How to Roll a Kayak

by David Miller Jun 3, 2009
Rolling a kayak is like learning to ride a bike. Once you’ve got it, you’ll have it forever.

ROLLING A KAYAK is one of the most counter-intuitive things you’ll ever try.

When you’re upside down, your instinct tells you to go UP, to get AIR, but it’s exactly the opposite that you have to do–keep your head down, and bring it up last–in order to roll correctly.

That being said, once you really lock down a solid roll, it does become instinctual. You’ll soon figure out other kinds of rolls, and perhaps more importantly, use your new-found comfort and sense of balance in the water to keep from flipping in the first place.

The videos below are obviously no replacement for a teacher, but meant to help you visualize the body movements behind rolling.

C to C roll

This was the first kind of roll I ever learned, and the one I still recommend everyone learn first. The main advantage of the C to C roll is that you begin the roll in an aggressively forward-leaning tuck (I tell students “try to press your nose into the sprayskirt.”), which means that you’re relatively protected from hitting your face or shoulder if it’s shallow.

The one disadvantage is that this roll is slower than other rolls. Usually you take a second to stabilize underwater (while in the tuck) before attempting this roll.

Note the placement of the paddler’s arms in 1:21. The higher up on top of the boat you can get your elbow (in this case it’s her left elbow) the easier it is to roll. Also note the powerful ‘hip snap’ (also at 1:21). It’s really the hips that roll the boat. The paddle is more used for balance and positioning your body.

Screw Roll

Typically, paddlers will find that one side feels more natural for rolling than the other. The side that feels easier is known as the on-side; the other is the off-side. It’s key to be able to roll on both.

When I was first learning, for some reason I kept doing a Screw Roll [referred to as a “back deck sweep roll” in the video below] instead of a C to C, even though I was trying a C to C on my off side. So instead of fighting it, I just used to Screw as my go-to roll on my off side.

The screw has the advantage of being faster than the C to C. Oftentimes you can tell when you’re about to flip and use the momentum from flipping to power right into the screw roll in one single flow. This roll can also help you straighten out and continue your forward momentum immediately. Its one disadvantage is that it leaves your shoulder open and vulnerable.

Back Deck Roll

The back deck roll is more powerful and faster than the other rolls because you torque not just using your hips or the paddle, but your whole body. For that reason it also leaves you the most vulnerable to hitting things underwater.

General Tips:

When learning in a pool or lake, bring a pair of swim goggles. Eventually you’ll be able to roll by feel, but in the beginning it helps to be able to see your hands, the paddle, the boat, and the top of the water, while upside down.

Use nose plugs to stay more comfortable when you’re upside down underwater.

Be patient. Everyone learns the roll at his / her own pace.

Finally, don’t let your immediate success or failure with the roll determine whether or not you’ll continue learning how to paddle. Even if you don’t have a roll yet, you can still get out on easy rivers with experienced paddlers.

Community Connection

For more on learning to kayak, check out 8 Simple Steps for Getting into Whitewater Paddling.

Discover Matador