Kayakers hone skills with St. Vincent College 'winter roll' classes

| Tuesday, March 25, 2014, 7:02 p.m.

For 11 Tuesday evenings this winter, the pool at St. Vincent College was packed with upside-down kayakers working to right themselves.

Jeff Prycl, an avid whitewater kayaker and the owner of Rocky Mountain Kayak in Hempfield, has taught users of the fiberglass canoe-like boats for more than 25 years.

The “winter roll classes” at St. Vincent started Jan. 7 and helped kayakers of varying skill levels improve on skills that are crucial in whitewater kayaking.

“I have a friend who kayaks, and I wanted to learn how to kayak,” said Monika Holbein, who traveled from Pittsburgh to attend the class. “I learned how to rescue myself and how to roll. It's been a good class.”

The winter roll classes give beginners and veteran kayakers an opportunity to practice rolling or escaping from an overturned boat in a controlled setting to help prepare them for any capsizes that might occur in more chaotic conditions.

“The first time I flipped my kayak upside down underwater, I had been kayaking regular easy rivers for 10 years,” said Kelly Majiros of Pleasant Unity, who has attended Prycl's classes for about three years. “The first time I flipped upside down, I did not at all expect to be as panicked as I was. (The classes) slow you down and make you think, (so the roll) becomes second nature.”

The winter classes lasted about two hours each Tuesday night regardless of weather and attracted about 20 kayakers per session.

“Everybody goes at their own pace,” Majiros said. “Some people pick it up right away, and I'm not one of them. You just don't compare yourself to anybody else and don't give up.”

Prycl said he doesn't make money by offering the winter roll classes — class fees barely cover the costs of reserving the pool — but he teaches out of a passion for kayaking and a desire to draw more people to the sport.

“You can't paddle by yourself,” Prycl said. “You have to have these friends. That's why I do this. ... I teach people how to paddle. I want to get people to the point where you can go out and paddle with your friends.”

In addition to the classes at St. Vincent, he teaches in Johnstown. Once the weather warms up, he'll hold classes in the two-acre lake he built on his Rocky Mountain Kayak property. He also offers free instruction on Sundays in the summer at Ohiopyle State Park.

“I find out what made it work, the easy way to do it, and I don't give them so much knowledge that they can't digest it,” Prycl said. “I keep it down to the basics, and if you learn the basics; you can always move on to the advanced stuff.”

For experienced whitewater enthusiasts looking to move on to that advanced stuff, he even leads a yearly clinic on how to run waterfalls at Valley Falls State Park near Fairmont, W.Va.

The winter roll classes wrapped up on Saturday with a trip for beginners on Loyalhanna Creek.

“Not everybody's an A-paddler,” Prycl said. “There's a lot of B-, C-, D-paddlers that aren't really comfortable paddling unless there's some people around to save them. We provide that. We have a lot of safety boats; a lot of these people come out that have been boating for a while.

“They all started out somewhere. They were just like these new boaters, and they come out and they help because they came up through the ranks. And now they give back.”

Greg Reinbold is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2913, or greinbold@tribweb.com.

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