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How to Roll a Kayak

Whether you’re in a sea kayak or a playboat, a roll is the most reliable way to recover from a capsize. And even if you already have one, you can always make it better. Working on it is also excellent practice for maintaining balance and boat control.

The objective is to get the boat right side up, so your body can follow. The key is doing this with very little support from the paddle. Minimizing paddle involvement depends on a good hip snap, the torso, and knee motion that rights the boat. To roll, you’ll need your torso working independently of your lower body. This motion has to be well refined before you do anything with the paddle.

The best way to learn is with an instructor helping you with the motion, in the warmth and comfort of a swimming pool. Your instructor will stand waist deep in the water, and support your head and torso at water level. Practice rotating the boat through the full range of motion. With your torso suspended near the surface, only one knee does the work of righting the boat. Your other knee relaxes, barely even touching the deck. If you’re hanging onto the boat with both knees, you defeat the hip action, and the entire motion will feel strained.

It is possible to practice rotating the boat through this motion by holding onto the side of the pool. But this isn’t as good as having an instructor who can force you to use the correct muscles by supporting your head and leaving your arms crossed across your chest. The problem: every student has the natural tendency to use his or her arms to help right the boat. This contradicts the motion that you’re trying to learn. Instead, keep your torso weight floating near the surface and rotate the boat up with your hips, knees and torso.

When you’ve demonstrated a smooth hip snap, get started with the paddle (it’s helpful to have a swim mask and noseplugs for this part). First get into the set-up position: this is a protected, forward tucked position, with the paddle held on the water along one side of the boat. From the set-up, you’ll flip, and wait until your boat settles upside down. Once you’re upside down, move the working blade in an arc near the surface. Keep the blade near the surface by leaving the tuck position, and rolling your torso and working blade out to the side.

As you start this motion, minimize the force on the blade and bring the boat up with your hip snap. Pulling down on the paddle and lifting your head to breathe are the most common mistakes. If your head goes up for air, the boat stays upside down.

Finally, finish your roll in a safe position. To avoid injury, keep the paddle shaft low and in front of your shoulders. Use smooth finesse rather than power. Paddlers can be quite passionate about their own way of rolling, so don’t let different explanations confuse you. Quality rolls have a lot in common. Rolling is a weird, counterintuitive motion, so don’t worry if it takes a while to learn.

Outfitting

Before you try to roll your kayak, you must make your kayak “fit.” If your kayak isn’t outfitted, practice your swimming as you will need it.

Outfit the kayak so you’re securely attached to the boat, yet able to get out when you want to. This isn’t easy, as each person has different methods of outfitting. The following is my favorite. I start with a foam saddle, about eight inches high. The back needs to be high enough to reach the thwart. Before gluing the saddle in, I take my kayak, saddle and a marker to the lake and paddle around to find where I want to place the saddle. Then it’s back to the shop for a big gluefest.

Install the D-rings for the thigh straps before gluing down the foam pedestal. Thigh strap position varies. I like mine high up on my thighs. Use four D-rings to attach your thigh straps to the kayak, with each leg using a different strap. The center D-rings are positioned straight down from high up on my thighs. The D-ring is usually parallel and up against the pedestal. I then attach the outside D-rings a few inches outside of my thighs, on the inside curve of the boat about three to four inches back from the center D-rings. Make sure the pedestal is long enough to glue its top back onto a thwart (the thwart makes a big difference in controlling wiggles). I then dish out some three-inch foam for kneepads, with the knees fitting in 2.5-inch-deep pockets. Comfort equals strength, so place them where you feel comfortable. Glue in a half-inch pad for the toes and then add ankle lifts (essential to comfort). Some boaters use toe blocks instead of ankle blocks for even more security—for me, however, toe blocks make my legs cramp and make it too hard to get out.

Install the thigh straps after you glue in all of your pieces. Make sure your thigh strap is adjustable and doesn’t slip. It should also release in an emergency. My favorite thigh straps use Velcro for adjustments (buckles either slip or bite so hard that they wear through the webbing).

Flotation

Flotation affects the ease of rolling. The less flotation, the easier it is to roll. A kayak without flotation will roll slowly, yet easily, as the boat sinks under you while you roll/swim over the boat. A lot of flotation makes the last part of the roll harder because your boat floats higher in the water—and you’ll need to raise your body completely out of the water to get on top of the kayak.

How much flotation do you need? While learning, use less. After you get your roll down, increase it. Find the balance where you have a strong roll and as much flotation as possible. The more flotation, the less water you’ll have when upright, which means more maneuverability. A Nolan Whitesell trick is to leave room in front of your seat so after you roll, you can use your paddle to bail the water out. I like flotation on the inside walls of my kayak, made of a two-inch-thick plank of foam. The plank is about 13 inches high and six feet long and runs along both inner sides. I recommend minicell or ethafoam. The foam floats the boat on its side. I’ve swamped my boat and then on a low brace, just like the roll, rolled it completely on edge so the water could flow out. Strap the foam in with D-rings and cord.

Body and Paddle Position

After outfitting your boat, the roll can be anti-climactic. Rolling a kayak is easy! Just follow these basic steps (described for rolling on the right side).

Flipping over

Always lean forward, tight to the deck in the tuck position. When on a river, wear your helmet and PFD to protect your body. Put your paddle parallel the kayak while in your tuck. Keep the body close to the boat.

Setting up the paddle

Once upside down in your tuck, wait until you can feel the air on your paddle blade or hands. Take a little stroke under the water to pull yourself toward your rolling side. This is just like the start of your roll—a little pull down to roll the kayak up. I do this by sticking my paddle out to the side, 30- to 45-degrees from the boat and pulling a little with my arms while staying in my tuck. Be aware that your paddle will be deep under water. Once you feel the boat move to the desired position, slice the paddle back up next to the boat. A kayak will float/lean toward one side or the other while upside-down. If you’re trying to roll up on the side that is deep under the water, you won’t feel the air on your hands. The little pull will help in this situation.

The sweep

Now you can sweep the paddle across the surface to position it perpendicular to the boat. I do this in a high-brace position, with my paddle out of the water and my lower hand across my face reaching for the surface (just starting to flip the paddle into the low-brace position). When the paddle is perpendicular to the boat, flip it over so your left hand is at your belly button, right hand is palm down, and your forehead is on the back of your hand. Your back should be arched backward, so your paddle will still be on the surface.

The snap

Once in position, all that’s left is to bend over, keeping your forehead on the back of your right hand and your left hand at your belly button. Then do a massive body crunch with your whole body. It will happen anyway, but try to pull/roll the boat under you with your legs. Notice in the photos that I still have my forehead on the back of my right hand. Keep your head down by keeping your forehead on the paddle.

Recovery

Once you’re almost upright, move your head over the kayak while sculling with your paddle for extra push and support. When moving your head and body over the boat, make sure you stay as close to the boat as possible to keep your center of gravity low. Your head and body need to move over the boat toward the front. Don’t lean back to accomplish this.

Last modified: January 29, 2019
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