Adventure Training Consultants – Denmark, Western Australia and Beyond

What is the best kayak roll to learn?

Date: 23rd June 2018

What is the best kayak roll to learn?


This is a question, that as an instructor, I have been asked a lot, over time my opinions on the answer have changed.

The simple and quick answer is “any roll that brings you up and keeps you in your boat”, there is an element of truth within this answer but there is also much more that should be considered.


A critical aspect is why we are rolling, historically the kayak roll and other methods of rescue were developed by the native population of Greenland because if they capsized whilst hunting they needed a means to rescue themselves or each other. A “wet exit” would not be a choice due to a combination of factors, including the way they were sealed into their kayaks, water temperature, their clothing and equipment. So rolling in a manner that was less than ideal in regards to stability of joints (shoulders, elbows etc.) or that may cause ongoing injury wasn’t really a major issue for them as the alternatives were immediate drowning or death through hypothermia!

We are in a bit of a different situation in our modern paddling world, with the equipment we now use it can be very straight forward to wet exit from a kayak and self-rescue, or be assisted by others to get back in the boat and going again with few ill effects (except a bashed ego). In this modern context it seems illogical to use rolling techniques that could cause us immediate serious problems (such as a dislocated shoulder) or on going repetitive strain injuries.

In addition to this the training opportunities we have to learn and perfect our roll are very different to the Greenlandic pioneers of kayaking, we have every opportunity to roll in comfort and warm environments, taking time to break down and learn individual components to ensure our technique is correct, efficient, reliable and safe.


So why would we practice (or teach others) anything but the most reliable and safe techniques?


The answer to this is partly to do with misinterpretation of what is going on during the kayak roll, it actually doesn’t matter what type of rolling (Greenlandic, WW, sweep rolls, back deck rolls) we are learning, done properly they all rely on the same principles and concepts.

The breakdown in this generally comes from how people perceive the roll to be happening, the first Europeans to successfully learn to roll kayaks managed to right the craft but did so with leverage and force, missing the critical techniques completely, still to this day when people are learning they find that applying a bit of leverage or force can give them success, the problem with this though is that it develops incorrect body movement and creates a roll that may have some use but lacks reliability in the long run as it under utilises the critical concepts.

The critical concepts of all kayak rolling are essentially the same as the main concepts of all kayak strokes, often defined as the three B’s – Body, boat, blade (as with all strokes a fourth most important B can also be added – Brain!).

  • Body – The body, its movement and position (torso rotation, forward, back etc.) are the most important aspect, it is the body that generates power and movement that allows all strokes to be successful
  • Boat – The boat is our next most important, it’s position in relation to our body and the water it is on will have significant effects on all our skills and strokes, learning to optimise this position for our benefit is key
  • Blade – Our paddle, which to an outsider looks like it is the main part is actually the least important, it is best thought of as a connection point between ourselves and the water, as with most strokes people who have good technique can roll well with or without a paddle.


The principles and concepts that all rolls have in common (when done properly) are the ones that we should practice, consistent and deliberate practice of these will give us a solid, reliable and safe roll. Those principles are,


  • Body position – the start point to all good rolling is getting our body to a position that will allow us to create movement to make the boat roll from a capsized position to a righted position, our body should be out to the side of the boat and close to the surface (it’s weight completely supported by the water)
  • Righting the boat – to right the boat we need to roll it from the capsized position to a righted position, this should be done with a combination of our hips and knees (often referred to as hip flick or knee drive), we should use our hips, knees and core muscles to roll the boat around whilst our body (and head / shoulders) remains in the water and supported by the water. The boat needs to be rolling round to a righted position before we attempt to centre our body back over it.
  • Centre of gravity – in order to get back upright and sitting comfortably again we need to get our centre of gravity (body, shoulder, head) back over our centre of balance and within the line of the boat, we can do this in multiple ways, generally it will involve lowering our centre of gravity by leaning forwards, backward or through rotation and swinging our body back over the line of the boat.


Training good and correct body movement is the most important aspect to developing quality rolling technique, there are many ways to roll a kayak, including brute force, whilst reliance on brute force, or resistance may give you initial or quick success it should be avoided completely if you wish to develop a long term, reliable and safe technique.

It may take longer to develop but rolling through good body movement will be safer, more reliable and in fact easier once the skill is developed.


So what is the best kayak roll?  “one that brings you back up and keeps you in your boat” but is also safe, reliable and reliant on body movement (as opposed to resistance and force).

Posted in: Adventure Training Blog