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The Problem With Bomb Proof Rolls

The Problem With Bomb Proof Rolls – I think instructors who perpetuate the concept of a “bomb-proof” roll do their students a disservice.

First of all, there really is no such thing as a “bomb-proof” roll. The term alludes to a roll that’s so reliable, and so fine-tuned, that it never fails. That’s misleading and unrealistic. Every experienced instructor knows that given sufficient “conditions”, everyone eventually bails and swims – and in fact, the best paddlers I know have all taken swims at one time or another.

It’s also a potentially dangerous idea to plant in a student’s head because, as many studies have amply demonstrated, people have an unfortunate tendency to overestimate their abilities, and deluding yourself into thinking that your roll is “bomb-proof” can have undesirable consequences – particularly for less experienced paddlers.

Think about it: If you have a “bomb-proof” roll, why would you waste time worrying about the possibility of a swim? Why bother learning or practicing rescues? Why bother dressing for the water temperature? Why practice swimming with your paddle? Why avoid paddling solo in gnarly conditions? For that matter, why would you even wear a PFD?
“It’s no biggie, Dude, ’cause I got a bomb-proof roll!” is the kind of attitude that can get any paddler, no matter how experienced, into “deep trouble”.

As instructors, we should be discouraging our students from thinking this way, because when it comes to safety, a humble and realistic mindset is our friend, and machismo is our enemy. Despite what a lot of hyperbolic writers have written over the years, nobody “conquers” a mountain, or a river, or the sea.

Words: Moulton Avery

What are your thought on this?

21 Comments

  1. Andrew Bonney

    Absolute load of rubbish! Have any Qiwi’s read this? Barny Young?
    An instructor instructs someone a coach coaches someone to the best of their ability and I’m not going to take anyone into a grade 5 canyon without a bomb proof roll!

    • Moulton Avery

      A load of rubbish is it? I defined what I meant by the term. Maybe you’re one of those exceptional paddlers who can ace a 100 foot waterfall with a hand roll finish, or the “grade 5 canyon” you mentioned and never blow a roll. But in my book, the term bomb proof is just pure hubris. My respect goes to paddlers who are realistic and humble about their skills, and there’s nothing realistic or humble about claiming that your roll will never fail. By the way, how many of your students do you take into “grade 5 canyons”, and how do you determine that their rolls are “bomb proof”. Crystal ball?

  2. Oli Kershaw

    Totally disagree with the idea that having a bombproof roll means you won’t think about safety, be prepared for a swim or neglect to understand the implications of soloing. That would be a failing in a coach.

    The roll is one of the most important whitewater skills and having a “bomber” roll will undoubtedly save you an unpleasant swim at some point.

    Maybe we should just stop coaching forward paddling in case people think they’re too good to learn how to turn…

    • Steve Young

      I have read this article a few times now just to make sure and I have read your comments. Oli you need to read it again. I think you fundamentally seem to agree with it. Moulton is refering to the idea of a bomb proof roll being one that is always 100% successful, but argues that this cant be the case and that paddlers shouldnt be complacent.

  3. jimyak

    nothing is 100%

  4. Georgia Henderson

    Don’t really agree with the article at all to be honest…. not that I claim to have a bomb proof roll. I feel that anyone who takes whitewater kayaking should strive to have a bomb proof roll, it certainly makes life easier, and lets be honest a lot of the time the safer option is to roll up and stay in your boat rather swim down a rapid. However, this does not mean that once people become fairly confident in their ability to roll that they automatically want to run G5 solo. Any experienced paddler knows that a bomb proof roll does eliminate risks on the river. Whether you have an amazing roll or not, the hazards of huge holes, siphons and strainers are still going to be there.

  5. Dave Bland

    Hmm… yes all good paddlers swim, but in reality their swims are not caused by simply failing to roll. It’s almost invariably an un-rollable-from situation, or a recognition that bailing and saving energy is wiser than continuing to fight. Either way, a bomber roll is a prerequisite for the top grades.
    Yes, there is a point that at the learning grades, a bomb-proof roll can act as a false sense of security and possibly encourage stuff to be paddled that shouldn’t be or even become a substitute for paddling technique. However for every instance of this, there are probably many more where a roll has avoided a potentially nasty swim due to a learning error.

    • Nick Bennett

      I agree Dave, if you are swimming on Grade 5 because your roll failed then that should trigger a real moment of reflection. There are so many variables in white water. Having the skills you can dial in on easy water or even on the flat water before stepping up is a good idea for sure. Most swims that good paddlers have on hard white water have nothing to do with their ability to roll, knowing when to tag and when to stay put can be really important.

      I also don’t think that being good at rolling makes people do stupid stuff. We all do stupid stuff, I think this is because we are all a bit stupid. Seriously we do a stupidly dangerous activity for fun. Roll or no roll that’s dumb. We should all get into video games or something much safer like that.

  6. Jamie Greenhalgh

    BIG DISAGREE.
    I actually think our problem the vast majority of developing paddlers is lack of belief in their roll making them swim in potentially dangerous situations. We need to be strengthening self belief not cautioning it. I see the other commenters on this post agree.

    • Moulton Avery

      Please see my comment below in which I quote from an article by Wayne Horodowich.

    • Steve Young

      Lack of belief is at one end and complancy is at the other. As with most things there is a middle ground.

  7. Phil

    To the author – I think you’re taking things a bit too literally and can’t think of anything else to write about…

    Bomb proof roll should be encouraged. I would say that 99% of kayakers that claim to have a “bomb-proof roll” don’t just go and paddle class 5 just because of that…those that paddle class 5 tend to have the other skills to match…

    Those that have a bomb-proof roll generally are intelligent enough to not take things too literally and understand that after 2 minutes fighting in a hole their roll doesn’t mean shit.

    • Moulton Avery

      I think you need to read the article again because you clearly missed the central point that I was making. You don’t realize it, but lots of very experienced paddlers don’t like the term “bomb proof roll”. So this is an opinion piece about nomenclature. Also, whitewater isn’t the only place that people paddle. And I didn’t say anything about Class 5. Please don’t put words in my mouth that I never said.

    • Sarah Russell

      Phil, I think you have taken it literally. Moulton has been quite clear on the issue with assuming rolls are 100% proof.

  8. Trebor

    A G5 bomber roll is somewhat different from a G2 bomber roll.

    There are so many variables.

    I doubt I’ll ever miss a roll on G2/G3 but I struggle at times on G4 and G5.

    Having a roll opens up opportunities. The roll is a forever developing speciality that can never really be claimed as always to be successful.

  9. Cara

    Disagree with this. A bomb proof roll is possible and yes good paddlers swim but it’s not likely the roll is the cause, it’s the situation. A roll does not self rescue in every river eventuality. My example of a first swim in 3 / 4 years was stuck in a retentive death weir on a flooded river. Getting out of that in a buoyant Boat was impossible due to the volume of water and tow back, and as found bailing the boat it still held me as a swimmer. It’s the situation not the roll that causes the swim. I rolled in that situation initially but that was not going to get me out ! My swim was not caused by a failed roll, it was a conscious decision to remove myself from a buoyant boat as an attempt to rescue myself and flush from the weir. Retentive Holes, strainers, Rock pins ect cause the swim and a Failed roll in these situations is not cause. As for safety training … I’m sure regardless of a roll most people value there’s and their peers life’s !!

    • Moulton Avery

      Wow! How in the world did a highly experienced paddler like you wind up getting stuck in a “retentive death weir on a flooded river”? That’s a novice mistake. And yeah, your epic swim definitely wasn’t due to a failed roll, so I wonder why you chose to mention it in the context of disagreeing with what I wrote.

    • Bill A

      I think you have digressed from the point.

      In that particular case a roll may not have helped. But Is it not over confidence, lack of skill, or bad judgement that lead to your swim.

  10. Tom Parker

    Blimey Bonney, didn’t you swim a couple of weeks back on the Upper Dart? I thought you had a bombproof roll? ; )

    Seriously though, I think both the author and my fellow commentators make some valid points. The author is right; a totally, 100% bombproof roll is a myth. To stretch the metaphor, you think something is bombproof, then a bigger than anticipated bomb detonates.

    Humans have a real tendency to be lazy, cognitively speaking. Would it be fair to say that, as coaches, when we say ‘bombproof roll’ what we actually really mean is ‘a solid, well honed roll that is as reliable as we can make it’? I know that’s certainly what I mean and what I believe a roll needs to be but it’s quite a mouthful so I’ve certainly been guilty of using the term ‘bombproof roll’ as a bit of a shortcut.

    I disagree with the author’s point that having a bombproof roll automatically skews someone’s risk perception and management. It’s more complex than that and will depend on other factors too, things like the behaviour of the group someone is with for example. As coaches, we really need to do all we can to help people develop an accurate perception of risk, along with solid risk-benefit decisions and risk management. Rolling and, as Jamie points out, confidence in our roll is important but it is one piece of the puzzle, so to speak. To focus those we work with on trying to attain something that doesn’t exist to the detriment of other factors does them a disservice.

  11. Moulton Avery

    Well, I wrote the article, and I beg to disagree. The best paddlers I know embrace the concept that eventually, everyone is likely to swim and should prepare for that eventuality. Maybe we simply disagree on nomenclature. In my old-school book “bombproof” means never-fails. A noble thing to aspire to, but not a reality-based phenomenon. Shit happens, mates, and hubris has a way of coming round and biting cocky paddlers in the ass.

  12. Moulton Avery

    BTW – I’m not denigrating confidence; I’m addressing overconfidence and the power of words to influence thinking and safety in paddlesports. I’m also addressing this to instructors who are teaching students to roll. Some of you wrote about Grade 5 whitewater. If you’re paddling upper grades, you damn well better have a very reliable roll. However not many paddlers are at that level – the vast majority – including sea kayakers – paddle in conditions where a mistake isn’t automatically life-threatening.

    Here’s what Wayne Horodowich (University of Sea Kayaking) had to say about the concept in an excellent article he wrote, “The Mental Game of Rolling”:

    “The concept of the “Bomb Proof Roll” is a worthy pursuit. However, I have to say my experience with some of the best paddlers in the world has shown me that everyone swims sooner or later. Therefore, you should have reliable capsize recovery skills if you do have to wet exit because you happen to be off your game on that particular day. The game that I am referring to is of course the mental game of rolling.”
    You can find the whole article on Paddling.com here: https://paddling.com/learn/the-mental-game-of-rolling/

    There’s also an interesting discussion of the term here on Paddling.com: https://forums.paddling.com/t/bombproof-roll/50864/3

    I hope this clarifies the point I was trying to make..

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