The Heavenly Arch

I can hear chants and incantations and some guy is mentioning me in his prayers.
Well, I don’t know what it is but there’s definitely something going on upstairs – Nick Cave (Dig, Lazarus, Dig)

We’re back to “low impact rolling” again.  Today I want to spend time on about 1/10 of a second worth of your roll, the bit where you bring your body to the surface of the water from the upside down or inverted position.  How you approach this short moment in your kayak roll can make all the difference when it comes to ease and efficiency.  This is not the only way to do things, but learning it will make whatever roll you do more successful. Really. I promise!  So let’s get to it.   

Set Up

Regardless of the kind of roll you learn, the first bit is the set up.   I don’t want to spend a lot of time on that here.  I’m assuming you know the drill.  Regardless of paddle or roll, the one thing most standard rolls have common is the bit about twisting your hide around and squaring your body so that your shoulders are in line with the kayak.  (We talked about that in the last installment).  So put yourself in that position in the imaginary kayak in your mind and flip…

What we know

So here you are, all upside down for some reason.  Hopefully you’re still nice and twisted with your paddle somewhere near the surface and your shoulders squared to the boat.  It’s here where most of us learned to fiddle with blade angles, sweep our paddle, crunch our abdomen and “snap” our hip (or knee depending how you look at it).  This works.  But it’s just that.. “work”.   Let me propose another option,  Lazarus, arch your back, reach out to the heavens and rise!

The Heavenly Arch

Think about this.  You are upside down and facing sideways in your kayak.  If you arch your back (head and shoulders back) your lower half, the bit inside the kayak, your feet, legs and hips will push away, conveniently rolling the boat toward an upright position.

The Big Stretch

OK, So it’s first thing in the morning.. You stand up…

You know that big uncontrollable yawn and stretch that is usually followed by some loud verbal exclamation that sounds something like a black bear’s huff?  Are you there??  Think about how that crazy yawn causes you to stretch out your spine. Then your legs follow so that you can feel pressure on your thighs and calves as they lengthen.  Think about how your ankles bend your feet forward (sometimes with a big crack!), and how your toes reach forward as far as the attached ligaments will let them reach… Feelin’ it?  Good.  Now hold that memory in the back of your mind. Store it for later.

Chair Yoga

Here’s another one.  If you are sitting in a chair,  push down on the floor with your feet and arch your shoulders and back over the back of your chair.  Lift your butt out of the chair raise your hips to the air.  Notice that the more you arch, the more you want to lift your heels off the floor and the more pressure you put on the balls of your feet and toes.  The further you bend your head back, the higher your hips want to go. Neat huh!?  File that one too. :)

The Return of The Heavenly Arch

Well, back in your kayak your body is a bit.. um, bent.  You’re body is twisted with your torso going one way and your lower half going another inside the hull of the boat.  In this situation, that big stretch and arch have the effect of turning your boat upright, which in turn, brings your body to the surface of the water (or nearly anyway). Greenland rollers can basically bring themselves right up to the surface and into a balance brace.  That’s cool if you can do it of course, but again it’s not necessary to complete your roll.  The point here is simply this; By arching and “rising” square to the surface you needn’t “snap” or pull on anything.  That means your recovery can be smooth. It can be fast or slow.  It can be as powerful or as effortless as you choose to make it.  With practice this act of  stretching and arching to the surface can become more of a relaxing yoga-like extension than muscular “snap”.


The less efficient you are, the more energy you need to produce the result.  You don’t “muscle” a roll because you need to, you muscle it because you’re inefficient.

In rolls such as the C2C or sweep roll, your set up is the same but things change from there. In both standard rolls, you kick off the roll with a snap and a twist of the  torso.  You become dependent on a “hit” of energy. Thing is, if you learn this arching style of recovery, you’ll find can come back to your C2C with a new refinement that means even if you do “snap”,  you’ll use much less energy than you did before.

The problem with “snap” rolls (IMO) or at least the way they are taught, is that the focus is all wrong. The result being that  if you blow the “snap”, your roll fails.  Your cooked. With the refinement that you pick up learning this arching method, you won’t be beholden to a strong snap.  Even a half-assed snap will do it for you if you’ve put in the time to refine your body motion. That’s when your roll truly will become “bomb proof”. You will no longer be dependent on a sudden burst of energy to perform a successful roll.   Let me be clear here.. I’m not saying you’ll use this method in white water, what I’m saying is that learning it will tune you in, and therefore make whatever roll you do more efficient.

Coach Key

This arching recovery is a pretty standard Greenland rolling technique although I don’t always express it in the same way as a traditional coach may.  I’ve found that when working with students,I tend to tell them with a big hand gesture to “Push the boat way!” and arch their backs.  I’m not too concerned about the nuts and bolts or the absolute accuracy of the words, “Push the boat away” as I am the visualization which seems immediately accessible to students.

Works For Me

When I roll, I envision that I’m pushing the boat away with the recovery side foot (left foot on a right side roll), when in fact I’m doing much more with my legs and hips. Thing is, that stuff seems to just be natural, involuntary reactions once I begin to arch and “push” the boat over.  One thing I do know is that when I get sloppy and forget to think about the push or the arch, I’ll still roll, but it won’t be as pretty and will expend way too much energy. I think once you start playing with this you’ll see what I mean.

The Point

What’s important to our “low impact” theme here is that as opposed to “snapping” or sweeping or  god-forbid, pushing down to get back to the surface, you simply arch your back to right the boat with very little expended energy.  It’s a quiet zen-like action where you rise to the shimmering surface above. That’s what you’re looking for here.

Of course, if you don’t know what to do next you’re going to sink right back to the bottom… Stay tuned!

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7 Responses

  1. Great stuff Derrick!
    I just wish I had a large enough Pool in the area that I could use, to practice these techniques, and some other ones…

  2. Derrick, this series of “low impact rolling” description seems to be the opposite of what some local instructors teach.
    I was thought a different way and certainly not the “low impact” style.
    Needless to say my rolls were average, at best.
    Lately I have been coached by a Greenland roller and suddenly my rolls have become very consistent, including big water or surf.
    Your article is outstanding and I might refer/link to it in a future blog post of mine.
    Interestingly enough I have seen some very good paddlers totally lost if they can’t have their big blade euro in their hands to perform their muscled rolls.
    Maybe a bit of finesse is better than brute force?… :-)

  3. Diane Carr

    Derrick, You’ve expressed it well from a Greenlandic point of view, I talk about being folded and then unfolding with both shoulders on the water, chest open, back arched, head back. There is no hip snap or paddle sweep. No muscling it up. It’s an organic move. As the body opens it will turn the boat over making it ready for you to slide onto the back deck. Head back. It’s all done with economy of movement and ease. If this is practiced enough you won’t forget. Your body loves it! It becomes so simple.