Last updated on February 26th, 2018 at 01:09 am

Learning how to roll a kayak, also called an ‘Eskimo roll’, isn’t something you really need to worry about if you’re paddling on calm water. But there comes a point for many kayakers when they want to head into rougher waters for more of a challenge.

If you capsize in rougher conditions, it’s not always desirable or safe to perform a wet exit and self rescue. When heading into more challenging conditions, rolling your kayak becomes an essential skill to learn.

While it may look like it takes a lot of strength, rolling a kayak is actually mostly about technique. Don’t be put off learning because you don’t think you’re strong enough.With this guide and some practice, you’ll be rolling with the best of them in no time.

 

How to Roll a Kayak

How to learn

The ideal scenario is to have an instructor or experienced friend teach you the fundamentals of rolling until you’re comfortable practicing on your own. It usually takes a few hours of hands-on instruction.

Having said that, it’s not essential to learn with an instructor.

It’s definitely possible to learn how to roll a kayak with just this guide as a resource and a willing helper.

Your helper doesn’t necessarily have to be an experienced kayaker, but they should at least be familiar with the process of rolling a kayak. Have them read through this guide before getting started.

Location

When you’re just starting out, practice in easy conditions so you can focus on getting the fundamentals down. The ideal water conditions for learning to roll are:

  • Calm
  • Warm
  • Clear
  • Waist Deep

A swimming pool makes for a perfect place to practice. Call your local public swimming pool and find out if there’s a good time to bring your kayak in to practice. If not, any water that matches the points above will work.

Clear calm warm water

As you improve your technique, you should practice in increasingly difficult conditions. It’s significantly harder to roll a kayak in a fast current or choppy water. Just learning how to roll in a nice warm swimming pool isn’t going to prepare you very well if you need to roll in rough water.

Tips Before You Get Started

1.) Use a ‘tippy’ kayak – As a rule of thumb, the more stable a kayak is, the harder it will be to roll. If you can, try to find a low-volume kayak that is a bit ‘tippy’. Low-volume whitewater boats and sea kayaks are your best bets but aren’t essential.

2.) Wear goggles or a mask – It’s helpful to have goggles or a dive mask when you’re learning to roll. You’ll be able to see how the paddle is moving through the water and it’ll help you keep oriented while you’re building your muscle memory.

Of course, once you start to get the hang of it you should ditch the mask. You want to be able to roll without the advantage of a mask; you’re not likely to be wearing one if you capsize for real.

3.) Know how to wet exit – If you’re not comfortable performing a wet exit, you should get that down before practicing your roll. Learning how to do a wet exit should be viewed as a prerequisite to learning how to roll.

Fundamental Rolling Principles

There are a handful of ‘core’ rolling techniques that all rely on two common principles:

  • Head comes out of the water last – As you’re rolling back into your kayak, aim for your hips to be first, shoulders to be second, and head to be last. Lifting your head out of the water too early puts pressure on the kayak to stay upside down.
  • Hip Snap – It’s a bit counterintuitive, but successfully rolling your kayak relies more on using your hips than your paddle. During a roll, your paddle mostly just acts as support so you have something to get leverage off of while you use your hips to ‘snap’ the kayak back underneath you.

Hip Snap Practice Drill

Before you even start trying to roll your kayak with your paddle, it’s helpful to get a feel for what it’s like to use your hips to roll the kayak right side up and bring your body out of the water.

In this drill, your helper will take the place of your paddle by holding your hands and supporting you while you roll the kayak.

Kayak rolling drill with helper

Steps

  1. Have your helper stand in waist deep water along the side of your kayak and hold their hands.
  2. With the support of your helper, tip the kayak over so your head is in the water. Your face shouldn’t be fully submerged; you should still be able to breathe.
  3. Roll the kayak with your hips so it is right side up and bring your body out of the water.

Key points

The most important thing to be aware of in this drill is to make sure your head is the last thing out of the water. After the boat is right side up and you start moving your body back into you seat, make sure its in this order:

  1. Hips First
  2. Shoulders Second
  3. Head Last

The easiest way to make sure your head is out of the water last is to make sure you watch your hands while you’re performing the drill. It’ll naturally encourage you to take your head out of the water last.

Your helper should keep an eye on your form and let you know if something is off.

You don’t need to run this drill for very long. Completing 5 rolls with good form should give you a good enough feel so you can move on to using your paddle and practicing a real roll.

Video Demonstration:

This video clip is a bit dated but does a good job demonstrating the key parts of the drill.


 

Two Rolling Techniques: Sweep & C to C Rolls

The two most common rolls for beginners to learn, and the ones you’ll learn in this guide, are the sweep roll and C to C roll.

It’s worth noting that neither of these rolls really reflects how you’ll roll in real world conditions. With enough practice, rolling will become more intuitive and you’ll be able to roll from different positions without having to go through a specific setup.

As you practice your rolls, your helper should stay nearby in the water and be ready to jump in to give you a final nudge if you’re not able to complete the roll. Just make sure they’re out of the path of the paddle so they don’t get hit.

They should be familiar with the correct rolling form so they can help you make adjustments if you’re not quite getting it.

Setting Up

Both the sweep and C to C rolls start from the same position. In real world conditions, you’ll have to move your paddle and body into the right position after you’re already under water.

When you’re just beginning to learn, though, it’s easier to begin with your paddle and body already in the right position to start your roll.

Your goal during the setup is to go from a normal, upright position to upside down in the water with your body and paddle ready to go.

What it looks like:

How to roll a kayak - setup

**Note** If you’re right handed, you’re going start with the paddle on your left side. If you’re left handed, you’ll start on your right.

Steps

  1. Hold the paddle parallel to the kayak, with the paddle flat against the surface of the water.
  2. Make sure the power face of the paddle blade is pointing up.
  3. Tip your kayak over by tucking your head forward and leaning your body toward your paddle.
  4. Once underwater, move your head and body as close to the surface of the water and as far out from the kayak as possible. Imagine trying to kiss the surface of the water.
  5. Your forearms should be pressed against the side of the kayak and the paddle should be above the surface of the water.

 

How to Sweep Roll (Screw Roll)

The sweep roll is usually ‘the’ roll people are talking about when talking about first learning to roll a kayak. It’s good for open or flat water but requires a lot of space to perform so may not be a good option in narrow spaces.

Pros

  • Required less setup
  • Paddle offers support for a longer period of time
  • The paddle doesn’t go as deep into the water

Cons

  • Slightly harder to learn than C to C
  • Requires a lot of space to perform

What it looks like:

How to roll a kayak - sweep roll

Sweep Roll Steps:
  1. Swing the front blade through the water in an arch away from your kayak.
  2. Watch the blade as it moves through the water.
  3. Apply increasing downward pressure on the paddle as it moves closer to 90 degrees.
  4. As the paddle approaches 90 degrees and you start to feel more support from it, use your hips to snap your kayak back underneath your body.
  5. Roll your body out of the water along the back deck of the kayak.

 

How to C to C Roll

The C to C roll is usually preferred by whitewater kayakers over the sweep roll as it tends to be more reliable in rougher conditions. Unlike the sweep roll, which applies downward pressure on the paddle as it moves toward 90 degrees, the C to C roll first positions the paddle at 90 degrees before applying downward pressure.

Pros

  • Easier to learn than sweep roll
  • More consistent than sweep roll

Cons

  • More setup
  • Paddle blade tends to go deeper into the water

What it looks like:

How to roll a kayak - C to C roll

C to C Roll Steps
  1. Swing the front blade around along the surface of the water so the paddle is roughly at 90 degrees to the kayak.
  2. Keep the blade as close to the surface of the water as possible.
  3. Watch the blade as it moves through the water.
  4. Press your left forearm up against the side of the kayak to act as a pivot point.
  5. Apply downward pressure to the outstretched paddle blade.
  6. When you feel the paddle begin to offer support, use your hips to snap the kayak back underneath your body.
  7. Roll your body out of the water along the back deck of the kayak.

 

Video Demonstration:

PaddleTV and Ken Whiting created an excellent video outlining the steps for the C to C and Sweep rolls (the above GIFs are from the video). It’s definitely worth your time to watch it before heading out to practice.

 

Common Beginner Mistakes

  1. Having your body and head too low in the water when starting the roll -The farther out to the side your body is when you start, the more effective your hip snap will be. Aim to be able to see the side of your kayak before starting your roll.
  2. Trying to apply downward pressure to the paddle too early – You get the most support from your paddle when it is 90 degrees to your kayak. If you apply downward pressure too early when the paddle is not near 90 degrees, it won’t give you the support you need to perform a good hip snap.

Other Kayak Rolling Techniques

There are many subtly different techniques for recovering from a capsize. In fact, participants in the Greenland Kayaking Championships are required to perform 35 different maneuvers, and that doesn’t even come close to covering all the different techniques. Admittedly, the majority of them are for very specific situations and aren’t used often.

Advanced Rolls

There are however a few more advanced rolling techniques that are good to have in your back pocket. Once you’ve mastered the sweep roll and C to C rolls, consider adding them to your toolbox.

  • Reverse Sweep Roll (Reverse Screw Roll) – Used when the paddler is pushed so they’re leaning backward underwater, rather than leaning forward as you would in a forward sweep or C to C roll.
  • Hand Roll – Used if the kayaker loses their paddle during a capsize.

Obsolete Rolls

There are a few rolls that used to be more common but have fallen out of favor with most modern kayakers. These might be worth learning if you want to build your intuition for rolling or want to show off to your buddies, but they’re not likely to be of much use out on the water.

  • Steyr roll
  • Pawlata roll
  • Storm roll

Final Words

Remember, you’re not likely to need your roll during nice flat water conditions. Once you’ve got a handle on rolling, head out to progressively more challenging conditions and keep practicing.

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