Learning to roll on my own?

Hello all I’m new to this forum.

I very recently started kayaking and joined a local club after a 3 day introductory course by them. The club is nice, we do weekly trips, and instruction and club elders with tens of years of paddling experience are available. While my paddling experience is no longer than weeks, when I was a kid I used to sail a lot on dinghies so I’m not new into messing around on and in water and capsizing my boat for fun. That was a couple decades ago though.

We have pool training off-season in my club, but it’s not off season yet, and I’m trying to learn on my own as much as possible while the water is still warm (I’m somewhere north).

Is it possible, and does it make sense, to try and learn rolls on my own? I like messing around on my own. I’ve done some rescue training with my wife who also started at the same time, so when I’m doing the risky (to a newbie) and wet stuff there’s always someone around to help, so no need to remind me to practice with a pal close to the shore. (Last time I practiced, I attempted a self rescue five times, didn’t quite make it, then with my wife I finally got on the boat quite exhausted, that was fun!)

My current plan is to try and practice high braces a lot and improve my hip flicks while high bracing a lot before I boldly try a layback roll first time. There’s plenty of tutorials on youtube on rolling, I think practicing the different parts of a roll into muscle memory could lead to actually roll.

What are your thoughts on this, am I being overly optimistic in trying to learn on my own, all rolling tutorials say you should always learn rolls with an instructor? What roll could be the first one to try and how does one practice parts of the roll before attempting the whole thing? Also I’d like to point out that generally nobody uses greenland paddles in our club so I’m mostly on my own on learning the GP specific stuff, anyway, I’m assuming the pool practice will be with euro blades, maybe.

If you work with a spouse or a buddy, it is possible to learn to roll. The companion should help you avoid frequent and time consuming wet exits. There are several good full length videos that go into greater depth than short videos. I’d suggest an ‘extended paddle layback roll’ as a first roll. Pay very close attention to technique that doesn’t endanger your shoulders. Rolling a sea kayak is technique rather than muscle.

I learned (slowly) with a buddy - he learned much more quickly than I, so I claimed that I was a better instructor - hah! A compromise would be to take one lesson with an instructor and to tell that teacher that you want a plan that will help you learn to roll subsequently with a buddy.

With a buddy you can easily work on parts of the roll without wet exiting at each step. It is reasonable fun. My buddy rolls splendidly well, either side and can also re-enter and roll.

I taught myself the standard Greenland roll with no coaching, but a religious watching and rewatching of Cheri and Turner’s “This Is the Roll” dvd. You just need to be prepared for frustration and to call practice off early because it’s exhausting work, even feet from shore.

The Greenland roll progression is beginner friendly but it relies on a lot of laying back, initially. Does your boat have a low rear deck and a seat that’ll allow some layback?

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#1 rule: Do not lift your head… guarantee fail.

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If someone who is more experienced is available that can critique your roll, it will make things a lot easier and speed your learning curve. It will help you avoid bad habits. But it is not strictly necessary as long as you practice safely.


When You sit up …the roll is done. whether or not it’s completed doesn’t matter, It’s still done. { Something to keep in mind}

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Thank you everyone for your replies. Good to hear others have pulled this off too. I’ll keep your advice in mind.

We have tens of loan kayaks at the club for members so it’s customary to paddle on club boats before needing to buy one’s own. So far I’ve paddled mostly with fairly low and narrow boats, also there’s two Greenland style kayaks with very low back deck, I’m initially mostly practicing on those.

I’ll reply here again when I hopefully progress :slight_smile:

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Yeah man! Go for it and good luck. I got very little instruction and did a lot of self-teaching. It did not go quickly but it sure is satisfying to finally get bracing and rolling. My roll took off when I abandoned the euro blade and went exclusively to the Greenland paddle. (Sculling with an extended GP is so easy it feels like cheating).

Here’s a free tip: When folks tell you to do a ‘hip snap’ and it doesn’t work; do a ‘knee lift’. It works for me.

Rolling is a struggle for me. Something I have to do regularly (staying stretched out, range of motion issues). There are a lot of good videos on youtube that can assist you. That being said, I only want to practice good form and put good habits into muscle memory. I’ve seen some folks learn to roll with very little assistance while others have required a lot of assistance. So how successful you will be depends a lot on your physicality, natural ability, and kinestethtic awareness. Here are some tips that might help.

  1. if you get frustrated go back to a point of success, break things into smaller steps (progression), consider focusing on just one thing/change at a time
  2. don’t reinforce failure (strong arming/strength is not the answer), focus on technique
  3. hone from videos “memory cues” or “tricks” and use them to progress.
    Some examples- Set up: air on knuckles, play the piano, push out with lead hand, Sweep: watch the paddle blade, throttle the motorcyle, stick your thumb in your butt, read your watch, pretend there’s a dollar bill under your arm, Hip snap: lift your knee, start as soon as the paddle moves, jerk the boat, Finish: look down the paddle shaft, look at the back of your boat, have your hand touch your shoulder/cheek, finish with pizza hands, throw your weight over the center of the boat- While all these things might not be totally accurate or even apropriate for you, the ability to self diagnose and implement a cue will foster success. That is the advantage of coaching.
  4. the boat design matters, some boats are easier to roll than others
  5. I’ve found noseplugs, a mask, and having someone video all helpful

Good luck! Let us know how it goes.

Rolling has been a big part of my kayaking life, culminating with competing at the Greenland National Championships multiple times.

I learned to roll on my own after getting a good mental image of what needed to be done (pictures in a book in my case), but I had my Father standing alongside to help bring my kayak upright when I failed.

A helper makes this easier otherwise you will spend all your time and energy doing wet exits and emptying your kayak. If you are working with a “helper”, have your helper watch the same videos, etc, that you are watching so they know what a good roll “looks like”, if they don’t have a roll of their own.

Make sure your helper knows how to right your kayak!!! Your kayak may move into deeper water where your helper cannot stand on the bottom and panic may ensue (for both of you). Your helper should swim their torso over your upturned kayak (over the cockpit), reach under and grab the far cockpit coaming, and fall backward to roll you upright. For your part you should lean forward all the way to the deck, to make this easier. ( NOTE - an untrained helper will most likely try to roll you up by grabbing and twisting one end of the kayak. This is difficult at best and won’t work at all if they lose their footing or are in deeper water).

A good instructor can make this much, much easier, as it’s not easy to critique yourself.

Make sure you are well practiced in wet exits first.

A mask and nose-clip can help make this more comfortable. I learned by keeping my eyes closed (since I wear contacts) and learning by feel became a strength, not a weakness. There are many environments (such as the surf zone) where you simply can’t see anything underwater and a roll that requires visual cues may fail.

You will reach a point where you are tired and it’s best to stop for the day.

It’s common while learning a skill like this to have success come and go. Don’t get discouraged, that is normal. I was sure I had my roll down and invited my family to watch, and of course, failed. My roll was working again the next day.

The time it takes you to learn to roll has no bearing on how successful / reliable your roll will ultimately be. Perseverance is the most critical attribute.

Once you learn your “pool roll” it still takes practice and determination to pull off your first “combat roll” in real conditions, when you capsize unintentionally. You might even find that you wet exit in that case, without even trying your new roll. Keep with it, it takes time.

Greg Stamer


Raising your head early is a common mistake. While under water point your chin at the sky and keep it in that position until you are sitting upright. Another mistake that can be easily corrected is raising your hands making the paddle dive. To correct this keep your hands close to your chest. I am talking lay back rolls here.

What I really didn’t get was that so many of my obstacles were in my head. Trying to “muscle it” is where my instinct usually goes. I learned alone and that feeling of "why can’t I get this? and “what am I doing wrong” is familiar ground to so many of us. I’d blow a brace, then blow the roll, then struggle on the paddle float. For me stacking one skill on top of the other just made me frustrated and I’m very self-critical by nature. But I gained more ground by working exclusively on rolls in the shallows and walking the boat back to shore, emptying it and hopping back in. Other days I’ll go and only practice re-entries or braces, or rudder strokes.

My rolling success was based on two realizations : [1] each movement in the roll requires the one before it to be done correctly, and [2] how critical it is to pull your head out last. Overriding instinct in a no oxygen environment is not a trivial point (at least for me).
I made a silly mnemonic that helped me on the Storm Roll. Setting up the paddle along the gunnel and above the water line, I say to myself: “Hands in the air like you just don’t care!”. Then, reaching the paddle back over my hip onto the hull, I say (albeit crude) “Scratch your ass.” The next step, rotating and squaring your shoulders parallel to the water, facing down, comes the next line “Find your glasses” (imagine they fell off and sank to the bottom), and to finish forward, I say “Kiss the knee.” It’s ridiculous I know, but that little chant helped me during the learning stages. Eventually you internalize it. Hang in there, you’ll get it.

Yes, you can teach yourself to roll a kayak although if good instruction and a warm pool is available I would certainly take advantage of it.

I lived on a lake in Tennessee years ago and was interested in whitewater canoeing and wanted to learn how to roll an open boat. There was nobody within a three hour drive that I could find who knew how to roll a canoe so armed with Bob Foote’s “The Open Canoe Roll” video on VHS I set myself to learn next to my little floating dock on the lake without instruction or back up. I eventually developed a fair to middlin’ open boat roll although I might have done better if I had good, first-hand instruction available.

After making a few very wet runs down the Ocoee River in my canoe I started to see the sense of paddling a decked boat. I had a friend who had just purchased a brand new Perception Pirouette whitewater kayak and had a swimming pool so I went over to his place, watched him roll it a couple of times and gave it a try. The only instruction he gave me was “sweep out with the paddle and then hip-snap up”. I rolled the kayak the first time I tried. My technique on that first roll was definitely lousy but I came right up. So I know it is possible to teach yourself how to roll a kayak.

On the other hand, it is very possible to injure your shoulder with poor technique. The advice others have given is good. When you sweep out make sure that your torso rotates with the paddle blade, and ideally preceding the paddle blade. Do not let your paddle and blade get behind the plane of your torso. You will need to stretch with your sweeping arm as you initiate the roll but as you come up I would advise you to bring you elbows in close to your body and keep the paddle shaft low. I subluxed my shoulder one time practicing hand rolls in a swimming pool when I got my hand to far behind my shoulder. Water resistance can allow you to easily generate enough force to pop your shoulder out of joint just through muscular contraction even without a paddle.

As Greg Stamer said
“You will reach a point where you are tired and it’s best to stop for the day.”

I would add:
If you have a day where your technique starts to deteriorate, quit for the day. Otherwise you may reinforce that bad technique. I call this “Getting stupid.”

Having a buddy can really help e.g. The buddy can give very useful technique critique
“You are raising your head at the end.”
“Your setup paddle angle is wrong like so.”

Folks would SCRAMBLE to get that boat in the roll class I attended. It was the best rolling boat.

It rolls well. But the easiest whitewater kayak to roll that I have ever encountered was the Dagger Crossfire.

Be careful if practicing in shallow water. We’ve had several people dislocate or injure their shoulders when the paddle unexpectedly hit the bottom.

All, thanks again for the advice and encouragement, I appreciate it.

Today was a good day – my wife and I went out only to practice rescues and I also tried to practice the thing laying on my back on the water while sculling. I couldn’t quite pull myself back on the boat, but I improved in a few other aspects:

  • for the first time, I didn’t fall off the boat when I capsized! My feet stayed nicely inside as long as I wanted. Before, I had a reflex of kicking the boat away as soon I tipped over.
  • Did my first successful solo rescue, the key trick was to empty the boat first by lifting the bow. Full lungs and PFD provided enough support to quickly yanking the bow upwards. Then sideways onto the back deck, feet inside the cockpit, face down, then wiggle my posterior down on the seat in an almost dry cockpit. Last time I tried solo rescues I didn’t empty the cockpit, boat was too tippy to try and get back in.
  • My sculling in high brace doesn’t quite work at all, but I think I’ll get the hang of it. It takes a while though as failing leads to a rescue and some pumping.

I thought the layback sculling thing without actually rolling would be helpful before attempting a roll, but I’m not sure any more, as I’d need to stop myself capsizing and then manage to generate opposite momentum to right myself. I guess, while rolling the momentum should help at least a little bit? The boat I used today had a highish back deck (Norse Bylgja), not optimum for the layback posture, but OTOH a great sea kayak so I thought I’d practice with something I’m likely to take out and paddle.

Next time I’ll try to capsize in a roll setup position and hope to surface on the other side of the boat and see what happens if I try the layback roll, now that I know I can wet exit…

(I’ll keep posting here as I go on, this will be a diary of a newbie trying to learn to roll. This will take quite a while. I’ll just try one small thing at a time… today it was about not falling off the boat, it’s a start!)

Jay Babina put out a video a few years back called “First Roll”, which details a simple, progressive, DIY approach to rolling. Check his website or ask him if it’s still available. http://www.outer-island.com/

You don’t pull yourself onto the back of the boat. You do a skull and float yourself onto the back of the boat. {Forward finish rolls are practiced off the front deck the same way}

Use a cheater kayak if you have one, not one you might necessarily paddle out in conditions. You need to have your body and mind learn…and … the easiest way… is hard enough.

Learn in a cheater kayak and then transfer to the boat you would paddle once you know what to look and feel for.

If you are using momentum to do a roll, You don’t have the roll when you need it. {Don’t count on momentum}

Keep sliding off the rear deck onto the water and then back onto the rear deck. {over and over} ALL rolls fail at the end, none fail at the start, or even in the middle…always at the end. Perfect the end/finish of the roll first. Then move on.