How I Learned to Roll a Kayak

In the late 80s, my son and I attended a ‘discover kayaking’ camp. Ron Bass of Maui Sea Kayaking had my son doing a roll within an hour, not me. Nearly 20 years later I bought my first sit in kayak and The Kayak Roll DVD. This was July 2005, and the combination of falling out of my kayak and the video scared me.

By October I had a few miles on my Kayak and was falling out less often. I took a Rolling class from Alberni Outpost. This was October 2005 in a heated swimming pool.

Next I built an 8 foot Kayak expressly for the purpose extra floatation added to PFD of learning to roll. I launched my DIY Kayak in April 2006. I played at rolling a few times without much success, and I watched Kent Ford's Kayak Roll DVD a few times. I tried recruiting helpers, tried various aids. By mid May I was using an extra flotation PFD and a paddle float. With the extra flotation and a paddle float I could get some air and try again. Extra floatation was created by wrapping 1" EPS with duck tape and fastening it to the back of my PFD with 2" nylon webbing. It looks crude, but it kinda worked.

By late May, I had built a kayak snorkel. The snorkel included two one way valves, a mouth piece, and other parts from disassembled regular snorkels. A float was added to help the inlet find the surface and corrugated tubing was used to hook it all together. The Kayak snorkel works only when your head/lungs are close to the surface. In the roll set up position, I could breathe through the snorkel, but in practice I never got more than 3 attempts before I needed to wet exit. By early June I could roll with a paddle float on the end of my paddle, without extra flotation or a snorkel. kayak snorkle


One day someone offered to help me carry my kayak back to my car. He asked a lot of questions about my Kayak and then introduced himself, Ron Bass. The same Ron Bass who tried to teach me how to roll nearly 20 years ago. When I told him why I built a kayak, he offered to teach me how to roll. On June 15 th, 2006 I watched him coach Kathy and later I coached Kathy while Ron was busy setting up kayaks and volunteers for a handicap kids project. Ron was keeping an eye on us, but goting busier. Kathy almost got her roll, but let me switch places. Kathy coached me under Ron’s supervision. We progressed through the drills without too much fuss. Then on the third or fourth try I did a roll. It was in Ron’s kayak, with his paddle, with a face mask, in warm, waist high, flat saltwater and it felt good. The rest of the day was busy with kids and kayaks. The kids were all tremendously exited about the kayak rides. It was eye-opening to see the love and care of the caregivers and chaperones. I left tired, but grateful that I’d had the opportunity to volunteer. And of coarse doing my first roll was a big bonus.

I went back to my regular practice routine. For three days I couldn’t roll my kayak without a paddle float. I went back to Ron. He worked with me, and again I rolled his kayak with his paddle.

I went back again to my regular practice routine. I had a new DIY paddle. On the first attempt I did a roll. I did a few more and was feeling invincible. I tried one of the drills Ron uses. Just before you go over, slap the water and do a vigorous sweeping high brace. I hit the water so hard it broke my new paddle. It was too early to quit. I went back to my everyday paddle, and was able to do one roll, out of maybe 10 attempts. The DIY paddle had been kluged together out of pieces left over from building my kayak. It worked good enough I started building more. Buoyant Safety Paddle

I don’t yet have a ‘bomber roll,’ but I’m getting closer. Kevin, at Alberni Outpost, said it takes 800 successful iterations before muscle memory is set.

Each step along the way has helped me get closer to a roll. The class in Nanaimo, my extra floatation PFD, my kayak snorkel, and the paddle float all moved me farther toward my goal. I bet a lot of it is just getting time in upside down underwater. Ron Bass coached the pieces of my roll into success.

This is me rolling my DIY Kayak with the Buoyant Safety Paddle. ROLL VIDEO .mpg

Okay enough about my roll, your turn to roll.

How to Roll (right forward)

Before you go under:

Place paddle parallel to port (left) side with right hand forward. Keep hands in normal place on paddle and let forward blade float power face up on the surface. Flip over by hooking your right knee/thigh into thigh brace under right side of cockpit, and flicking your hips as you move your upper body out past the port side.

Once you are upside down:

  1. Set up by checking paddle is close to and parallel with the kayak, and that the blade is flat on the surface. Pull your body toward the surface and forward.
  2. Sweep the right (starboard) paddle out away from the kayak, keeping it close to the surface. Keep eyes on the paddle blade. Don’t let the paddle dive.
  3. Flick your hips with pressure on the right knee/thigh brace.
  4. Lean back. Try to touch you head on the deck. Keep your eyes on the blade.

Some people say the trick is in the hip flick. You can isolate and practice the hip flick holding a dock, pool edge, or hands of a kayak partner. With your hands on the support tip the kayak then right it by flicking your hips. Tip farther and farther until your face is in the water.

For me the trick was getting my body to remember to do all the things it was supposed to do. It seemed I could do each part if I concentrated on that part, but it took many tries before I first put everything together.

I don’t recommend trying to learn on your own. If you’re comfortable with your wet exit skill, you might try. Buy/borrow a rolling DVD. Start with a coach/assistant, paddle float, and maybe extra flotation, and maybe even a kayak snorkel. Anything you can think of that reduces the number of wet exits increases the time available for practicing rolls.

 Fitting Out

The tighter your kayak fits the easier it is to roll. It should be easy to lock your knees thighs up under the deck. Your hips should have little room to slide side to side. Pushing the ball of your foot against the foot pegs should push your back into the back of your seat or back band. Don’t make it so tight you can’t do a wet exit. I have fitted out and refitted out with minicell foam. I probably have $25 and 40 hours invested. Maybe I should have started with 'off the shelf' seating, backband, and thigh hooks.


I feel a little safer.

more rolls

still more rolls