Basic rolling instructions
"Eskimo roll" is a phrase we've all heard, but it's a mystery to a lot of people. When you mention kayaks to someone unfamiliar with them, it's the first thing they'll usually ask about, a magic trick that has burned itself into the Norwegian kayaker's consciousness, dating back to the days of polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen. But let's establish one thing right at the outside - rolling is not a lifesaving method for us modern paddlers. If you capsize and you manage to pull it off, that's great, but you must NEVER rely on rolling as your first choice when it comes to rescues in deep water. Rolling can not and must not replace knowing buddy-rescue and self-rescue techniques.
The situation for the Greenlanders was different, though. For them, some form of rolling was their only usable rescue technique. The reason was that they were often out hunting by themslves, and swimming in cold water without wetsuits or the like was nearly 100% fatal. Therefore they developed kayak rolls into a sort of art, which included a ton of different acrobatic exercises - variations on all possible conditions involving a capsized kayak. They learned to master the art at a high level, but many of them still died at sea. Around 1920 it's said that ca. 20% of all deaths in Greenland were due to kayak accidents. If we assume a fairly even distribution of men and women, it means that every fifth man died in his kayak.
For sea kayakkers today the roll is a nice supplement to other rescue exercises, and learning to roll is in my opinion VERY useful. It's fun and easy to learn, there are almost infinite possibilities for further development, and it provides a fantastic way of getting to know yourself and your kayak better.
The Greenlanders' first choice of roll is a variant called "Kinnguffik Paarlallugu" in Greenlandic, which means simply "to capsize on one side and come up on the other". In Europe the roll is usually called "Pawlata". I tend to call it the "Standard Greenland Roll". "Standard" because it's the most common version. It's easy to learn, easy to perform, and reliable under all conditions.
A step-by-step description of the roll:
Starting position: The blade of the paddle is held at the end with the left hand (not too tight) and at the shaft/blade transition with the right hand. During the whole roll the right arm is the most active. The paddle is placed flat against the left side of the foredeck of the kayak. You lean over to the left side, and hold the paddle in this position until you're completely upside down.
You lie upside down, and try to turn your face towards what will be the right side of the kayak. The paddle blade is placed in the surface of the water on the side of the kayak. Angle the blade slightly, so that it'll tend upwards when you move the paddle across the surface of the water.
Move the blade of the paddle along the surface until it's about at a 90 degree angle to the kayak. Be aware of the angle on the blade, otherwise the paddle may submerge. You'll use this sweep stroke to raise your upper body upwards in the water - stay there! As long as you're in the water, you're weightless.
You hold the kayak by setting your feet against the footrest and your knees against the underside of the deck (the "masik" in a Greenland kayak) so that you can move the kayak sideways by twisting your hips. Now press downwards on the paddle, at the same time quickly twisting your hips and leaning as far backwards as you can.
The kayak will now right itself. You're still leaned backwards, and let your head right itself last of all. Be careful not to tip over to the left again, by putting a little weight on the paddle.
You straighten up, and hold the paddle out for support.
Tips for learning
You can learn this the hard way by training alone. That will work for some people, but badly for most people. If you want to learn it in a few hours you should follow some simple advice given here. First, mastering a roll is mostly connected with how well you feel at home in the water. People with mild hydrophobia will have a harder time than natural swimmers. Therefore it's a good idea with some form of acclimatisation first. Hot water is an advantage, and bathing or swimming right before rolling practice is a LARGE advantage. It's necessary that you can reliably exit the kayak after capsizing. You should also dress properly - cold water is stressing, so dress according to the temperature with wetsuits as appropriate. A noseplug and diving goggles or a full diving mask also reduce stress, and can freely be used while training. Your kayak should be well padded so that you don't slip around in it, but can brace with your knees. In Greenland kayaks you can also move further forwards in the kayak. This makes it easier to lean backwards and is an advantage while practising.
OAnd finally, you MUST have a helper with you, who's dressed for standing around in the water. It's best if two people both want to learn to roll so they can swith between rolling and helping. The helper has one practical function of giving physical support during the training, pulling you up if you fail, and providing feedback on what you're doing right or wrong. The helper also has another important function of giving you a feeling of safety. Most people experience some discomfort at being stuck upside down in a kayak and then practising complicated movements, so having someone else nearby can mean everything for your success! It'll help you relax, which is very useful when learning to roll. The helper stands in the water and can hold your hands (no paddle). This way you can learn to move your hips freely while lying in the water - practice relaxing your neck so that your head stays in the water. When this is second nature you can take the paddle and try to do the same with a paddle in hand.
You've now learned to control your hips, lean backwards and relax in the water. The helper now stands in the water and supports you while you do the work yourself. One hand on the shoulder is often all that's necessary. Eventually the helper can support less and less, until you can manage by yourself.
A new apprentice!
This is the blog of my new apprentice: Here:
A video clip from last summers great baidarka adventure:here
A video from a kayak building class this winter:here
The course calendar has been updated. Check out this year's kayak building classes:here
New, and well illustrated presentation of our beautiful new paddle types! More.