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Competent rolling: is one side enough?

Of course being able to roll on one side (only) is much better than not being able to roll at all, and in that sense is competent rolling for a kayaker. However, that's not the question I'm asking.

The question is if you want to consider yourself a competent roller in all reasonable circumstances, a highly skilled roller, an advanced intermediate roller -- I'm not sure what words to use -- do you really have to have a roll on both sides?

To ask the question a different way: If you have a solid roll on your strong side, should you be content with that? Or should you continue continue your practice onto your weak side as a natural progression of kayaking competence?

If your answers would be different in ocean vs. whitewater vs. lake paddling, I think that would be of interest to the discussion.

(My question arises out of another paddling symmetry issue. I argue that a really competent single blader should be close to ambidextrous with all strokes under all circumstances, but I think that is a minority view.)


  • Discussion question, no?
  • Could be. Also advice.
    Do you have a view on the issue independent of the venue?
  • I'm sorry, my only advice would be to
    subject the matter to discussion.

    I never had a roll on both sides in c-1, though I know that some with a very high level of expertise did have one.

    I had a weak offside roll in kayak, but never had occasion to use it.

    So an offside roll has been way down my list of skill acquisition priorities. But I don't see how that can be advice for anyone else.
  • At least for a kayak
    Need a roll on both sides if you are going to be truly competent in moving water or surf. In both cases one side will often work and the other one will be at best a shaky bet since the water will be working hard against you.

    I was open to the one side is enough argument until I had to roll up with only one side roll in some tidal current, and was facing in a direction that put the water working against the side I wanted to roll up on. I ended up having to bail, then went and started getting both sides. Strictly speaking there was probably a way out of that one, but in subsequent trips in class 2 or 3 WW I found that simply being able to change sides got me up a lot faster and more reliably.

    I subsequently had a similar problem rolling up on a wave - the side I wanted to come up on meant I kept getting knocked down. After the debrief I realized that it would have been a piece of cake if I had just sensed things correctly and switched side.
  • In kayak, if you fail rolling on one
    side, the paddle is likely to be oriented for a try on the other side.

    Not having a good roll on my "off" side meant that I would try a slash roll on my good side, and then set up for a second try, C to C.

    If I got stuck in a side-surf hole with my good rolling side upstream, I used my clever upstream rock brace to push myself free. I hear a lot about never bracing upstream, but I have often done so, merely being careful not to get the upstream blade face trapped by the current flowing down over the rock or ledge.
  • Options
    One side proficiency is enough if you are not planning to roll in surf/tidal current conditions as it might put you to work against wave/current and it is almost impossible to come up then. My roll is much stronger on my left side - still learning though. I tried rolling in moderate waves and away from the shore it does not really matter which side I come up on - away or into a wave. Close to shore, when waves grow and begin to break - I can't come up on the "wrong side" - I have to roll with the wave or not roll at all. So I would never say I'm proficient enough without solid roll on both sides. Did read about very experienced white-water kayakers who preferred to come up almost exclusively on one side. In the end it is not so much the skill as your ability and willingness to use it in a tight spot. 90% of people (me included) who train to roll will have difficulties applying the skill in a real-world situation when they are exhausted and paddling a loaded boat.
  • both sides...
    When I was taking a WW class at the NOC, years ago, the instructor simply said, "if you know how to roll, and you are failing to come up for some reason, then try coming up on the other side, because something is probably hindering you on that side". Sounds overly simple but is good advice.

    I probably use my stronger-side 95% of the time, but not being able to recover 5% of the time would be unacceptable to me. The more what-if situations you can handle, they safer you are.

    Often, in either WW or the sea, if you are in turbulence you can wait a few moments and then try to roll again on the same side (to allow the kayak to move at the same rate as the current, flush out of turbulence, etc) but this doesn't always work if you are in big surf, are close to an obstruction (rock, etc), are dealing with very strong wind, strong current, have gear on deck that isn't allowing your kayak to capsize fully, and other reasons.

    In addition to both sides, I use different rolls for different situations, but probably everything that I have so far encountered in the wild could have been handled with a standard (layback sweep) roll, storm roll, and maybe the reverse roll (for strange situations when you are pinned to the back deck in skinny water). However, that said, I'd rather paddle with someone who has a very solid roll on one or both sides than someone who knows a bunch or rolls that aren't reliable in "combat".

    Greg Stamer
  • both is good
    In moving water, switching sides can make a big difference.

    I started rolling on only on one side, and found it very difficult to "reverse" that roll on my other side. It was easier to learn a different style of roll on my off side. Once the mental barrier was broken playing with different rolls on both sides became easier.
  • Both would be ideal
    I can roll fairly reliably on my weak side, still I overwhelmingly favor my strong side. That said, once I developed a fairly effective high brace on both sides, which I consider pretty much mandatory, I see no reason why one side should fail to roll me - a high brace (with my head in the water) is e last part of the roll, sort of, so if I can come down, brace, and get up, I should be able to do the full roll on that side, if I need to.

    I don't remember the last time I rolled inadvertently in "open water", even when it's rough, plus there, one side is enough, as long as you are not injured. But I roll a lot in white water, and there as mentioned i find it very iseful tonhave a decent roll one both sodes, even of one is better. I don't get the chance to do surf pretty much at all since there is no surf nearby, but a 2-sided roll there would be really good to have...
  • Options

    It is occasionally good to have an offside roll, but often not critical in whitewater. If a hole is strong enough to prevent you from rolling, you can often just put your paddle in the flow and effectively let it roll you up. In squirrelly washout flows, a failed roll often spins the boat 90 to 180 degrees, so switching to the offside may actually put you on the wrong side to roll on a second attempt.

    After a guy gets a good roll on one side, I really start pushing them to learn to brace well on both sides. A strong brace on both sides is much more important than a strong roll on both sides IMO. Having more than one type of roll is also often beneficial. A back deck roll, or even a front deck roll can often limit your exposure time.

    Nothing wrong with getting an offside roll, but I'm not sure I've ever seen a situation where a strong paddlers couldn't recover without one.
  • Sure both sides is nice
    -- Last Updated: Jun-13-13 5:42 PM EST --

    and if you are a freestyle kayak rodeo competitor you need to be able to roll up on both sides, from the front or rear deck, without a formal set up.

    But I have known highly skilled whitewater kayakers who can roll on both sides in calm water who virtually always roll on one side in whitewater. The one possible exception would be stuck in a hole, upside down with their strong side upstream. But these folks really don't give a tinker's damn if other boaters consider them ambidextrous, competent, or highly skilled rollers. They just want a roll that works and theirs almost always does.

    Apart from being stuck the wrong way in a hole, in nearly every other circumstance in whitewater it really doesn't make that much difference. As g2d points out, after failing a roll on one side it is easier to set up on the other, but if current or aerated water caused the roll to fail on one side, if you just wait a second or two for the boat to move a boat length down stream and match the speed of the current another try on the same side almost always works.

  • Comfort and context matter
    The weakside roll is important- obstructions, big hydraulics, injury can force you weakside. What are the consequences of not hitting your roll is the question.
  • Exactly
    Glenn, I am with you on paddling symmetry.
  • Not so sure it matters in surf
    It can seem impossible to roll up in one direction if being pushed by a wave, but what becomes more instinctive is sticking the paddle up into the vortexing frenzy, getting some purchase, moving with the wave and letting the wave roll you up. This is speaking from small surf dedicated kayaks and waveskis.

    What seems more important is to have a forward and reverse roll. If you miss the forward roll you can immediately go for the reverse roll. With a small surf boat it's probably more important to learn how to surf out of a thrashing when you are getting window shaded by a big wave. I have two crappy rolls on one side - and two really crappy rolls on the other side which I rarely use, and yet I have a blast in the surf.

    The concept is you don't get knocked over and start thinking about your roll, you just go with the flow to keep your boat surfing with the wave, and your head where you can breathe.
  • I would say yes, both sides
    "if you want to consider yourself a competent roller in all reasonable circumstances, a highly skilled roller, an advanced intermediate roller"

    I don't have a strong side vs. weak side roll, in practice or in real roll situations, so I suppose that could be taken into account. But that might be carryover from my having this same opinion when I first learned. I didn't "develop" my roll on a strong side before trying the other. One pool session I knew I had figured out the right hand roll I was going for, and the next session I used it as backup until the left hand roll worked the same. I practice both and use whatever seems most convenient ever since. Neither even feels more awkward to me - perhaps I'm lucky in that.
    There usually isn't any consideration for me. The easier side to roll up on seems to reveal itself, though I have gotten confused and picked the wrong side on occasion. Because of this, I would suggest a person is better off not having a preferred go-to side to roll up on. Even if the person can roll up on their one side better than I can on that side, it would still be to their advantage to develop the other side to become more proficient in the situations where rolling up on the other side would, in fact, prove more proficient. I suppose the use of the word "proficient" may work well. Assuming there are times you want to roll up as quickly as possible - for safety, for air, for comfort - and it's quicker and takes less energy to roll up on one side than it does the other, someone well advanced in the art or practice of rolling (proficient) would go for the side that's convenient, not have to add effort and time to go to a specific favored side.

  • The psychological aspect alone...
    ...meant that only being able to roll on one side was not enough for me.

    There's a little bit of additional fear factor when you only have a roll on one side. Being able to roll on either side means I focus on simply rolling up, regardless of orientation to the water's movement. Not "Uh oh, that's not my rolling side!"

    As someone else pointed out, the way you get dumped over is usually conducive to quickly rolling up without having to move the paddle around to orient it...IF that's a side you can roll from. Since the chances of capsizing on left or right are each 50%, being "ambirolltrous" means much less chance of running out of air while waiting to switch underwater to "the rolling side".

    Regardless of which way the capsize goes, if a first attempt in moving water does fail, I can either switch sides underwater and try again, or wait till the water feels different and try again on the same side. I've done both in real capsize situations. Usually the first attempt works, but there's no question that for me, knowing I can try the other side keeps me working on the task at hand instead of worrying. And that, too, helps conserve air.

    There's another good reason to learn to roll on both sides: It trains the brain/body to not favor one side as much. This doesn't just apply to rolling; it applies to all other techniques as well as many movements outside of kayaking. This kind of training contributes to improvement in a natural, unforced way.
  • That's Been My Goal
    -- Last Updated: Jun-14-13 4:37 AM EST --

    When I got into the kayak thing I'd hear from different sources that being equally comfortable on both sides was a good thing. It made total sense to me. I made it / make it a point to practice every brace and roll on both sides equally. You never know if Mother Nature is going to slap you this way or that way. Unless you have some kind of handicap, why NOT learn and practice both sides? Limited practice time, maybe?

  • Comfort level
    -- Last Updated: Jun-14-13 7:18 AM EST --

    As pikabike mentioned below, for some like myself it makes all the difference in the world to know that either side is equally available. May make you smarter in surf too - the one where I kept coming up on the more difficult side started because I capsized that way to start with. I came over a wave and there were two of us on it, one of us had to stop so I did.

    But if I had not had an old tendency to go to the right, I'd have been smart enough to capsize down the wave... and this is the reason both sides would be good - can't even say it right on the first try :-)

  • I agree with g2d
    At first I was very hesitant on my weak side. My instructor kept pushing me to try the weak side, And since I was having problems with it, in my head it seemed so much harder. Then after I blew a weak side c-c, I realized I was set up perfectly to do my strong side roll. That changed everything. I knew that if I blew it I needed an extra second to come up on the other side, and my weak roll immediately worked. It was all in my head. Once I took the pressure off of having to nail the weak side, my body relaxed and allowed me to get it. I wound up having a smoother weak side roll than my strong side. Since I can't muscle my way up as easily, I end up spending more time during the roll slowly arching through the motion.

    For me it was 80-90% a mental block. Once that was gone, my body assimilated it quickly. And once confidence comes, it's so much easier. You can sit back and work on technique without worrying about air. I felt that even if I blew it, I knew I could at least come up, take a breath and try again.
  • +1 ...and
    ...if rock gardening is on the menu it's both sides for a combat roll. The added benifit to both sides in surf is that often in the process of getting rolled you have the muscle memory to be in the right position for the wave to bring you up from either side.

    All the best, tOM
  • It helps both sides
    Learning to roll (or brace, or maneuver) on the "weak side" helps to make the good side better, too.
  • one side is good
    two sides are better
  • The label doesn't matter,
    safety does. I've heard self-claimed "experts" at rolling say they have a bomb-proof roll, but it is only on one side. Due to a variety of injuries and surgeries, I am definitely better on one side than the other, but knowing how to roll doesn't mean that knowledge translates to execution :).

    If you find yourself in conditions where you need to roll, then you probably need the ability to roll on both sides - it is amazing how nature finds your weaknesses. In baseball, it is said, "you can't hide a bad glove," (though the DH does something about it). If you go out unprepared, the conditions will somehow find you.

    If you can roll on both sides with reasonable certainly of success, you are "safer" than someone who cannot. You will also find that you are more likely to experiment more, challenge yourself more, learn more, and improve more than someone who is not as confident in their skills. And that, to me, is what is important.


    Calling oneself novice, intermediate, or expert doesn't help anyone assess your skills if they are planning an excursion.

  • one is sometimes enough in whitewater,
    c1ers and open boaters typically have one sided rolls. The ability to reset and try again is critical in that situation. I say that because there was a period where I paddled the New and Gauley Rivers extensively (videoing 400+ trips in a c1) with very few swims. I had a bomber roll on one side only. So it can be done. That bein' said, two sides is better. get pushed up against a rock, stuck in a hole, or in a real swirly current than two sides would help. But there are plenty of other things to focus on as well. You should practice setting up your paddle under the water, bracing drills, getting your roll down effortlessly etc. I switched to kayak a few years ago after a big layoff, so I'm relearning how to roll. My focus is on getting a one sided bomber roll and then sometime in the future I'll work on that offside. Some folks are ambidexterous, I'm not. That was one of the reasons c1 was so appealing. So for me it will be a struggle to get that offside. I need a ton of confidence before I'm even willing to work on it. For others it may not be such a big deal.
  • From one one-sided type to another....
    I suggest that you at least practice hip snaps and the setup position on the off side while you are learning to roll on the other, so that when you move over it does not feel like your body is no longer your own. Also learn to scull equally comfortably on both sides. That will leave you better set up for the other side roll.

    I am very right-sided and learned on that side, and am paying for that now. I went to a pool session over the winter and was able to roll on the right with no trouble after several months of not even being in a kayak, and longer than that of not rolling. But I had to really force myself to get down into the water for even a scull on my left. While I managed it I decided to take the win and not mess up an otherwise successful refresh with a failed left side roll. When I did snaps on that side things were less clear kinesthetically.
  • thanks Celia,
    good tips, I've been bracin' on the off side, and I can get my head wet but the idea of hip snappin' on my offside is a good one. I need to practice that just so I'm more comfortable under the water on my offside.
  • Offside roll
    The best kayaker I paddle with is a rock garden and river expert with no offside roll. Even he's a bit embarrassed by the fact!
    If I practice my offside roll, I can do it almost every time, but in a combat roll situation, I'm immediately looking to roll on my strong side. I'd like to remove that impediment!

  • Options
    off side roll
    I don't know anyone who's offside is as good as the onside. Actually I have one woman friend who has both sides really great. But practicing it allows you to learn what it feels like being suspended under water on the less favorable side of the boat. That's really important.

    In the handful of times I actually had to roll up, I always went for my onside even when it would have been better to use the offside. I'm just so much stronger and more confident there and I can scull great on that side too. But I always practice both sides.
  • well....
    It is good to have an offside roll in situations where coming up on your strong side is working against the current. In these situations it can be hard to get your paddle up to the surface of the water to set up.

    Also is necessary in the unlikely situation that you are up against a rock or a cliff, etc. where setting up on your strong side is impossible.

    Generally is not necessary in surf, but could be helpful when windowshaded with the breaking wave on your weak side.

    Additionally, I liked watching what Turner Wilson did in the latest This is the Sea video.

    When a wave to his side was about to break on him, he would roll down the surface of the wave and then come back up. I hate getting bashed by steep breaking waves abeam. Largely because I always fear my shoulder safety when high bracing and getting side surfed. Never has been a problem but I still don't care for it. I think this technique could be useful and would require a roll on both sides.

    Although I agree with Greg Stamer in that 95% of the time you can roll up on your strong side. Being prepared for the other 5% is pretty important though if you paddle in big conditions or solo a lot.

    I recently have started practicing my offside roll again after not having used it for years.

  • Offside
    What I really don't understand is why the offside roll is so much less comfortable, though it clearly is. The first time I tried one, it was like learning to throw left handed (water polo - it's a basic requirement). Everything just felt wrong, even though the motions were not that difficult to reproduce. What helped me was the following:

    - breaking the task down into discrete components - grab side of pool, do hip snaps
    - (with a mask) repeat the setup motion and sculling to grab a breath of air every once in a while
    - adding floatation (paddle float) to the off (left) side of the blade and reducing that floatation so that I didn't try to simply muscle up on that side
    - moving slowly - keeping the motion slow and accurate avoiding the tendency to rush or muscle up (trying to overpower the water is a theme with my rolls, sadly - kind of like the adage that "if brute force doesn't work, then you don't have enough brutes." Water doesn't respond well to force, it just moves out of the way)
    - maintaining the blade angle and ensuring that the paddle doesn't dive (again, slow motions work well - I learned that speed isn't as important as proper set up, angle, and accuracy of motion)

    Pools or relatively warm lakes take some of the sense of urgency, and hence rush, out of the equation, but you really want to learn to roll in the water you expect to paddle and if that water is cold enough, it is amazing how quickly you want to get out of it :). Since rushing really doesn't not improve roll quality, it pays to take a few seconds and relax oneself after the setup. In flat water or (usually) the ocean, you have lots of time, so use it. Moving water where strainers and the like may be present may make rolling up in a more timely fashion a preferred goal.

  • Options
    Amazing feats
    of keeping balance can be achieved by a kayaker without a solid roll when the water is cold. My roll is so-so, but I can combat roll. Went surfing one day on container ships wakes and saw a guy with a girl frantically paddling among waves - both were amazing at keeping balance (not surfing though). I was sure they'd capsize at least 4 times - but no. Back on the sure turned out it was their first time...
  • Options
    labeling ones skill level
    rolling both sides is a dream for me because of my spinal injury but I have found that sculling in WW when I cant roll on my good side is often highly efective I do paddle a boat that is hard to flip a wavesport D65 and Im only 55kg. sculling with the flow will normally alow you to take regular bteaths and often frees the boat I paddle up to grade 3 happly I have done some grade 4 but I have a highly skilld set of paddle mates who will lead my down any bits where I might flip or chase me over stuf as getting out and walking is not an opption for me I have developed a fast roll that needs no hip snap and stong deep water self rescue. I consider my self a copetant inermediate paddler but I would never do any WW without a chase mate who I could count on. labling your own skills is allways tricky Its better just to know your limets and that of your mates rather than trying to stick a labe on it. My Instructor/examiner cant roll a kayak as she has no feet but hse can roll a loaded open in grade 2 clearly she is highly experinced and skilled but has no roll in K1 so how do you label that?
  • Different experience
    Sometimes my "other side" is the better mode that day; other days, it's my dominant side. Goes back and forth. Some days they are both very close but I don't think they've ever been equally good, if I'm nitpicking.

    I practice both sides 50/50 on everything, not just rolling. I know I'm getting close to where I want to be in ambidexterity when I can roll up (from an unexpected capsize) and moments later, forget which side it was. Because both sides are good enough and comfortable enough that it no longer matters much, even if they are not 100% identical. But that doesn't happen right at the beginning of the season, when I have not rolled or even paddled in months. Fortunately, those days are behind me now, and good riddance to "hard water".
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