Laidback and reckless

In my experience, there are several stages of evolution when it comes to kayak rolling. They are:

  • Acceptance that, if you’re serious about kayaking, you will need to get your hair wet.
  • Observation of kayakers who can roll proficiently, accompanied by frequent utterances of, “I’ll never be able to do that.”
  • Pool sessions, starting with lots of poolside hip flicking (usually surrounded by river paddlers doing ridiculous acrobatics).
  • Developing familiarity with eskimo rescues. Increased presence of the “hand of God”.
  • Discovery of the joy of floats.
  • First pool boat roll.
  • First sea kayak roll, in the sea.
  • Work on off-side.
  • Robust, dependable roll on both sides.
  • World domination.

Well, that’s the general idea. Along the way, of course, are many, many hours of hand-wringing, soul-rending, excruciating, intricate analysis of ever minute detail of the technicalities of the roll, carefully documented via blog and forum posts. (Or is that just me?). Let’s just say, things can get a bit “uptight”.

Whilst working on my off-side roll, it occurred to me that it felt like I always seemed to need a checklist before setting up. This list would include items such as: direction of wind/waves, location of nearby rescuer, sea temperature, nose clip, venting/buoyancy of drysuit, positioning of hands, blade angle, positioning of head, adequate sweep, lucky white heather etc. I’ve seen the Space Shuttle commander go through less before lift-off.  Yet I also knew that my best rolls were achieved when I abandoned all thought and went by feel.

Which brings me to the next stage in my personal rolling evolution. For quite some time, I’ve been aware of that strange breed of kayaker who can be found in sleek, black craft (called qajaqs actually), who employ wooden sticks and clothes lines, dress up as seals and speak in a secret, encrypted code involving a confusion of vowels and consonants that would make an Icelandic volcano proud. Most of all, they demonstrate grace, ease and calm in executing their elegant rolls. They have intrigued me and I have secretly longed to join their cult (not just because black looks cool). You might be familiar with some of their names, such as Cheri Perry and Turner Wilson, Helen Wilson and Dubside. I have also been following Lesley in Orkney, who went over to the dark side some time ago and whose progress has been hugely inspiring. I speak, of course, of Greenland paddlers.

And so, with a view to freeing ourselves from the tyranny of Euro-blade checklists, Alan and I acquired a Greenland paddle, a beautiful red cedar Anglesey Stick in fact. Being that there are 35 Greenland rolls to learn, it is apparent that an entirely different mindset would be required in acquiring these skills, but nonetheless one that we hoped we could transfer over to our Euro paddles when needed. By a stroke of good fortune, I have also discovered that my Rockpool Isel makes a wonderful “Greenland” kayak, being of low profile, having harder chines and a back deck that’s entirely conducive to lay-back rolling. Yet another reason to love my Isel.

The first thing I notice is how much Greenland rolling relates to body movement and awareness. The paddle itself will scarcely let you fail in a standard roll (although you do get style points), inspiring confidence and motivation to move on to the more complex moves. Ironically, much of the Greenland technique teaches reduced dependence on the paddle and more on body positioning. The paddle becomes the teacher who sets you free.

Balance braceThe Greenland paddle is, of course, ancient technology and I find it interesting to compare the relaxed, (literally) laid-back rolls that it induces with the obsessive-compulsive efforts that often result from learning to roll with a modern Euro blade.  I feel like I am letting go and working in harmony with nature (what could be more natural than water and a wooden stick?), as opposed to being a carbon-fibre wielding control freak.

My repertoire is short at this stage, extending to the balance brace, the standard Greenland roll and the butterfly roll. I have attempted a norsaq roll, but am not quite ready (it’s a mind thing – I tend to find myself hanging upside-down thinking, “What am I doing here, and why am I holding this lump of wood?”). The thing is that I am in no rush. I know that, with practice, it will come one day. Greenland rolling has turned an activity I used to fear into something I look forward to, plus already I see improvement in my Euro-blade off-side.

Most recently, in an effort to make better contact with the back deck, we dispensed with our buoyancy aids (or PFDs if you’re in the US).  We have been accused of demonstrating recklessness, but I might argue that rolling in 3 feet of water in 2 mph winds, with 2 radios pre-tuned to Ch 16 and mobile phones to hand surely can’t be called reckless. Anyway:

reck·less (rkls) adj : Indifferent to or disregardful of consequences.

Well, that beats being scared! A good approach to rolling, if you ask me.

After each practice session, Alan and I return home feeling buzzed. Time disappears as we lose ourselves in a place where every moment is now. Why does something so inconsequential to modern life create such a high? Could it be because we are connecting with something that is inherent to human nature – an ancient physical skill that engages our senses, places us firmly in the present, inspires our confidence and allows us the opportunity to overcome fear and other demons in our heads? And – allows us to relax. What’s not to like?!

From now on, I may just have to qajaq across the water …


  1. Great post! I entirely agree, it’s liberating!

    The Isel is such a great boat for it too.

    Keep on rolling…!

  2. pamf says:

    Thanks, Lesley!

  3. I love your post! You have been converted to the Green-side. I predict that in a years time you will be sharing your experiences rolling in your first qajaq competition while wearing a tulik that you made.

  4. pamf says:

    Thank you Jeff, such faith! Sorry your comment got held up while I switched ISP. Good job we can communicate over on FB etc 🙂

  5. Geoffry Smith says:

    Lovely post, and it well describes my own journey, which was also encouraged by the fact that the Greenland stick is easier on my arthritic joints.
    Brunswick, Maine, USA

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