Demystifying the eskimo roll

A while back I wrote an article based on the Qajaq USA fueled discussion about Mentally Preparing to Eskimo Roll. For the uninitiated. An eskimo roll is the ability to right your kayak without exiting. Essentially it is a finesse maneuver where the paddler floats their body at the surface alongside their kayak and aggressively flicks their inboard hip to right the boat. With a little assistance from a paddle/hand/norsaq for support on the surface, the boat rights itself and the paddler can swing their body back, or forward onto the deck and then sit up.

This video is of me performing a Norsaq assisted forward recovery hand roll in a white water boat. This is one of the more difficult hand rolls to perform due to the need to stay close to the foredeck. Though certainly this is not as hard as an elbow roll, or a straight jacket roll.

Culturally within sea kayaking there has been a long standing misconception about eskimo rolling. As coaches we have created a mystique around a very basic skill. We have made it seem as if learning to roll is a mystical power not unlike Yoda lifting the X-Wing fighter out of the Dagobah swamp.

Yoda Lifting Luke's X Wing out of Dagobah Swamp

Sea Kayaking coaches have made the roll seem like a herculean, obscure, and dangerous power, rather than the necessary simple gateway skill it is. Part of this is due to the dynamic conditions under which ocean paddlers may voyage forth. Some days may be calm and temperate, some days may be tempestuous, windy and downright gnarly. Based on these shifting conditions coaches wisely instruct paddlers to watch conditions, know your limits, dress for immersion, stay close to shore, and never paddle alone. All sound advice. A capsize would be an unlikely event if you were smart enough to avoid big waves, high winds, and strong tides correct?

Before I tackle the bizarre assumption of an unlikely capsize at sea in a boat that is 20 inches wide. Let’s look at what the moving water crowd does.

Good white water instructors teach every paddler that comes through their programs to roll. It is a necessary skill. It is not an unlikely event that one will be capsized while paddling down a Class III or Class IV rapid. It’s going to happen. So you better be prepared for it. The risks of a wet exit in rapids are fairly high. There are strainers, logs or trees fallen across the river to get yourself or your boat wedged within. Falls or nasty retentive features to suck you under and hold you down also come to mind. Reputable white water schools require that before the students leave class; each must do a roll to run the river. Or they go in a raft. Sounds reasonable right?

So my question is: why don’t Sea Kayak instructors approach teaching the student to roll the way white water instructors do? If we are truly preparing paddlers to kayak on the sea in long skinny boats (at any distance from shore) why don’t we approach teaching the student to roll the way white water instructors do? The risks are no less serious than river paddling. If you go in the drink at sea (or Great Lakes) you can be blown far from shore in cold water and drown within a matter of twenty minutes. How is that less risky than white water kayaking?

Is it the truly unlikely event of a capsize? I performed a google search on kayaking deaths for Washington State and found at least three in the top 10 searches within the Seattle and Bellingham area for 2008. There are four for Michigan. So really how unlikely is it?

Press for paddle sports and specifically kayaking is great. We need more press pointing people to the joy of getting out on the water. Especially getting out on the water under human power. There are far too many people who opt for the cheap thrills of gasoline powered endeavors. For me whether it is cycling, paddling, running, or swimming, I enjoying getting there under my own power. There are certain risks associated with this endeavor. The Bellingham Herald wrote an article Entitled, Sea Kayaking and White Water Paddling as different as night and day. The phrase that really got me thinking was this statement from Dave Johnson of Johnson outdoors about Sea Kayaking,

“Ideally, you should be able to re-enter your boat if it flips,”

And then most poignantly this was said by Dirk Fabian in the article about white water paddling:

“Having a good, solid roll is important; having an experienced group to go with is the most important.”

I do not blame the Bellingham Herald for this misconception. I am happy paddling is getting press. I blame us as Sea Kayaking Coaches, we need to take the Yoda out of the roll and get serious about teaching it as an essential skill to all students who will go to sea. Even if the student is struggling with it, we still need to stress it’s importance. We need to stop making it appear that it is an optional, or nice to have skill. You know…if you were maybe thinking about going to sea. We need to stress the risks of going to sea without a roll in the way that white water instructors stress the importance of the roll for moving water on the river.

Let me know your thoughts on the subject.


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  2. I attended a weekend long training course at some expense in a dedicated pool environment with 8 others (3 to a boat). By the end nobody could roll. Not one! I was so disappointed – felt ripped off. Only after a loft of thought did I realise the fault was an instructor who could do but not communicate – that not enough emphasis was placed on hip-work. But the tragedy was that I would not take my partner out in hired boats till I felt she would be able to roll – not talking white water or heavy seas here – just the nice summer day out on a loch and an unexpected plunge. So 2 years on we are no closer realising the freedom offered by the kayak – I think there is a huge niche here to win great success – just needs good teaching!

  3. "Most" kayakers aren't paddling sea kayaks, but recreational boats or SOT's. The same bunch is happy to be ON the water, but would be horrified to be IN it. Most are usually only out on sheltered waters, near the shore. So for these people, rolling is an unnecessary trick. Skills development, like bracing, sculling, using torso rotation while paddling, edging, etc., just aren't of interest. The problems start when these people find themselves "in conditions" that they did not anticipate, or recognize, and find that they are now in trouble.

    For the much smaller group of people who ARE interested in skill development, rolling is an excellent skill that helps them develop additional abilities because they have the confidence of being able to roll up as needed, and they can push more aggressively into the envelope. But ya godda be motivated. No instructor can give you that.

  4. I have loved this sport for a decade. I build kayaks, play kayak football, kayak surf in short boats, love my GP and used to dabble in WW. I roll many different ways and have played in hurricanes. Lets really open our eyes as to the mindset of who we are trying to instruct.

    Look up the demographics of sea kayakers. In general we arent young. In general we arent in the best of shape. In general we dont have a lot of experience. We tend to paddle boats that dont lend themselves to easy rolling. High seat backs and poor or nonexistent outfitting doesnt create solid boat to body contact. We tend to go to symposiums, take classes and dont practice what we learned. Most of us dont know how to perform a low brace when conditions get bumpy. Many paddlers arent comfortable simply edging their boats in flat water. Most will never overcome that discomfort. We are simply being human engaging in what is perceived to be a casual hobby.

    We held a rolling class for my entire club. It was held in a cove on a large lake with flat warm water and warmer air. Out of almost forty participants I was the only one to learn to roll. Seven years later only six more have learned to roll. Three reliably. This hasnt been due to a lack of motivation by students or instructors. I believe few people can learn a reliable roll. It would take a serious, real life study to identify and break down the reasons. But I would say that mental discomfort (fear) and an inability to grasp what they are doing wrong (athletic ability) stops most people from succeeding. Concerning my own athletic ability I was never a good team sport player as a child. Throwing and catching are not things I do well. I always excelled at individual sports and honed myself through consistent practice.

    I took a 66 year old friend out to teach him to roll. He is in pretty good shape, fearless, upbeat and willing to try most anything. He is an excellent canoeist and sailer. He is a pretty darn good paddler but had never learned to roll. Using the backwards roll method shown in SKM a while back I had him reliably rolling an old WW kayak in under ten minutes. A older teenager watching from the beach who had never been in a kayak wanted to try. He learned to roll in three tries. He too had no fear and just jumped right into it. Very cool and very unusual. Most never learn to roll no matter how much you hold their hands at the edge of the pool. Now why is that?

  5. I agree totally

    some of the problem is the thought process that doesn’t equate the kayak as a PFD…it is the largest PFD a person has with them…instead many coaches and kayakers treat it as a vehicle…as though after an accident in a car,jumping out of the car is acceptiable and gets you away from possiably more danger staying in the wreck.

    In kayaking, the oposite is true….getting out puts you right square into more trouble.

    who would sugest that when in trouble (other than under a sail on a capsized sail board, or being caught underwater and held by a sgag on your lifevest) that you imediatly ditch your PFD…but that is exactly what You are doing when you decide to get out of your kayak…

    the other problem is that at many of the symposiums and at many many kayaking stores…very few of the certified instructor can actuall roll dependably….or if so…kind of boarderline.

    The certifications need to stress more as far as abilities to exicute dependable and varied roll techniques…

    We need the roll demystified at the instructor level before it will be passed on at the student level

    Best Wishes

  6. Hmm thought I would post this video link here of the poor bloke getting rescued in puget sound while trying to do a paddlefloat rescue. It seems this has become a threaded conversation about the paddlefloat rescue:

  7. You're absolutely right. Not only is a roll an essential safety skill–it's also the best possible preparation for developing solid bracing skills.

  8. Keith,

    I agree that a roll is a basic skill that *should* be taught right after the wet exit in intro classes. The problem with that approach is that although it is a "basic" skill, learning it is not so basic. A few folks are blessed with innate flexibility and athleticism, proprioceptively (I just wanted to use that word, don't get to say it much… ; ) in touch with their bodies and comfortable enough under water to the degree that they easily learn a roll. For many of us, it is a hard-won skill. It's only when we get comfortable with it that it begins to seem basic. When you look at the general public, coming to the kayak shop to rent some boats for an afternoon, they are often getting kayaks that only Dubside could roll. Same when they buy that shiny fuschia 34" wide plastic kayak whose biggest feature is the cavernous cockpit and adjustable seat. Most of these folks just want to float about and propel themselves a bit, maybe catch a fish, take some arm exercise or snap photos of birds, eat some snacks, and go home happy. This is a very cool thing about kayaking, and responsible for some degree for the so-called explosion of paddling: anyone can do it. You can hop in and paddle away. If you love it and continue to do it enough, you begin to see the need for actual skills. To insist that these folks learn to roll would pretty quickly remove that "It's easy, I can do this" aspect. Then you have some other "types". Some are already aware of the possibilities, and experience with other sporting or recreational pursuits already has them in the skills mindset. Those folks might be a bit more susceptible to suggestions to learn a roll. They probably don't mind getting wet. I think it's important as a coach (of which I only do a bit of "mentoring", sharing really, from time to time) to meet the coachee on their terms, at their level. To start, we probably have to give them what they want. Once that trust and desire for more is established, we can give them what they need, or at least make them aware of it. Another consideration that I alluded to before, is that it's kind of senseless to try to teach someone in a Pungo to roll it. But if they have a reasonably fit and appropriate kayak, and the desire that breeds the persistence to learn is there, we can guide our learners down the path to the roll. Then the real fun can start!

    Anyhow, I'm sure I missed some things, and I'm most surely not an authority on this, but wanted to share some thoughts that occurred. The first time I heard this "kayak is my PFD" business, it was from one Mr. Turner Wilson. We were all sitting on the dock, watching him show us exactly how easy such things as the elbow roll could be, and someone asked about the PFD thing, under or over the tuiliq. Turner, as best I recall, leaned forward, water ran out of his beard, he patted the foredeck and said, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world, "THIS is my PFD." I was struck by that. The thought had never occurred to me though I was by then a competent roller. He was right. And his PFD fit him. However I would not suggest folks leave their PFDs behind.

    Whew. Enough typing. Go paddle or something! : )



  9. Amen! A fundamental skill.