A Few (Really Annoying) Eskimo Rolling Myths

Here are some Eskimo rolling myths you may hear at some point in your beginner whitewater kayaking journey. If you do, just tell the person talking that “I’ve read the blog post, so I know that what you’re saying is complete otter spittle.” Or something like that. ;)

Myth 1. “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.

Myth 2. “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, and as you get into harder whitewater flipping (and especially not rolling up) become more consequential, but most people who push themselves even a little bit are going to flip at some point, whether it’s on Class II or Class V. 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.

Myth 3. “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.

Myth 4. “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.

Myth 5. “Using the extended (Pawlata) paddle roll to learn the Eskimo roll is cheating.”

No, it isn’t, not if you use it as a training tool, just like a gymnast uses a suspension harness as a tool to let their body learn the correct body mechanics for a tumbling or balance bar routine. (You don’t see those harnesses in the Olympics, right? The harness was a training tool that helped that person get to the Olympics. Why is this concept so hard for some people to relate to? But I digress.)

Using the extended hold on the blade gives you much more leverage and makes it easier to roll, which means that instead of worrying about whether you’re going to make the roll in the first place (which causes people to pull their head, try to power up, thrash around  and overall learn bad form) you greatly increase the chances of making the roll and now you can work on your technique. (It’s pretty darn hard to work on your rolling form when you can’t roll up to begin with. Also, this learning technique can be very helpful for those people who are teaching themselves to roll and don’t have someone there to help roll them up.) Once you’re comfortable and rolling up beautifully, then little by little start moving your hands down the shaft, keeping great form, until you’re rolling normally with great form. If your technique starts to slide, just move your hands back to the extended position, get yourself back in the groove of having the right technique, then start moving your hands back to normal position again. This may take hundreds of rolls. If so, awesome! Muscle memory is your friend.

I’m not saying the extended paddle roll is the only way to learn the roll, many people develop a great roll using other learning methods, but it’s how I learned and it really worked – I was known as the beginner boater with the bomber roll (normal hand position) starting out because I worked on my technique with hundreds of pool rolls, going back to the extended blade hold to re-focus whenever things got shakey.  Having a good roll enabled me to push myself on harder stuff early on (probably a bit too much, but that’s another post), and it really, really bothers me when I see new boaters starting out and someone – usually either a super good paddler who learned it differently, or else someone with a bad roll (go figure) – has told them the extended paddle roll technique is ‘cheating’. I’ve seen these beginners tough it out and power out a bunch of shakey pool rolls with the normal hand position because they want to do the right thing and not ‘cheat’, and some of them I’ve seen still struggling with their rolls years later, even to the point of eventually pretty much bagging kayaking. Which is why I find Myth 5 really, really annoying.

Also, please keep in mind that being tired can cause you to miss rolls, which is another reason playboating and river time (see Myth 4) aren’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 his 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. ;)

You may also want to check out the Beginner Kayaking Tips – Forward Stroke post – Michele Ramaza’s video tutorial on the forward stroke is excellent. Having a strong and effective forward stroke is absolutely crucial to progressing in whitewater kayaking and it’s probably the most under-taught and under-practiced skill on the river. (Not the fault of beginner kayakers, they have no reason to realize how important this is and for some reason most of the time no one tells them.)


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