The House of Flying Norsaqs

Mutant ninja midgies

Ninja moves ... don't work on midgies

Duly inspired after our training weekend with Kayak Ways, we’ve been busy working on our Greenland skills, averaging a couple of rolling sessions a week and/or paddling exclusively with sticks. Our dedication is now sufficient to withstand torrential rain, thunderstorms, cold water and – worst of all – tuilik-piercing midgies.

It occurred to me that keeping existing skills intact whilst acquiring new ones is a lot like spinning plates. For me, the flow has gone something like this:

  1. Master the balance brace.
  2. Work on layback rolls: Standard Greenland, butterfly, norsaq, hand.
  3. Start work on forward finishing rolls: chest scull/reverse sweep and continuous storm.
  4. Investigate disappearance of hand roll. Go back to 2.
  5. Throw in a few new layback rolls: shotgun, elbow crook.
  6. Address ongoing neglect of offside. Go back to 1.
  7. Reverse Sweep set-upWork on storm roll.
  8. Keep working on storm roll.
  9. Work some more on storm roll.
  10. Hand roll has gone again. Back to 2
  11. Discover offside storm roll is several light years behind onside. Back to 7.
  12. Try all rolls in full paddling gear (with BA/PFD). Back to 1.
  13. Move on to more advanced layback rolls, starting with the elbow roll. Back to 1 and 2.
  14. Try all rolls in a different kayak. Back to 1.
  15. And so on.

I’m certainly never bored. And this is all very good for me. No longer do I descend into a tantrum of frustration when a roll fails, although norsaqs have been thrown. With Greenland skills, failure and success are like sunshine and shadows – you can’t expect only sunshine. Although, it’s actually all sunshine.

Chest sculling

Alan chest sculls with the Olympic torch

For research purposes, we recently attended a Kayak Bute demo day at Loch Lomond. I can well recommend going along to one of these if you’re in the area. It’s a great opportunity to not only drool over some beautiful, state-of-the-art Tiderace kayaks, but to try them out and have some fun. Typical of our “summer” now (after Kayak Ways took the much more desirable weather experienced during their visit away with them), it was a pretty dreich and murky day. What better thing to do than embrace the dampness and try rolling a few of the Tiderace fleet. Roddy and Alice joined in and tried out their Greenland skills too. Indeed, fun was had! And, as seems to happen with such sessions, I’ve no idea where the time went. Afterwards, a very kind onlooker took the trouble to tell me how much she had enjoyed watching our practice. This certainly helps me to finally move beyond my silly “people are  looking” hang-ups. It now seems quite feasible that not everyone is pointing and laughing.

Despite at times feeling a little isolated in what might be called a more niche area of kayaking, our skills development benefits greatly from the help of others, many of whom are in far-flung places and we know them only virtually. This assistance manifests in the circulation of photos, videos, advice and encouraging comments. We’re a strange little group and there’s nothing we love more than to watch each other’s clips, whether it be an expert’s well-executed rolls, or a beginner’s first attempt, it’s all good – even the flying norsaqs.

Life in balance

Yoga balanceIt started off with yoga class. Each week, our teacher designs a sequence of asanas to address a specific focus, for example: back bends, forward bends, hip openers, twists or, as was the case last week, balance. When Jude informed us that we were about to embark upon a balancing adventure (or words to that effect), I readied myself for the voyage of inward discovery that this usually entails.

The thing about balance is that it is not a given. It could go either way. It takes effort and concentration and, as our teacher pointed out to us, when you are balancing – be it in tree pose or crow or eagle or whatever – you are not thinking about anything else. After arriving at yoga class with a head full of chatter, stress and judgements, it is no bad thing to empty it all out whilst tottering on one’s tippy toes (or hands) and quite possibly, in the process, discovering previously unknown capabilities. Even so, the prospect can cause some pre-asana anxiety, perhaps because we aren’t very good at handling uncertainty and balancing is, in a way, a state of sustained uncertainty.

With this in mind, the following day I set off to do some rolling practice. I’ve recently been working quite diligently on norsaq and hand rolls, but on my previous outing, I lost my hand roll completely and my norsaq roll seemed a bit of a struggle. This left me with a sense of unfinished business which is quite a distortion really. I mean, if I were to get hung up on unfinished things, there would be rather an endless list to ponder (the other 30+ Greenland rolls, learning to speak French, the housework …). But still, the thought of having lost my hand roll  irritated me like velcro underwear, and I had to address it.

Balance BraceAt some deeper level, I intuited that there was a missing link in my versions of those rolls that don’t involve a paddle. I’ve mentioned before how a Greenland paddle acts as a teacher and, certainly, rolling with this ancient technology is a bit like grasping a hand from the past. When the paddle is there, I have found that it can guide you through the water and allow you to position your body appropriately, without struggle,  if you let it. Without the paddle, the rolls were all down to me and seemed to require a lot more exertion and striving. After starting off badly, oomphing my way through yet another failed attempt, I reminded myself of the advice given to me by Mackayak in Orkney which was to focus first and foremost on the balance brace. I also recalled being inspired by this particular video which clearly demonstrates effortless hand rolling up into, indeed, a balance brace. I had only ever experienced this before with the help of my paddle as part of a butterfly roll. I therefore realised that it’s not all about desperately competing for success on the back deck, so much as simply reaching a state of  balance.

I proceeded to practice slipping on and off of the deck of my kayak with the aid of my paddle, then letting go of the paddle whilst maintaining the brace. I then focused on getting back on to the back deck in one swift move as this essentially constitutes the last part of the roll. Next up, I tried a full norsaq roll. For the first time, I did not aim for glorious success in one movement, but rather I sought to simply reach the surface of the water and stay there. To my delight, it was a quite achievable thing, and then purely a case of getting from there to the back deck as I’d practised. Next, I tried it with my webbed rolling mitts, with the same result. A breakthrough!

Just like in yoga, balancing in Greenland rolling is all about clearing out distracting thoughts (of anxiety, success, failure, unfinished housework) and simply concentrating on holding a steady bearing right in this very moment. In many respects, it is a Middle Way, a path of moderation and equilibrium between the extremes of hopeless defeatism and questionable triumph. Perhaps in times of uncertainty, it’s the best path to take.