Competent rolling: is one side enough?

+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!


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.

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.


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.


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…

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”.