By Steffan Meyric Hughes
The kind folk at The Paddler have given me a platform to whine on about grammar and words on a regular basis here in the magazine, which will come as a relief to paddling companions stuck in cars, who have so far been my only captive audience. My aim is not to tell you how to paddle (I’m far too crap), where to go or what gear to buy (although that’s easy – stick to a two-tone palette and you’ll look great and remember, red and green should never be seen).
No, I’m going to be the word guy – the resident nomenclature and etymology geek. In forthcoming issues, I’ll guide us through the maze of ill-defined terms that litter our sport. Like ‘grade’ or ‘class’? Canoe of kayak? Phonics or Phonix? And why the monkey? At times, I will moan about the encroaching Americanisms in paddlesport, not because I dislike them, but because I think they have no place on the Upper Treweryn or HPP.
Sometimes, it’s just nice to speak properly and use the right terms. Language is important, and nearly always overlooked in kayaking. Sometimes, the wrong term causes genuine confusion, and that’s the case with this first instalment, which tackles the beautiful roll known alternately as the rodeo, dry-head, and back-deck roll. I’ve taken the liberty, on this occasion, of going into a few of the myths surround it as well – it’s as misunderstood as it’s misnamed.
Not really knowing what to call it confuses not only whitewater kayakers but, potentially, C1 paddlers and sea kayakers too. Like many things in kayaking, there is no official right or wrong on this. But I suggest we stick to the terms below, as they are the only way to logically define these three subtly different manoeuvres.
The back-deck roll is millennia old, one of the many rolls used by the Inuits and others. It refers simply to a roll where the power blade is swept forwards from the stern, with the corresponding body throw moving forwards; the opposite to a ‘normal’ (screw) roll.
The rodeo roll is a ‘trick’ variant of this in which the entire 360-degree rotation is carried out in one motion, skipping the set-up stage.
The dry-head roll is a refinement of the rodeo roll, in which the technique has advanced to the stage where the paddler keeps his head dry by flicking his boat over his head as he rolls.
The rodeo roll is surrounded by bad press and bad knowledge. Firstly, a number of its fans describe it as an easy roll, which is misleading and not very helpful if you’re still struggling (as I was) after 500 attempts to truly nail it! The truth is that it’s quite an easy move to pull off, but harder to master. From that shoulder-wrenching first attempt to having the move well-sussed can be a long journey.
The reason for its difficulty is two-fold: firstly, it is a disorientating move that feels improbable from the uncomfortable start position. This is a move that only starts to make sense once you are performing it, so it is difficult to plan; it’s partly a commitment thing. Secondly, as an uninterrupted barrel roll, the momentum gained makes it possible to perform the rodeo roll without a hip flick (hip snap to US readers). This sounds like good news, but it is the downfall of the many who can perform the move, but not perform it well. A good flick is vital to coming up fast and positively and keeping your shoulders from strain.
The second bit of misinformation about this roll is that it’s potentially dangerous, and only suitable in freestyle. This only comes from those who can’t perform it – or can’t perform it well. Some of these detractors are referring specifically to the rodeo roll, some to the rodeo and back deck rolls. As they call them by the same name, it’s impossible to know what they are saying, hence my wish to sort out the terminology! The truth is that the rodeo roll is largely a trick move – it’s not often used in anger but looks wonderful when it is – but the back deck roll is something every paddler should learn. And the rodeo roll is a fun way to learn it.
The reason it is potentially dangerous, say the detractors, is that the paddler’s underwater position exposes his face to the river bottom. Something that top US paddler Ken Whiting pointed out makes a complete nonsense of this. If you flip lying back (the most common scenario), then in order to set up for a traditional roll, you have to lean all the way forwards into a tuck anyway, thereby exposing yourself to the bottom of the river considerably more than by simply flipping up from the back deck.
Other points to consider are that, if performed well, a rodeo OR back-deck roll is much shallower than a traditional roll and much quicker, again lessening that exposure. And finally, a rodeo or back-deck roll will bring you up in a neutral position with your strong side blade planted at the bow of your boat, ready to pull through.
The third myth about the rodeo roll is that it is a strain on the shoulders. Until you nail the move properly, that much is true. But once the move is performed correctly, it’s as easy as any other roll. I’ve certainly never experienced any problems, and I’ve been doing 50 a week for a few months now.
What’s the back deck roll for?
The back deck roll is well-known among freestyle paddlers (or ‘playboaters’) as well as surf kayakers, as a trick move. It’s the basis of the entry move (performed while dropping into a stopper/hole); the airscrew (one of the iconic wave surfing moves), and the kickflip, a downriver move. It’s also just a cool-looking roll to perform as you’re flipping back up in the wave train.
If you are a river runner, these won’t be of interest to you; but it’s the safest, quickest way to right yourself after an inversion lying back, and that should be of interest. In an ideal world, kayakers would come up from an inversion in whatever position they were flipped. In over half the cases, this would mean a back deck or rodeo roll. As a very fast move, it’s also a good way to get used to the dynamism of playboating manoeuvres, where many moves (the cartwheel is a classic) happen so fast, they leave your reaction times lagging. It’s interesting to note that those with a good rodeo roll or back deck roll usually use it as a first choice. And it’s also interesting to note that playboaters and surf kayakers, the two most dynamic disciplines in kayaking, and who flip with the most regularity, use it almost exclusively.
Ken Whiting’s instructional video on how to rodeo roll, despite being in 240p, is the best on YouTube.
America and the UK – two countries separated by a common language? Hip snap or hip flick? Grade or class? Eddying out or breaking out?
Steffan has been paddling on and off since 1988, when he first stepped into a Perception Mirage. He is a keen historian of the sport and author of Circle Line: around London in a Small Boat (2012). These days, he paddles a dark blue Jackson AllStar (2010). He is a full-time yachting journalist in his day job.