Under water, I had a hard time orienting myself. It wasn’t really because the water was grimy-green, it just wasn’t easy to figure out what was up and down. Even if the water had been crystal clear it would not have been easier. Despite the murky water, I could see both the kayak and the paddle, but I was in an unfamiliar position: I had my body backwards, had to look towards the stern of the kayak, and the paddle had to surface at the opposite side of the one I had capsized to. All sense of what was up and down and ahead and behind had disappeared.
I gave up trying the new kayak roll I had in mind, turned around in the water and used one af the kayak rolls I knew to get up safely and without effort.
“Too bad,” I thought, and had to realize that it was probably a good idea to take it step by step, practicing the different parts of the roll and then put it all together.
The kayak roll I was trying was the Reverse Sweep Roll. In Greenland it’s called Kingumut Naatillugu, which I think means something like “pointing aft” (i.e. the paddle). It belongs to a group of Greenland rolls where you end up sitting bent over with your forehead close to the foredeck of the kayak. Rolls that, in my opinion, are somewhat harder than the ones where you end up on the back deck.
Getting started with kayak rolls
I’ve written other posts about kayak rolls, and you can read one of them here here-> Greenland rolls
In this post I will write about how you can get started with the kayak rolls. But before I go into details, I will spend some time on my own experiences and thoughts about why and how, so read patiently… or jump to the section further down ->
Kayak rolls and sea kayaking
Since I started kayaking, I’ve been drawn to the Greenland rolls as something that is an integral part of using a sea kayak. The first time I tried was the second time I was in a kayak, and I’ve continued to try and practice it ever since.
In 2020 I became even more excited about rolling my kayak. I thought it was great fun to splash around in the water (I still do), I had made some progress, and I thought I was getting the basics nailed – more or less.
In the years before, it had been frustrating to start again when the water got a little warmer in the spring. It had been like beginning from scratch again each year, but this year it was suddenly like picking up at the same level as in the autumn. That was very motivating.
At the beginning of my kayaking life, doing a Greenland roll was something distant and almost unattainable.
I enthusiastically learned and practiced the basics in the pool one winter, and I longed to get outside. That year, Copenhagen harbour was frozen over until the end of March. When we finally could get out on the water, and I did my first kayak roll outside, it was amongst the ice floes that were still all around – very authentic.
Every year there are three Danish championships for sea kayaks: in roll, in technique and Ocean race. The championships are organised by the Danish Canoe and Kayak Federation. In 2020, the rolling competition was hosted by Copenhagen Kayak Club and the technique competition by our neighbouring club. Both events were a great success.
In the kayak roll competition, points are awarded for each roll done correctly. In the technique competition, you go through a course where the participants have to perform lots of technical exercises: roll to both sides, paddle slalom, paddle with the bottom up, jump in and out of the kayak, paddle backwards while sitting on top of the kayak, do a hand roll, get through a hula hoop and much more. Whoever gets through the course the fastest is the winner. The race ends with standing up in the kayak and ringing a bell. In short, it’s a competition in handling the kayak in a lot of different and fun ways.
The championship in Greenland rolls was streamed live and you can still watch the video. The best performers come last. -> The Danish championship in roll
Playing with your sea kayak
One of the things that makes me love sea kayaks more than the other types of kayaks is all the things you can do with that kind of kayak. Especially all the different turns and manoeuvres: edging, bow rudder, stern rudder, sweep strokes, low brace turn, draw stoke and so forth and the combination of all that and much more.
To me it is great fun to get out in the waves, both on the open ocean and surfing the surf. It’s fun to be able to turn and tumble the kayak around in all sorts of ways.
I’m not quite so keen anymore to get out of the kayak. As a result, I’m not into many of the drills that are part of technique competition as I used to be.
I don’t mind getting wet by any means, but for me it’s exciting how much I can do while still in the kayak. That’s part of the reason I’ve become so interested in rolling the kayak.
A reliable kayak roll makes many things easier
As a fledgling roller, when I was still trying to get the standard roll to work consistently, I often had to crawl out of the kayak underwater when it failed. Gradually, though, I got better and better, could stay in the kayak, and I could start trying other ways to roll the kayak.
It’s a big help to have a reliable standard roll when I try new things. I don’t have to pull myself out of the kayak if something goes wrong. I go back to what I know, roll up and are ready to go again as soon as I catch my breath.
In the same way being able to do a kayak roll makes it easier to practice many of the other techniques in the kayak, the different rudders, strokes and draws and the combinations of them. You can push yourself more to the limits. If you capsize, you don’t have to get out of the kayak and spend time and effort getting back in it – you can easily get up doing a kayak roll, ready to continue what you’re practicing.
Hold your breath
When you capsize, especially when you’re new, the first thing that comes to mind will probably be getting your head out of the water so you can breathe. The thing is, though, you’re rarely underwater for more than a few seconds, even if you mess around getting the spray deck off.
Anyone, and I mean anyone, can without practice easily hold their breath for a minute or more even without taking a deep breath first – there’s plenty of time when the kayak is bottom up and you are upside down with the head among the fish.
It’s quite natural to want to get your head out of the water as quickly as possible. It’s all about being able to breathe again.
One of the first things you have to understand when learning the kayak rolls is that your head has to stay down in the water and only come up at the very end of the roll. It’s pretty counterintuitive and takes some practice.
One way to get started with kayak rolls is to practice what is called an Eskimo rescue. In Denmark it is now called an assisted Greenland roll. It’s part of what most will learn during intro courses, whether commercial or in a club.
The eskimo rescue is a great way to practice the basic principles of kayak rolling: to turn the kayak upright first, and then get the head out of the water.
When you see someone do a Greenland roll, on video or on the water, you may get the impression that the paddle is doing the work, but what really happens you don’t see. It’s done with the legs inside the kayak and with the abdominal muscles: the leg and abdominal muscles turn the kayak, and you then pull your body and finally your head up onto the back deck before coming to a sitting position. The paddle simply provides support for what the body is doing.
The first kayak roll
I would suggest that the first kayak roll you learn is a Standard Greenland roll. Some use a C-to-C roll as the first roll, but since it’s easy to overload and damage the shoulder in that roll, I wouldn’t recommend it at all.
In the standard roll start by getting your body as close to the surface as possible. Preferably so far up that your face is near or in the surface. Keep your shoulders as parallel to the surface as you can and the paddle at chest height with your elbows to the side of the body. The paddle is along the side of the kayak and it may be a help to extend it towards the bow of the kayak. Hold the paddle with your palms facing up.
Then use the lower leg and lower body to turn the kayak while straightening and arching the body, letting the head sink backwards into the water and then turn the body so that the paddle describes an arc away from the kayak. Be sure to hold the paddle blade so that the paddle doesn’t cut into the water, but swipes parallel to the surface, creating a lift. Finally, pull your body up onto the back deck and sit up. Remember the head is the last thing to come out of the water.
The principle is the same whether you use a regular paddle or a Greenland paddle.
Besides using the eskimo rescue to practice rolling the kayak, another exercise that is helpful is the balance brace or static brace.
To do the static brace, lean back on the back deck and let yourself slide out onto the water so that you are floating on the surface of the water. Use your leg to keep the kayak upright and lift your hip so you can turn your body and keep your shoulders parallel to the water surface. Keep your head down in the water maybe with only your nose and mouth above the surface.
In the beginning, while learning the static brace, it is a nice help to have a paddle float or a paddle in one hand.
The static brace gives a good sense for how to use your leg, lower body and upper body in a kayak roll, and is good practice for progressing to the more advanced kayak rolls.
Kayak rolls – a complex movement
As you can understand from the description, the kayak roll is a very complex movement, and it can be difficult to figure out what goes wrong when it fails.
Typical mistakes can be not using your leg and lower body to turn the kayak, trying to get your head or whole body out of the water first, the paddle blade cutting into the water or a whole bunch of other things.
It is really helpful to have someone to teach you the basics. In the absence of a teacher, practice with a friend. You can take turns giving each other feedback, and if you’re in shallow water, you can stand next to each other and help turn the kayak around if things go wrong. It makes it much easier if you don’t have to get out of the kayak all the time.
Most clubs have nice people who are willing to teach, and it is easy to find commercial courses.
Even though I’m trying to write about it here, it’s hard to learn how to roll your kayak by reading a text. Video clips are a better help, and in another post on kayaking I recommended a couple of videos I’ve enjoyed myself.
However, if you really want to dive into rolling, there’s no way around a teacher. Fortunately, there are plenty of options for that. Ask at your club or find a course.
Over the water, under the water, down through the water.
There’s a famous yoga mantra called the Gayatri Mantra, and the first line go like this: »bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ«. It means: the earth, the air and the sky.
When I’m out at the ocean in my kayak, it has a different ring to it: The sea, the air and the sky. Three elements that always make me happy. That’s why I’ve become so fond of rolling, because doing kayak rolls, I feel even closer to those three elements: at the sea, down in the sea, up in the air, up in the light, up towards the sky – and around again.
That may sound a bit presumptuous, but what can I say? It makes my life richer.