Whitewater Kayaking Beginner Tips 2 – Eskimo Roll

This is Part 2 of my Tom the Pilot series, meaning these are some of the key things that I think are super helpful for people starting out whitewater kayaking, and I wish I had learned a lot of them sooner than I did.

The Eskimo Roll

Having a reliable roll is key, and I mean key, to having confidence and being able to have the most fun possible while kayaking. I’ve already done one post on the kayaking Eskimo roll and in the meantime have found some other good tutorials.

Here’s a good one from Whitewater Dreams that also shows some mistakes and how to troubleshoot the roll:

Notice how in the beginning of this video starting at .48 the guy is making two really common mistakes:

1) He’s “punching out” with his passive or non-power hand (the left hand when rolling up on the right).  Punching out means that instead of keeping your passive elbow hugging your rib cage, you reach out in an attempt to power through the roll, which causes the blade to drive downward and also means you’re trying to roll up with just your arms.  (Notice how the guy in the very beginning of the video who’s doing it right uses torso rotation to power his blade as he comes up.)

My friend Erika told me that to train herself to not punch out she spent a lot of time saying “chicken wing!” to herself as she was flipping over to remind herself to hold her passive arm in tight chicken wing style, and when I went through roll challenges a year and a half ago I did the same.  Another thing you can do is take a piece of styrofoam or anything that will fit and practice rolling while holding that tight in your armpit on that side.

2)  He’s “pulling his head”, meaning that instead of his head coming up last, it’s coming up first.  This is a totally normal reaction, which is why I believe you have to practice the roll over and over (and over again) hundreds and eventually thousands of times in controllable conditions in order to develop muscle memory that will kick in for you even if you are going through a massive drop upside down while hitting your head on rocks.

I rolled up after this hit on the Mokhinui in New Zealand.

I can’t emphasize enough how practicing the roll and doing whatever it takes to make sure your technique is perfect in flat water is crucial, because you will need that muscle memory in order for your technique to not fly out the window in a combat situation.  Of course you also have to practice rolling in moving water, but the key to that is good technique and most peoples’ rolls do deteriorate from time to time, often because of always rolling under stress.  Bottom line  – whatever your roll is in flat water, it is likely to be worse, not better, on the river.  So please don’t scoff at flat water practice, just realize that the goal is not to take the easy road, but to make your roll as excellent, bomb proof and thoughtless as possible.

Here’s another good video from Whitewater Dreams that helps troubleshoot the roll:

And since if you’re a newbie you’ll probably get a lot of advice, just a reminder to do what truly works for you and take all advice with a grain of salt, including mine. 🙂

A Few Eskimo Rolling Myths

“You will lose your roll at some point.”  No you won’t, not if you keep practicing it and are tough on yourself as far as always trying to have the best possible technique.  Don’t be afraid to be an advanced boater who still starts out a pool session doing hip snaps at the side of the pool.  Many of the good Class V boaters I know have gone through periods during which they’ve struggled with their roll, that’s pretty normal – but you don’t have to lose it.

“You shouldn’t be flipping over.”  Flipping and (hopefully) rolling are just part of kayaking, unless you are always on flat water or paddling way below your skill level.  Trying new things and (gasp) failing occasionally is part of the fun, or should be.  Don’t let people make you feel bad about it.  Of course as you learn to brace better you’ll flip less, but most people who push themselves even a little bit are going to flip. The people who are most severe about it tend to be very stylish paddlers who don’t think you should try anything unless you’re almost sure to crush the line, or more timid boaters who often don’t have a great roll themselves.  Wish them well, don your nose plugs, and carry on.

“The roll requires strength.”  No it doesn’t.  OK, you have to be able to hold a paddle and rotate your torso, but that’s basically it as long as your technique is correct.  Being flexible will actually help your roll a lot more, so it’s worth doing stretches that increase your ability to bend sideways.

“Your roll is getting sketchy?  You just need some river time.”  Umm, no.  Yes, it’s true that playboating and doing things that make you flip a lot can be super helpful in terms of teaching you how to combat roll in all kinds of positions and river situations, but if your roll is shakey to the point that you’ve started getting nervous and your technique is deteriorating then you probably need flat water time, not river time.  Being scared that you’re not going to make the roll makes you more likely to pull your head, which makes you more likely to miss your roll, etc. etc.  It can be difficult but extremely useful to step back a pace or two and give yourself a chance to re-solidify your technique without the additional stress of doing it in moving water and/or having to making it upright before a downriver feature.

Also, please keep in mind that being tired can cause you to miss rolls, which is another reason playboating isn’t the fix for 100 percent of situations.  Mike, super solid Class V boater who runs 50/50 and the Box Canyon of the Ashlu (see the lovely line on 50/50 below), swam in an eddy on Boulder Drop on the Skykomish last month because he had hiked his boat up three times and raced Boulder Drop 3 laps and was just extremely tired.  It kind of gives hope to the rest of us. 😉

I’ve mentioned good technique a few times so hopefully soon I’ll get to the post I want to write about techniques that have helped me learn the roll and also finesse it when it hit the skids.  (I never lost it but it has needed rehab a few times.)

In the meantime, you may want to check out the Beginner Kayaking Tips – Forward Strokepost.