  • Dramatically edging a kayak
  • Getting legs in & out of the cockpit
  • In water draining options
  • Climbing up onto the back deck
  • Certain recoveries without bulkheads
  • Paddle float recoveries without deck rigging
  • Scramble recoveries
  • Hand of God rescue
  • Using a wing paddle stroke with a non-wing paddle
  • Lying on the water while still in your kayak

I am sure you may have a list of your own. I feel it is important to know the difference between insufficient training and these equipment & body specific skills.

I encourage everyone to work hard to improve their skills. However, there are some skills you may never be able to do because of your body or equipment. The wisdom is to know the difference and where to put your energies. Just because it is illustrated in a book, it doesn’t mean everyone in every kayak can perform it.

Permission to use this article must be obtained from Wayne Horodowich at the University of Sea Kayaking (study@useakayak.org).

Wayne Horodowich, founder of The University of Sea Kayaking (USK), writes monthly articles for the USK web site. In addition Wayne has produced the popular "In Depth" Instructional Video Series for Sea Kayaking.

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