Teaching the Roll

-- Last Updated: Nov-12-16 4:56 PM EST --

How is best to help others learn to roll?

Am I doing them a disservice being very good at rolling myself, though not an expert roller or certified trainer? I think having worked at it for a few years and finally having it really click now gives me a unique ability to help others.

What about your own experiences with people teaching you to roll? Now that you can roll, looking back what were they doing right/wrong? Or if you can't yet roll despite their/your efforts what could they have done to help you better?

On a related note, when learning to roll I remember lots of times being panicked while hanging upside down. Lots of times I had to bail and came up gasping for air - mostly due to panic, not being out of breath. What are some ways to very quickly and effectively right a sea kayak with occupant (may or may not be cooperative) while standing in about waist deep water beside them?

For me…
…it was finding the right instructor. When I found the right guy, it just clicked. We spent several months developing a really solid working relationship before we started working on my roll. When it came time to learn, I had no fear of being upside down and I knew that if anything happened he would be there.

This confidence in him translated down to confidence in myself. He was very patient, encouraging, and nuanced about correcting my mistakes.

Not sure this answers your questions, but these are the personality traits that I think make a good teacher. Skill-set is a different issue, I suppose.

Haven’t tried learning it yet, but
when I do, it would only be with a certified instructor I trust.

A certified instructor is a personal must because of the safety factor and I’ve read the ACA instructor criteria. BCU would be great, but if there’s a list of BCU instructors around, I haven’t found it yet.

That said, learning to roll might never become a reality as my efforts to arrange private instruction have been a flop so far. Maybe that will change next spring.

Some thoughts, based on …

– Last Updated: Nov-12-16 2:55 AM EST –

... very little experience (so take it for what it's worth). I'm only posting because the way you write about what you are doing makes me think you are putting the cart before the horse, and having people work on skills that are beyond what's best for their stage of the game.

Even though I don't paddle kayaks, I went to a rolling session sponsored by our local paddling club one time (I would have gone more than just that one time if I weren't too tall to fit in any of those little whitewater boats - longer boats wouldn't fit around one corner in the entryway. The one boat I could barely shoe-horn myself into (and that was after removing all the outfitting that made the boat fit its proper owner) left me with terrible bruises on my thighs after just half an hour of practicing).

For me, even never having been in a kayak before in my life, as soon as I figured out how easy it is to pop the skirt and exit while hanging upside-down, there simply wasn't any way I could have panicked. I'm sure that's why the first thing the instructors did was make sure everyone could wet exit. I think that if anyone is prone to panic while hanging upside-down, it means they need to back up and work on their confidence being underwater rather than working on boating skills. To me, someone who might not be cooperative about being assisted back to an upright position has other work to do before working on rolls. Maybe my opinion isn't worth much on this topic, but I happen to think certain people here are right when they say paddlers ought to learn to swim reasonably well (if they can't already) as part of learning to paddle. People who trust their ability to take care of themselves in the water won't find it difficult to relax and think about what they are doing while upside-down.

As to how to quickly right an overturned boat, that was much easier than I ever would have guessed. The upside-down person, having decided that they need help, would simply slap the bottom of their upturned boat with one hand. (Edit: I mis-remembered this and described it wrong in my original post) I think the assistant would get the the upside-down person to grab the bow of their boat and lift themselves up. Now I'm just not sure of the exact procedure anymore. Whatever it was, it was remarkably easy and natural.

Another trick they had, was to work on the hip snap first, rather than have people try to roll without having first figured out the hip snap. They'd do that by letting the overturned person hold onto the bow of the assistant's kayak to put themselves a little higher than a sideways position (about the same inclined position that I found very easy to push myself up to with just a paddle brace), and then do the hip snap to get the boat underneath their butt. By my way of thinking, that teaching trick worked like a charm. I'd have never rolled during that first class if not for first getting some time to work on the hip snap.

A few thoughts
Yes, you can do your students a disservice if you give them bad habits. Time to get some resources:

  1. Dutky’s Bombproof Roll and Beyond is a good overview from a more WW perspective. See here: https://www.amazon.com/Bombproof-Roll-Beyond-Pat-Dutky/dp/0897320859

  2. This is the Roll DVD with Cheri and Tuner is an excellent Greenland perspective.

    Both these resources trouble-shoot rolling problems, helping you as an instructor identify them in your students - and yourself. I consult both regularly.

    BTW, to recover a capsized student, grab the boat, not their hand.

By being able to break the roll
into discrete steps.

For example you can be a very good walker. Unless you can describe, demonstrate, and explain each part of the walking step you cannot teach walking.

The parts have to come before the whole.

Teaching the J stroke in a canoe is an analogy… Until you break it down for demonstration and explain each piece you are just showing off.

Remember you are doing this for others, not for yourself.

And you have to be cognizant of students learning styles. Some need to watch forever and some want to take off and try it right away… There are other variations.

It is a huge help to watch others roll . You need to develop a critical eye and be able to catch just what part is causing roll failure…

Video lots if you can get permission

I took many lessons in the roll and until I clicked with an instructor that spotted that one critical failure I was flailing. I advocate learning from accredited instructors cause they have been vetted and practiced teaching and analyzing during the certification process but I finally rolled on that one tip that took 30 seconds of watching from a volunteer instructor at a club session. Not accredited but he had the critical eye…

I followed the steps in this book

Derek Hutchinson breaks it down very well. His land based method of teaching a simple Pawlata roll was the breakthrough for me. The confidence of having a bombproof simple roll makes for a good foundation to build on.

This book is written for sea kayaking, I don’t know how well it would cross over to whitewater if that is your sport.

As said by Kayakmedic
You don’t start people by having them go all the way over usually, you start them by supporting them while they are only partway over near the surface of the water so that they learn the body mechanics of the last half of the roll. Then add depth, as above there are various approaches to doing that which have been published in book and/or video form and you should look over those resources before even thinking about teaching anyone else.

But the biggest limitation of helping someone else will be your understanding of your own roll. You have to be able to see and feel your roll as a series of steps and preps in order to communicate that to anyone else. If you can only communicate your roll as one big continuous body motion rather than the parts that make the whole work, you are less likely to be able to help anyone else.

Righting a capsized kayak

– Last Updated: Nov-12-16 10:44 AM EST –

The OP also asked about righting a capsized kayak with the paddler upside down and, let's assume, not in the right state or position do do the previously mentioned "hand of God" rescues.
Here's one way which works for me, as the "rescuer":

1. Either from your own cockpit, or while wading on foot in chest deep water, approach the upturned hull at its mid-point along the side. Note which is the bow, perhaps from the bolts for the foot-pegs.

2. Drape yourself bodily and determinedly across the hull, keeping your center of gravity such that you do not roll the kayak over.

3. Reach one hand deep down in the water to establish the position of the paddler's body, head and PFD strap.

4.Take hold of the PFD strap on the near shoulder. Drag the strap towards the stern to position the upper body as flat as possible on the back deck.

5. Hang on to the strap while moving your weight backwards in order to roll the kayak and paddler into an upright position. You should end up in your original position.

This procedure, if practiced, is very quick. The key is to get the body flat on the stern deck before pulling on the PFD (or other clothing.) Attempting to right the kayak with the paddler in the regular paddling position is unlikely to succeed.


Response to teaching rolling.
Over the years I taught many people. My thoughts:

  1. Watch the student and note body type, flexibility, thought patterns etc, and modify your approach to be effective for them being sure to enforce safe techniques.
  2. Drop the “type of roll” jargon that limits options. So many teach A roll -period. If all you have is a hammer everything starts to look like a nail.
  3. Pools may be fine to start fearful folk but get them in mother natures pool asap. Pool rollers swim in surf.
  4. Once student is rolling whichever way works for them you can then play with different variations.
  5. Focusing on the tremendous lift and power of the sweep seemed to be very effective. Id do a bit of out of boat practice standing in water. I can say that I had a 100% success rate! Some took a couple sessions but after some years teaching Id typically get them rolling 1st session.
  6. Less spoken and more physical manipulation of their form was much more effective.
  7. Keep it fun.

Don’t know about kayaks…
Don’t own or paddle kayaks; never tried to roll one.

Many years ago, I did some roll practice in a canoe with a paddling buddy who had a fairly bombproof roll. In one hour, I went from novice to being successful in 1 out of every 2 attempts. Was going to do a second session but it got snowed out. Never tried again; I doubt I’d have ever used the roll anyway. Something about hanging upside down in boulder filled, whitewater rivers seemed like a great scenario for

head, neck, shoulder, or spinal injuries.

But something I did learn about rolling; technique beats muscle power. Watch those who nail their rolls every time; almost effortless.


in Northern Michigan Rookie? There are some very accomplished Roll instructors in the UP. Sounds like you need a connection.

E-mail me back channel, if you don’t wish to post that…I might be able to help.

Best Wishes


I still prefer boat…
I agree with you generally, but I think that grabbing the paddler or their pfd sends the message that they are being rescued rather than rescuing themselves. I prefer to rotate the boat until the paddler is at the surface. Then I instruct them to lie back and rotate their water knee to right the kayak. In this scenario, we are both active.

This is a normal part of learning to roll, so it’s important that the student doesn’t learn to be passive.

My boat taught me.
Actually I learned accidentally that even without a paddle and no need for a hip snap, my Sirocco will right itself if I stay seated and lean toward the stern. It even works if my head isn’t the last thing to leave the water. That is with a basically empty boat–don’t know if it would work with the boat heavily loaded, but then I never have more than a few basic things along.

What I have learned over the years is that with enough experience in lots of different situations, it is nearly impossible to end up in the water if you learn your boat and trust what it is capable of and at most a little brace here and there keeps you on top of things.

As for training the roll, I would start with bracing up, but only after the trainee is a competent swimmer and comfortable underwater in all sorts of positions.

Great replies so far!

– Last Updated: Nov-12-16 4:18 PM EST –

I'm happily surprised at the amount of interest in this topic. Just a few things I'd like to touch on and respond to based on the thoughtful responses so far:


I was purposely vague about myself in the original question. Just think what kind of responses I'd have elicited if I started off the post saying "I'm the best person I know at rolling a kayak" and "I'll be able to teach complete novices to roll in 1 hour or less". No, I understand first hand that lots of the people that WANT to roll are nowhere near READY to roll. I know because that was me about 3 years ago. :)

I'm taking it as a given that teacher and student need to mesh somewhat in their teaching/learning styles. I'm more interested in technique, though it's also been made clear to me that there's a huge trust factor in this too.

Interesting that someone mentioned how the instructor must also be responsive to the student. Unfortunately I think the ones that want to be upside down right away are the least likely to pick it up well from the start.


Most resources seem to be geared to white water or Greenland styles. Both will say that they are transferable, and they certainly are, but there are also some distinct differences.

Any resources that come to mind specifically for sea kayaks and not coming up laying on the back deck? As nice as this is, many non-Greenlandic's don't have kayaks with low back decks. I find I like coming up to a sitting position because of the stability and readiness inherent.

I really like "The Kayak Roll" from Performance Video.


I like the comment about breaking it into steps. That's what I was missing when I had a 25% reliable roll after my first "lesson". I knew the entire motion that I had to complete, but couldn't identify each stage as it was happening. It was more like "OH MY GOD I'm upside down - EXECUTE ROLL" and then 75% of the time: "SH**. BAIL!".

Now I'm having fun playing with each stage. Doing it faster, slower, using different paddles, backwards, forwards, extended, shortened, whatever goes because I know I can always reset to something reliable and come up without swimming. This is not to brag, rather to illustrate that I'm about more than just "Do this, then this, and then that - and you'll roll up."

Regarding righting the student's boat, there seem to be some divided opinions on good technique. How does one practice, lacking people that are really comfortable hanging out upside down while you figure it out? I want to have a few tools in my toolbox for this before I'm left with a flailing half-drowning person with a boat on top of them. :)

Excellent List
Excellent list!

I’m tucking away most of these for future use. Could you elaborate on the out-of-boat sweep exercises? Not having a proper sweep is one of the biggest mistakes I see people making, and was also a big part of my own initial hit-and-miss performance.

Although important, I think too much focus is put on the “hip snap” aka “hip flip” aka “leg drive”. More initial effort should be put into the sweep because of the complete disorientation while doing it upside down.

I like how you’ve broken this down into steps. It does seem like more of an emergency maneuver for a stuck paddler though, rather than a way to gently ease your student back upright.

Perhaps with some practice it could be made to “feel” gentle to the paddler being righted. As mentioned in another reply, I need to figure out a way to practice this somehow.

Thank you, Roy.
PM sent.

My Experience

– Last Updated: Nov-14-16 5:08 PM EST –

As a long boat paddler I wish someone had clued me in to the Greenland paddle right from the start. I have found it to be a much better tool for rolling. Another way to get the student to get their first roll is to put them in a hot dog shaped hull. The whitewater, flat bottomed, hamburger shapes aren't conducive for beginners.

If possible learn in WARM water. Cold, uncomfortable water makes us just want to get up fast. Nothing wrong with rolling up fast but that's not a good learning environment. Speaking of comfort a student should practice wet exits before starting to learn the roll. If the instructor can't get to them to help get them upright they won't panic. I was spotting a guy who was blowing his attempts and he got into deep water where I couldn't help him up. He panicked big time.

Don't let a student become dependent on a mask. To help them learn the sweep just guide it with your hands. They need to learn the feel of a good sweep and not what it looks like. Remind them that they'll look really stupid paddling with their mask on!

Teaching Rolling
I’ve had decent results teaching the roll, but I’ve documented them in this forum before.

What I do when I teach the roll is focus on the hip snap. I set the student (while supporting them in a couple of feet of water) at ninety degrees and have them right the boat by pushing down with the lower hip and when the boat comes under their spine, voila, they feel the buoyancy supporting them instead of moving away. Once they learn that feeling, the rest is pretty much gravy.

I did have one individual (with rather significant back problems) not learn the roll. Everyone else did.

Some observations:

People rush the roll and/or try to use force where technique is required. Showing them a roll over an 20-30 second period helped at least one individual realize that you don’t need to do this quickly.

Fear is difficult to overcome. All the instruction in the world will be ineffective if the person is afraid of the water, cannot collect themselves when they are upside down/unable to breathe, and cannot cope with the loss of visibility. The only one you can easily address is visibility. Goggles work fine and are less likely to come off, but a dive mask can work as well. I know of one individual who has devised a snorkel apparatus for this type of teaching, but I find that a tad impractical to implement. Still, it may work for some.