I started kayaking on the south coast of England. Brighton beach was my local launch spot. At low tide a gradually shelving sea bed caused the waves to spill gently if a little chaotically, while at high tide the steep shingle beach caused the waves to suddenly rear up and pitch down onto the rounded flint cobbles with explosive impact. Either way, my aim was to ride these waves, and almost invariably I ended each short ride upside down.
those days I had no release strap on my spray skirt. In a mild panic I'd punch
and pull at its straightest edge until I pulled it free, then tumble out.
Although swimming was not my strong point, I was seldom in water deep enough to need
to swim. My frequent wet exits pointed to some basic skills I lacked,
but those took me longer to figure out. Eventually I learned how to
avoid tripping over the shoreward edge when I broached, by edging to seaward. I
also learned to roll. A roll is no substitute for skills that keep
you upright, but it sure is a great technique when you do find yourself upside
So what's the big deal with rolling? Why don't more paddlers
try to master it? Well, I know I spent my early days of paddling trying to
avoid getting my face wet. Call it a fear of water. It was probably that same
fear that made me enjoy kayaking so much in my attempts to master techniques so
I could avoid capsize. At any rate, I was jubilant when I first rolled in the
pool, but from then on it took more than a year before I could roll reliably
even in the pool, and longer still before I would roll after an accidental
capsize. Much of that time delay was due to poor technique that became
Kayaking skills, like any other movement skills, become automatic
after a very short time, and if there's a bad element in a complex sequence of
movements, it's difficult to break the sequence at the appropriate time to
alter just that one bad element. Rolling is an unusual sequence of moves that
one seldom duplicates in normal life. There is something odd about a situation
where you find yourself inverted with your head in water. Bungee-jumping off
bridges can do it to you briefly but some would say that's an odd situation
When I first attempted to roll my eagerness to get my head out of the
water to gain air ruined my chances of success. This "head-up-first"
mistake is universally one of the biggest causes of rolling failure. In fact
it's much easier to roll if your head leaves the water last, after you've more
or less righted your kayak. But if you get it wrong and try several times to
bring your head up too early, the fault becomes ingrained, and then it becomes
really difficult to break the bad habit. In fact, it's really difficult to
diagnose the reason for the failure of your own roll, and almost impossible for
you to act successfully on the advice "You're bringing your head up too
early; come up head-last." So instead of starting to learn a roll with
your head under water, let's begin on dry land where there's no perceived
advantage to bringing your head up early.
1. Practice without your kayak.
First practice the movement without your kayak. Sit upright on the ground
with your legs in front of you as if you were sitting in a kayak. Now lean over
to one side and put your elbow on the floor about the length of your forearm
from your hip. Roll your legs with your knees together until the side of your
knee touches the floor. This is a simulated "capsized" position.
Now jerk your butt into the sitting position,
keeping your elbow on the floor and dropping your head until your cheek rests
close to your shoulder. This is the "hip flick" that rights your
kayak. It now remains for you to bring your body upright sliding your forehead
as close to the ground as possible until you com into balance.
refine your movement. Begin in the simulated
"capsized" position as before. Now drop the shoulder of the uppermost
arm backward so your chest is facing upward. You should achieve this by
rotation of your torso, not by straightening your body at the waist.
"hip flick" by bringing the uppermost shoulder forward to rotate your
torso as you jerk your butt into a sitting position. Your shoulder
finish so your chest is toward the ground and your head should be
forehead-down. It helps at this stage if you try to keep your head in
with the ground throughout the movement by rolling it and then dragging
Imagine your head is immensely heavy, even if it isn't. Practice the
movement on both sides. This will speed up the learning process.
2. Practice on land in your kayak
( TIP Check your kayak fits you snugly.
You'll find it more difficult to roll if it doesn't. Your seat should be firmly
secured inside your kayak so it doesn't slide in any direction. You must be
able to lock your knees against the inside of the deck or against thigh braces
while the balls of your feet brace firmly against fixed foot braces. If your
kayak has sliding footbraces, you'll need to immobilize them. For comfort you
may wish to glue minicell foam pads where your knees and thighs contact the
inside of your kayak. Check your kayak is strong enough to withstand your
weight rolling in it on the ground. Plastic whitewater kayaks are great for
learning the roll, and they should withstand the rigors of repeated land
practice. Composite kayaks are more liable to damage. Some sea kayaks are quite
difficult to roll and require good technique. You'll find it easier to master
first in a kayak that rolls easily. Once you're rolling competently, you can
apply your roll to the kayaks you normally paddle. )
Find a soft area of ground, or set your kayak on a mat or
carpet. Sit in your kayak holding your paddle. Grip the kayak with your legs.
Now roll the kayak onto its side until you come to rest with your shoulder on
the ground and your paddle blade on the ground in the high brace position. The
face of the blade should be on the ground with your elbow bent and tucked close
in front of your body so you can pull the blade down against the ground, rather
than pushing it down. Invert your kayak by bending your body sideways. (Not so
far that it hurts.) Now rotate your torso so your back is toward the ground. Look
up toward the sky with the back of your head against the ground. This is the
position you adopted in the first exercise and it's the same one you should
adopt in the water at the start of a "High Brace Roll". To roll up,
pull down on the paddle and perform your hip-flick, as described above. You
should be able to flick your kayak upright with your forehead ending close to
the ground. Practice on both sides.
This dry-land drill can be rehearsed slowly until you minimize the effort
needed to right the kayak. Once you are familiar with the movement you can
begin to speed up until your "hip flick" becomes the almost explosive
action that offers such good results in the water.
When you capsize accidentally, you should tuck your paddle close alongside
your gunnel to prevent it being taken from your grip by the force of water.
Practice this now, on dry land. Invert your kayak as before, tucking your
paddle alongside the gunnel while holding it in your normal hand grip. Now lift
the rear blade across your inverted hull to position the front blade out to the
side as before, ready for a high brace. This is the movement you need to make
underwater to get into position for a high brace roll. Now flick the kayak
upright as before.
(CAUTION Remember to keep your elbows close to your
body throughout. Pulling down with an extended arm can lead to shoulder
3. Practice in water, in your kayak
( TIP. It's not a bad idea to begin in warm
clear water, but if you only have cold water available, dress as warmly as
possible, paying special attention to your head. If you intend to spend a
little time practicing, a neoprene divers hood is a good idea, together with
nose-clips to prevent your sinuses from filling with water. If your ears are
exposed, then wear some form of earplugs to prevent the inrush of cold water. )
( CAUTION Kayakers have suffered hypothermia as a
result of overzealous rolling practice in cold water! Rolling in cold water can
rapidly chill you. Always have a companion with you when you practice and stop
if you begin to shiver. )
Begin your practice with either a companion supporting
your paddle blade, or with your blade resting on a low dock, or with a paddle
float. Allow yourself to fall sideways toward your blade into the water. Once
your body is supported by the water, but not necessarily completely submerged,
repeat your dry-land movements, paying particular attention to the rotation of
your body as you flick the boat upright, and to keeping your head low. By this
stage you should be able feel if your movement requires a lot of effort or
strength. By contrast, a good roll with a good body position requires minimal
strength and effort. Keep your elbows close to your body.
At the next stage, allow yourself to capsize completely with your paddle
tucked alongside your gunnel in the "wind-up" position. Lean toward
your paddle to allow your PFD to float you up toward the surface and the
position you have already been recovering from. Now push the rear blade up and
pivot it to cross the hull as you practiced on dry land, before pushing the
active blade up to clear the surface. Now you are ready to pull down on your
brace and to flick your kayak upright in the way that you have rehearsed.
To be able to roll on flat water is great, but not as useful as the ability
to roll in a variety of conditions, especially after an accidental capsize.
Once you've become proficient on calm water, try rolling in windy or choppy
conditions, or in moving water, or small surf. When you set up for your roll,
capsize away from the wind or current or surf, and roll up on the side the
wind, wave or current is coming from. That way you'll harness the energy of the
elements to help your roll. Roll up on the other side and you'll find it more
( CAUTION Before practicing a roll, check the water
depth and make sure you'll not hit anything when you capsize. )
The roll I have described is only one way to roll, and the learning sequence
is one of many you can follow. Refer to "Kayaking, a Beginners
Manual" Nigel Foster,
(Fernhurst Books), or "Nigel
Foster's Sea Kayaking" (Globe
Pequot Press) for alternative techniques. You may find as I do that you'll use
only one or two varieties of roll in action, but practicing other rolls will
help you roll more reliably. The more positions of the paddle or different body
movements you can successfully adopt, the more likely you are to be able to
roll in any given situation.
A Summary of Rolling Tips.
your paddle alongside your hull on the side you will enter the water as you
lean your body toward the surface on the side you hold your paddle, before you
begin your roll. This saves you the effort of dragging your body through the
water into that same position using paddle-power during the roll itself.
your roll is unsuccessful initially, try to retrieve the situation using a
practicing, if your rolling begins to deteriorate, take a break and then go
back to rehearsing on land.
The Paddle Float Roll by Nigel Foster
(first published in Sea Kayaker Magazine)
While the paddle float was devised as a way to improvise an
outrigger for self-rescue, its best use, in my opinion, is as an aid to a
reentry and roll. Once the rudimentary principles of a roll are mastered, a
reentry and roll with a paddle float can offer a reliable self-rescue, even
though rolling without the float might still be elusive.
reentry, flip the kayak upright, float yourself alongside the kayak facing
the bow, and grasp the paddle against the far side of your cockpit so that it
extends out at right angles past you with the float as far from the side as
possible. Grip the near side of your cockpit with your other hand. Lie back
in the water. Hold your breath and swing your feet into the cockpit between
your hands. Still gripping both sides of the cockpit, wriggle yourself into
your seat, and with your feet on the foot braces, grip firmly with your
Now grasp the paddle shaft with both hands and gently pull down
against the buoyancy of the paddle float until your head reaches the surface
and you can breathe and see what you are doing. Relax now in this position.
Finish your roll by pulling down on the paddle with the hand closest to the
paddle float, pushing your head down toward the water and flicking with your
hips to right the kayak. When the kayak is upright, bring your head inboard
close over the deck.
Maintain your balance with the aid of the paddle float
by gripping it tightly across the cockpit coaming. As with the previous
paddle float self-rescue, in windy conditions or in waves or surf, enter from
the side the waves are approaching from so that you are bracing on the
correct side once you are upright.
practice the reentry and roll with a paddle float and find it
straightforward, try deflating the float a little. The less buoyancy you need
in the float, the more efficient your hip flick is becoming. Ultimately you
might aim to be able to self-rescue without a float, but then you can still
carry the float as a back-up in case you need it sometime.
practicing a roll with a paddle float is a good way of gaining confidence for
rolling without a float. It is also an excellent way to improve your hip
flick until it is almost effortless. Use the float for practicing paddle
braces until you can brace with confidence and can progress to bracing
without a float with no fear of failure. Regularly using a paddle float
increases your familiarity with it and helps you gauge its advantages and
limitations for yourself. To improve your sense of balance, try reentering
without the paddle float, going through all the moves on calm water. Then
rehearse with your float in varying conditions until you know what you are
capable of with a float rescue.