A Step by Step Guide

There are many ways to roll a kayak upright safely and efficiently, just as there are many effective ways of doing a brace stroke. Any Eskimo roll is usefully categorized, like the brace strokes, by how the paddle is used to obtain purchase on the water. There are sweep rolls, brace rolls, and rolls that use no paddle at all, hands rolls. Because all roll techniques are subject to the same forces affecting boat rotation, it is not surprising that these different rolls have more similarities than differences. This article is about those elements of the Eskimo roll common to all approaches: the setup, the sweep, and the hipsnap/recovery. Each is discussed separately although they are often performed as one continuous motion.

The Setup

The setup position for a roll is a tight forward leaning posture with your paddle against one of the kayak's rails and your face near that same side of the front deck. This low profile makes it less likely that you'll catch a rock as the current drives you and your boat downstream. Your helmet protects the back of your head, your flotation jacket protects your back, and the entire kayak shields your face.
I suggest that you quickly tuck forward into the setup position when you realize you are about to tip over, even before your head gets wet. Besides the obvious safety considerations, a rapid forward lean creates momentum that will help carry you and your flotation jacket all the way under the boat. Your momentum and the buoyancy of your flotation jacket help to move your paddle toward the surface into a position from which you can begin the Eskimo roll. When a flip in turbulent water sends you tumbling, it's difficult to know which way is up, and a quick setup will help you become oriented more quickly to the surface again.
An Eskimo roll can be performed in a right- or left-handed manner, defined by the hand you use to sweep your blade away from the boat (the hand nearest the bow when in the usual setup position). I've used right-handed rolls in the illustrations, unless stated otherwise. In a right-handed roll, you set up by leaning forward toward the left deck and placing your paddle on the left side of the boat. The right hand (the hand nearest the bow) sweeps away from the boat and becomes the outboard hand. The left hand stabilizes the paddle shaft near your chest and becomes the anchor, or inboard hand. The terms "outboard", "inboard," and "anchor" are useful because they make sense in describing either right- or left-handed rolls.
Control of the outboard blade angle is crucial to the roll. This blade should always have a climbing angle in the setup position so that as the blade sweeps away from the kayak it planes toward the surface. Most kayakers use a right-hand-control paddle, which means the paddle blades are offset 70 to 90 degrees, and you control blade angle with the right hand. This paddle is shown in all illustrations, and always requires a strongly flexed right wrist when setting up for any right-handed roll. If you grip the paddle shaft too loosely, the climbing blade angle may be lost, and you risk having the blade dive sharply under water during the sweep which is disastrous for your roll. Grip the paddle firmly with your right hand.
An experienced whitewater paddler often sets up so fast that the kayak flips over and is rolled upright in one fluid motion; the momentum gained during the flip is used to help right the boat. However, I recommend a slow, methodical setup when learning to roll so that you can feel and accurately connect each independent movement. This is no place to take shortcuts; believe me, some patience here will pay off in the long run! First, become oriented to your boat when upside down by placing both wrists or forearms in contact with the side of the kayak. When at least one of your hands feels air or the paddle can be felt to move freely, you know the paddle is on and parallel to the water's surface. Like a good tennis or golf stance and backswing, a good setup allows you to execute a technically good roll from the same position every time, with predictably good results.

The Sweep

The sweep phase of the roll is so named because the paddle, initially in a position parallel to and next to the boat, is swept away from the boat's side to gain purchase on the water. The manner in which the sweep is performed generally distinguishes one Eskimo roll from another, but in every case, the paddle blade should be held on or near the water's surface as the paddle is moved fully away from the boat. While the outboard paddle blade moves away from the boat, across the surface, the inboard paddle blade (and sometimes the inboard hand and elbow) moves over the kayak's hull, as shown to the right.
The sweep part of the roll sets the inboard hand and elbow) moves over the kayak's hull, as shown the stage for rotating the kayak upright not only because the outboard blade moves to the surface at this time, but because your head and trunk move to the surface, also. The closer your head is to the surface throughout the sweep, the more nearly upright your kayak will be after the hipsnap. This is why leaning and reaching to the surface during the sweep is such an important part of performing a quick and effortless roll.

Hipsnap (or Hip Rotation)

the hipsnap is almost a 180 degree shift in the position of the kayak's edges, accomplished by a complete reversal in the direction of lean. For instance, for a right-handed roll your torso leans all the way to the left at the beginning of the hipsnap and all the way to the right at the end, as shown to the right. Notice that the position of the paddle and upper body have not changed greatly. Boat rotation is driven by movement in the lower torso. In the brace roll (similar to the high brace) the motion is abrupt, so that the paddle does not have enough time to displace water and sink.
In the sweep roll, however, the hipsnap is diffused over most of the sweep stroke. The result is the same, but the motion is smoother, less forced than the word "snap" might imply.

The Recovery

Gravity must be overcome in order to raise your body and then your head from where they are floating in the water to where they are supported by the boat. To minimize the effect of gravity during the hipsnap (and decrease downward pressure on the paddle), allow your head and shoulders to stay in the water, supported by it, until the hipsnap is nearly complete. At that point the kayak is rapidly being pulled underneath you, and continuing boat rotation with steady knee pressure effortlessly rights the boat; the effect is like coasting upright.
Moving your head the last few inches upward is coupled with the last few degrees of boat rotation, no separate, distinct movement of the paddle should be needed (see position to right). The rotating kayak will literally force your body out of the water as it rotates underneath. That is the beauty of a good roll: if your face is the last part of your body to come out of the water, then the recovery, as a separate part of the roll, usually doesn't exist. The roll is complete and you are sitting upright over the boat at the completion of the hipsnap, ready to take a paddle stroke on either side of the boat.

Summary: Basic Principles of all Eskimo Rolls

  1. Start each roll from the setup position.
  2. Reach upward with your outboard hand during the sweep, and maintain a climbing blade angle to help keep your paddle near the surface.
  3. Lean upward and move your head and trunk as close to the surface as possible as you sweep the outboard blade in a full arc away from the boat's side.
  4. Begin the hipsnap after good purchase is obtained. Hipsnap (rotate) the kayak by pulling your knee up to the relatively stationary platform of your paddle, as opposed to pushing down on the paddle to raise your head prematurely.
  5. Use head tilt and body lean to keep your head and torso in the water and supported by it until the kayak rotates underneath you, forcing you up and over the boat.
  6. The "recovery" following the hipsnap results from doing the hipsnap and lean correctly. It is not a separate action of a well performed roll.

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