You may have heard how the Inuit have a lot of words for snow – how their language is adapted to the environment.
In a similar way their journeys at sea have adapted to the environment. Since the water in the Arctic Ocean is freezing cold, so cold that you can’t expect to survive in it, those who venture out there have found a variety of ways to get back up quickly without exiting the kayak if they capsize.
There are more than 35 different ways to roll a kayak, to do a Greenland roll, if you somehow end up head down in the water.
This post is not a tutorial in how to do a Greenland roll. Rather, it is about experiences with kayak rolls, about why it is fun and rewarding to learn and about the confidence it gives when we paddle in the waves at the ocean.
There are also some thoughts on how to approach learning this art, and in the end, I will give some pointers where to look further if you would like to be introduced to the mysteries.
You can also read more about kayak rolls in these two posts:
Kayak rolls – get started with Greenland rolls
Rolling your kayak – when Greenland rolls become nerdy
The Greenland kayak and cultural preservation
The Greenland kayak is the ansestress of all the modern kayak forms we know: the sea kayaks, the flatwater kayaks, the sprint kayaks, the surf skis, the whitewater kayaks, the surf kayaks, the polo kayaks, etc.
It is a great tool originally developed to survive while hunting in the Arctic. It is a fast vessel. Even beginners can easily paddle faster than normal walking pace. It is very seaworthy, and paddled properly it is almost silent – an advantage when it comes to getting within harpoon distance of a seal.
Like everything else in the world, hunting in Greenland, and around the Arctic Circle, has moved into modern times and is now done with motorboats and hunting rifles. Clearly. Hunting in these areas is a matter of putting food on the table and earn a living to live a modern life.
But how do you hold on to old traditions when progress has taken over? You create a competition. In Greenland, kayak championships are held every year, both in rolling, sprint and paddling long distances. Not only Greenlanders take part, but people from all over the world show up.
In the same way that kayaking and kayak competitions in many forms have spread to the rest of the world, can rolling competitions be found a lot of places, including Denmark.
In 2017 and 2019, The Danish Championships in Kayak Roll were held in Copenhagen Kayak Club. You can see a short video from 17 here:
Why learn to do a Greenland roll?
The first time I tried to roll a kayak, I was splashing uselessly around with the paddle until I couldn’t hold my breath anymore and had to crawl out of the cockpit and ask someone to help me back into the kayak.
I was on a beginner course, and over four Sundays we were introduced to kayaking. We had been on the water for maybe three or four hours in total when I tried to roll. Perhaps it was a little ambitious, but it seemed alluring. And it still seems alluring to do a kayak roll.
There are many reasons why you’ll want to do a Greenland roll. When you are practice handling a sea kayak, you practice a variety of steering techniques, you practice controlling the kayak’s movements in the water, and you practice rescuing yourself and others in the event of capsizes and other mishaps. The kayak roll is one way to rescue yourself, and when you practise the other techniques it’s a convenient way to get back up and not spend time getting out of the kayak, turning it around, getting back in and emptying it of water, but you can continue the exercises straight away. That way you have the energy to push your training to the limit and learn more. You also have the extra energy and confidence to get out at the sea, not only when it is flat and mirrorlike.
A bit of safety at sea
Pär Lagerlöf writes in ‘Pilgrim at Sea’ that the sea doesn’t give safety, but peace. For me, the sea not only gives peace, but is also invigorates and heals body and soul.
As I, in my kayaking life, became more and more proficient in doing a Greenland roll, I also began to feel more at ease both in protected waters and far out at ocean: The North Atlantic, The Norwegian Sea, The North Sea, Kattegat, Øresund, etc. Especially after I had successfully rolled up a few times in rough conditions.
You don’t need to learn all 35 different Greenland rolls to achieve this confidence, not at all. It’s enough to learn what is called the standard roll, but apart from the fun of learning all the different rolls, there is some basic technique to be learned by expanding the repertoire.
If a winter day in a sea kayak…
The water was cold this winter day. In the quiet corners of the harbor the ice was getting thick, and ice flows spotted the open water. When I capsized, on purpose I have to add, all I could think about was getting back up, and what I had practiced in the swimming pool during winter kicked in. The kayak rolled up as I swept the body and paddle out to the side and sat up. An exhilarating experience! But boy was it cold.
Something happens to your physical and mental state when you suddenly put your head into water with a temperature near freezing. It’s like everything contracts and at the same time you become incredibly alert. Perhaps it can be described as the body shrinking, but the mind expanding. It makes it easy to lose your bearings when you get out of the water. With practice, of course, it becomes easier to cope – the condition is the same, but the loss of orientation lessen.
It is not the same as lowering your body into ice water with your head above water. The fact that your head goes under makes a big difference, especially when hanging upside down in a kayak.
How do you learn to do a Greenland roll?
For those who would like to be initiated into the mysteries of kayak rolling, there is plenty of information many places. Almost every book on kayaking has a chapter or two on how to do a Greenland roll – some books are even dedicated to just that. There are many videos on the subject, and you can spend days on YouTube should you feel like it.
Learning it from a book is almost useless in my eyes. Some videos are very instructive and thorough and can be a good supplement, but you won’t get far without a teacher.
A kayak roll is a complex movement where you use your legs and body to turn the kayak upright, then pull your body up onto the back deck or foredeck and finally sit up.
A lot can go wrong in a matter of seconds, and it can be hard to understand what small thing or complex of events causes the roll to fail.
When you do a Greenland roll, no matter which of the many variations, your head is last out of the water. This is rather counter-intuitive – it’s quite natural to try to get your head up first so you can breathe again, and if the water is cold, the incentive is even greater. But you can easily hold your breath for a long time. Even without training most people can hold their breath for a few minutes, and a kayak roll, even when done slowly, lasts only seconds.
There are many factors that go into a successful roll, and it takes a skilled teacher or coach to be able to correct mistakes in a constructive way.
A Greenland roll is not the first thing to learn, but…
To start using a sea kayak is easy, you can pretty much just get into one and start paddling, but it can be a much better and bigger experience if you get good instructions.
A sea kayak course teaches new paddlers both how to control the kayak and how to rescue themselves and others, which opens for getting out far and wide on both day trips and longer kayak journeys.
However, a Greenland roll is not the first thing to learn, but it can quickly become something you look for once you get started in a sea kayak.
I can’t help but mention that I think it’s a really good idea to be a member of a kayak club. Besides the social aspect and the joy of getting out with others, most clubs have skilled people who like to pass on their knowledge. Many who are skilled at rolling also loves to pass on the art.
Greenland roll resources
Once you’re well into learning to roll a kayak, videos can be a great help and there are plenty to choose from. There are lots of videos on YouTube, of course, but be a bit critical, there’s also a lot of crap amongst all the good stuff.
A couple of videos I’ve bought and enjoyed myself are ‘This is the Roll’ 1 and 2. They can be bought both in kayak shops and as downloads from Justine Curgenven’s website or from Kayak Ways.
Helen Wilson‘s DVD, ‘Simplifying the Roll’ is fine, and I got a lot out of watching that too. It is only available on DVD.
A good, free online resource is Qajaq Rolls with both short, instructional video clips and a written outline with schematic drawings of each roll. It can all be used online or downloaded for free.
There are certainly many other good places to seek knowledge and inspiration, and new ones are probably being added all the time. Just look around, but it’s a good idea to get advice from experienced rollers about which ones are worth spending time on.
The quest for sea kayaking adventures
The many different Greenland rolls have been developed to cope with the various situations that can arise when hunting at sea: capsizing, capsizing in rough weather, capsizing when you don’t have your paddle, capsizing if you are holding something in your hand, capsizing when you have thrown the harpoon and are sitting with the throwing stick in your hand, if you are wrapped in the harpoon line and many other incidents that might otherwise be fatal.
When hunting with a shotgun became common, a roll was developed so the shooter could get back up with the gun still in his hand should he be knocked over by the recoil, the so-called shotgun roll.
The shotgun roll is perhaps not that important for a modern kayaker, but some of the other Greenland rolls are very useful. The hand roll is good if you capsize without your paddle, the storm roll’s usefulness is clear from its name, being able to roll with something in your hand is smart if you fall over with your camera in your hand, and so forth.
The Greenland roll enhances our sea kayaking experience, whether we are just learning it as a safety measure or practising it as a sport in itself. There will always be something new to learn. Gradually it becomes a natural part of being on the water, and it gives us a little more confidence to experience the sea and the peace it brings to the mind.