Duckworks - Projects
The Online Magazine For Amateur Boat Builders

Lifestyles of the Southern Eskimo
By Shawn Payment

I have discovered that you don’t have to own a kayak for very long before someone asks you if you know how to “roll it like an Eskimo.” Non-kayakers seem to assume that rolling is an inherent part of the kayaking experience. Kayaks and rolling simply go together --like Burt and Ernie, peanut butter and jelly, sorority girls and cell phones—you can’t have one without the other.

Even amongst regular kayakers, most of whom have never (intentionally) rolled their boats, rolling is hailed as sign of competence, a badge of honor, a right of passage in the quest to become an accomplished practitioner of the sport.

Hence my motivation to sign up for a class in “kayak rolling”. Here was a way that I might progress beyond my lowly “amateur paddler” status, acquire some actual skills, learn some tricks, perhaps even one day save myself from an ungraceful dousing? Given my near-negligent lack of any real kayak training, it certainly couldn’t hurt.

I found a class offered by the Charleston County Parks & Recreation Commission--three two hour sessions on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Classes were held indoors in a heated pool. Instruction, boats and water were all provided. All I had to do was show up. And as a Charleston County resident, the whole thing costs a whopping $35. (They certainly weren’t getting rich off this deal!)

When I arrived at the Rec Center, I was directed to the pool area and told to “look for the guys with the boats”. I could do this. And I did. I was off to a positive start. Yippee.

Once my liability waiver was collected, I was instructed to “pick a boat that fits”. This proved slightly more difficult. The odd little plastic shells that they called kayaks bore little resemblance to kayaks with which I was familiar. These were squat, stubby whitewater craft that resembled mutant pufferfish and squished toads.

I tried one on for size. It was incredibly uncomfortable

“How do I tell if it fits?” I asked.

“It should fit like a glove,” was the response.

Imagine a set of gloves that pull your fingers apart, jam your fingertips together and pull your knuckles out of joint. That’s how this boat fit. Sturdy thigh pads wishboned my knees apart and flexed my hip sockets at unnatural angles. My heels were smashed together into the bottom of the hull while my toes were bent outward. It was like asking someone who has never worn shoes to find a pair that fits. Until you walk a few miles in them, you don’t even realize why or how “fit” is important.

No sooner had I shoehorned myself into a painfully uncomfortable hull dubbed “Godzilla” than we were instructed on how to perform a “wet exit”—a fancy name for flopping upside down and then extricating yourself from your boat. This didn’t really take very long to master. I was already pretty good at falling out of a boat.

Next, we were encouraged to “get comfortable” with being upside down--embrace it, flop and linger, savor the underwater experience—sort of an “est seminar” for people with “gill envy”. While no one in the group actually managed to expand their human potential to the point of breathing underwater, I’m pretty sure I felt my consciousness being “rewired” by repeated shots of chlorinated water up my nose.

Our next challenge was to learn the “hip flick”, a swift sideways thrust of the hips designed to rock hull and paddler back to a vertical position. Practicing first on the side of the pool, we soon graduated to pushing off an instructor’s hands or a floating life jacket. By the end of the first hour, the pool had become a soggy chorus line of hip-flicking, aquatic belly-dancers.

Clearly, we were all becoming over-confident in our mastery of these new skills. The instructors needed to take us down a notch. So they handed us paddles. The instructors made it look so easy. Flip upside-down, spin your paddle like a windmill and up you pop! We were all accomplished hip-flickers. How difficult could this be?

We soon found out. Over we go. Blub, blub. Only my paddle doesn’t want to spin in a nice, neat arc. Blub, blub. It wanted to dive to the bottom of the pool. Blub, blub. Or bang into the boat. Blub, clunk. Or hit me in the forehead. Blub, Ouch! The evil paddle had absolutely no respect for my newly acquired hip-flicking skills. We ended our first evening wet, tired, bruised and humbled. And we had two more nights of this to look forward to!

Fortunately, rolling is apparently a skill that you need to sleep on. And dream about. Over and over, round and round, swish, swish, swish. By the time I arrived for our second session, I had completed about a thousand “dream rolls”. Something from the dreams must have stuck. I “donned” a boat, re-entered the pool and immediately completed my first successful roll! Bloop! Under the water I went. Swish went my paddle and Pop! I was back up again.

I looked around to see who was watching. Nobody. Everyone was looking the other way. Fortunately, there were many more rolls to see that night. Some good. Many bad. I also learned that as in golf, it’s easy for the novice roller to develop “the shanks”. At first things go a little astray. Then you start to think about it. Then things go really South. Despite the auspicious beginning, by the end of the evening, I didn’t seem able to do anything right.

The instructors were patient and helpful. They offered helpful advice. Raise this hand. Lower that hand. Twist this way. Not that way, the other way. Hold your head left, right, backwards. It didn’t matter. Nothing could cure me. Except to come back another day.

Which I did. By the end of the third night, I was successfully completing “Pawlatta”, “Sweep” and “C to C” rolls on a regular basis. Admittedly, I was still shanking a good percentage of attempts but overall, I felt much more confident in a kayak than I had a few days before. In hindsight, I have to say that the whole thing was a pretty good experience and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to extend themselves a bit outside their typical comfort zone. It also still remains to be seen if I can apply my new skills in my own boat but I’m thinking I will.

At the very least, I’ll be well prepared the next time someone asks if I know how to roll my kakak like an Eskimo. I say just what any self-respecting Southern Eskimo would say:

“Are y’all crazy? That water is COLD!”

click to watch movie

Click the icon above to watch a clip of Shawn
performing a real Eskimo Roll

About the Author: Shawn Payment has recently relocated to South Carolina where he bought a second-hand kayak to reacquaint himself with the local waters. At present, he remains largely a novice-level kayaker who requires constant adult supervision. His lovely wife, Susan, has recently verified that his life insurance policy is fully paid up and so has few reservations about him spending large amount of time underwater.