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.

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…


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.

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.