Do you remember your first roll? Or, I should say, your first rolls, because there are a number of firsts in reality. The first roll, the first roll outside the warm clarity of the swimming pool, the first roll on moving water, then the first unplanned roll. It is not the hardest move in kayaking these days, not even close to it.
By Steffan Meyric Hughes
Almost anything in freestyle is harder, particularly the building blocks like double pumps and bow stalls, so the move has lost something of its cachet over the years. These days, it’s more realistic to see the roll as the crux move that enables you to start your kayaking career. It marks the end of beginner status and entry into the real club. It remains, however, the single most iconic move in kayaking and probably always will, because it represents something fundamental and important, and something that is nearly unique to the kayak: the ability to come back up after complete inversion. To the non-paddling world it is more impressive than anything else.
You don’t have to go back far in time to see its evolution in the sport. Various kayaking films of the 70s and even 80s show paddlers performing it as a victory flourish after a rapid or as a statement of intent before one. One good example is the first legal descent of Niagara Gorge – have a look on YouTube – it’s a great video.
Not long before those days, it was considered dangerous by the British Canoe Union and banned in competitive slalom. But you have to go a little further back to find the first Briton to perform the move, and that was Gino Watkins.
Watkins was not only incidentally a kayaker – he was first and foremost an Arctic explorer who led, at the exceptionally young age of 19, his first expedition to the frozen north (Edge Island), and three more before his death at the age of 26, when he was on his second trip to Greenland to survey the north Atlantic for a proposed transatlantic air route, at the behest of Pan American Airways.
The two published biographies on him (by his close friend JM Scott in 1935 and by the explorer John Ridgway MBE in 1974) focus on his exploration, but we gather that Watkins was not only able to roll his 18ft-long traditionally-built sealskin Greenland kayak with ease, but was an accomplished seal hunter and able to perform the ‘Eskimo’ roll without a paddle and in a number of variants of the sort we see today from Greenland specialists.
“In spite of their great expertise in the kayaks, the stark fact remained that one-quarter of all Eskimo deaths was caused by drowning” wrote Ridgway. Sadly, this was to be Watkin’s demise, when he paddled out to hunt seal on 20 August, 1932. He got out and stood on an ice floe on a routine stop to sort his gear out better, when a falling ice block behind him caused a strong wave to pass under the floe, knocking him into the freezing water and unable to climb back onto the floe or into his kayak, which drifted away. His body was never recovered.
Hans W Pawlata
According to John Dudderidge’s ‘History of Canoeing’ however, it was in fact the Austrian paddler Hans W Pawlata who was the first European to perform the move, and that was in 1927. Pawlata was part of the beginnings of the folding boat era, in which northern European paddlers (particularly Germans) began to discover the joys of running the Alpine rivers when the snow they had enjoyed their winter skiing on began to melt in the summer – a tradition that, of course, continues to this day.
Unlike Watkins, who learned directly from Eskimos, Pawlata taught himself the technique from their texts. Arguably this was an even greater achievement, although we know even less about Pawlata than we do about Watkins. His extended paddle roll, known as the ‘pawlata roll’ has fallen out of favour these days compared with the ‘c to c’ but was throughout the 80s and 90s the preferred beginners’ roll, the paddler holding the blade of the paddle for better leverage and feel.
Finally, just to confuse things more, it has been suggested that Pawlata was not in fact the first to roll after all! An authoritative article on Wikipedia states that “a number of European missionaries and explorers had previously learned how to roll from the Inuit people of Greenland, Paul Egede probably being the first in the 1730s. Rolling was demonstrated in 1889 at Sandviken, Norway, by Oluf Dietrichson, a member of Nansen’s 1888 Greenland Expedition.”
For this reason, Pawlata’s position in history, although his achievement is greater than Watkin’s, is less secure. Like many things in kayaking, the history is far from clear, but it seems unchallenged (so far) that Watkins was the first Briton to roll. SO we’ll roll with that. And from that basis of being able to self-right, new in Europe but known to Greenlanders and Aleuts since before records of such things began, the sport began its transformation from the era of straw-hatted gentlemen on placid waters to the exciting extreme sport we know today.