January 28, 2011

Whitewater Kayaking Eskimo Roll Tip – Flat Water is Your Friend


Getting a good roll is key to enjoying whitewater kayaking to its full potential – you get to have more fun with less stress, you stay out of danger better, and you have more confidence to try things that are a bit above your skill level, whether it’s throwing yourself onto a wave or flipping your way down Class IV when you’re a Class III-plus boater, should you choose to do so.  (I speak from experience here. ;))

Anyway, I’ll start with something that came up with my friend Gwendolyn Hannam recently.  She’s a good newer boater who progressed really quickly, but last fall was telling me that after having a strong roll for months it had gotten shakey, and after a few swims she was leaning toward going to a pool practice instead of out on another run we were heading to that day.  Some of her friends were telling her, ‘Oh, you just need more river time,’ but her instincts were telling her she needed to regroup and get her form back.  I really think she was right, and here’s why – it has to do with one of the concepts of mastering any sport, especially high-adrenaline sports:

Muscle memory is what will save your bacon when you’re freaking out.

So, check out this guy – he’s pretty amazing (action starts at around .30).


When he’s doing this drill, he’s totally concentrating on doing the movements exactly right, and he’s doing them over and over to establish muscle memory.  The point is for him to not have to think about them at all when he’s in an actual game, at which time he should be able to go on auto-pilot with his body automatically making the correct evasive moves using the muscle memory he’s built up.

Now, think about how much harder it would be for him to develop the absolute best form in those drills if someone was trying to tackle him at the same time….

There’s a point to that video that we kayakers can take home.  I do totally agree with Gwendolyn’s friends that there’s a ton to be gained from learning how to roll in moving water, whether on purpose or by mistake, in holes or in wave trains, and yes, at some point your helmet will get walloped by rocks when you’re upside down and if you hang in there and stay optimistic you should be able to roll up anyway.

Quite the wallop. (And yes, there are rocks on the Wenatchee!)

But here’s what I’ve learned after hundreds and hundreds (and hundreds, seriously) of combat and practice rolls over the last couple of years.  The key to rolling up in any situation is having the right form – primarily, having a good hip snap and not pulling your head up before the rest of your body.  That last part especially is completely counter-intuitive.  When you’re scared and low on air, all of your instincts are screaming to get a nostril above the water line as quickly as possible, and when people are missing their rolls you’ll often see their heads popping up early time and time again.  (Sometimes we get our own, very personal, nostril-vantage point of view.)

What I’ve noticed is that no matter how good my roll is (and I’m known for having a pretty good one), after enough time rolling up in hairy situations it will start to deteriorate.  I mean, on the one hand you gain valuable experience rolling up in various river features, but I also find that if I get fearful beyond a certain point I’ll start having to fight harder to not pull my head up first the next time I roll, and then if that nervousness affects my roll I just get more prone to pulling my head, and on it goes.  I’ve seen this with other people plenty of times too, and unfortunately the worse your form gets the harder it gets to roll, the more shakey you feel, and the more fear affects your form – and the more likely you are to eventually miss your roll and swim.

That’s when I think the best remedy is more flat water time, not more river time.  If you know how to roll, and now you’re having trouble with it, it’s because you’re messing up on your form. 

The best time to learn good kayak roll form is not upside down in the middle of a wave train when you’re also working on trying to not freak out, hoping you won’t hit your head, wondering what’s below the feature you’re in and how many rocks are waiting to ricochet off of your pelvis if you swim, and trying to get your paddle to where it feels like you can attempt a roll.

(Please don’t get me wrong – this experience IS valuable, but not when you’re trying to nail down good form.)

The beauty of practicing your roll in flat water, especially warm flat water, is that you can allow yourself the leeway of not doing things perfectly without producing a traumatic result.  Even more important, you can work on developing great form and then repeating it over and over (and over), which establishes muscle memory.

The goal is for the correct kayak roll motions to become so part of your intuitive movements that your body just clicks into them without thinking, because chances are when you’re upside down in turbulent water you’re NOT going to be concentrating on keeping your head down and whipping out a good hip snap.  You develop that kind of muscle memory after many repetitions under conditions that are conducive to producing good form.   So that’s why saying that the best fix for a shakey Eskimo roll is more river time (especially after some swims, which can be traumatic and tend to build up your fear level) is like saying that if you’re a football player the only way to improve is to play an actual football game, and to never bother doing football drills.

In reality, you need both.  And eventually, the goal is to become the kayaking equivalent of this:  (NFL now wants you to watch this on Youtube, there’s a link inside the video once you click ‘play’.)


So don’t underestimate the value of the pool! (Or the lake – whatever you have.)  Of course you need to get out on the river as well, but dialing in your skills on flat water can help you get even more enjoyment (and safety) out of whitewater.

Kayak roll resources:

This post isn’t about troubleshooting the Eskimo roll, although I really hope to do one on that soon, so if you’re looking for help learning or fixing the roll, I highly recommend Eric Jackson’s ‘Rolling and Bracing a Kayak’ video.  (This is not the same as his Strokes and Concepts video, which is also very good but doesn’t have the greatest Eskimo roll section, in my opinion.)  I’ve also heard that Kent Ford’s The Kayak Roll is excellent.

Also, if you’re just getting into learning the Eskimo roll, I’ll tell you flat out that some of the famous kayaking people, like Ken Whiting, say that they think the sweep roll is overall easier to learn than the C-to-C roll, and Ken Whiting and Eric Jackson are both on record as saying it’s OK to come up from the roll leaning back on your stern deck.  This can be controversial because some people say this makes you too prone to getting your face hit by rocks, but Ken and Eric make a good argument for the fact that your face isn’t really exposed that much when you’re actually upside down, and the fact that it increases your chances of rolling up successfully compared to trying to roll up leaning over your front deck makes it an overall safer technique.


Eric Jackson, Gwendolyn H., Ken Whiting, rolling

You may also like

Boofing Waves and Holes Video

Boofing Waves and Holes Video
  • Irene, Good points. A friend of mine mentioned that a roll is like a golf swing – sometimes it needs some tuning up. A common problem that we see is students who have rolled a dozen times in their lesson and in a follow-up but fail in the river. The muscle memory just isn’t there. When I was learning to roll, my instructor told me that I didn’t have a roll until after I did at least 100. I like your football player analogies. Can I share your blog post?
    Best of days on the water,

  • Hi Cate, Thanks for your comment, I totally agree with your instructor, when I went from not having a combat roll in summer of 2008 to having one on a New Year’s Day 2009 trip after taking the fall off it was because I had gone to 2 pool sessions the week before the Jan. 1 trip and done about 150 rolls. Feel free to share this, thanks for asking!

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}