The Kayak Roll: What It Is and Why You Should Learn It

A person performing a sea kayak roll in the water
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In this article, we’ll discuss the importance of a kayak roll along with the different types of kayak rolls. We highlight which kayak rolls are ideal for beginners and which kayak rolls are more suitable for certain situations.

Lastly, we share some useful tips regarding the type of gear and the state of mind and body necessary for easing the learning process of kayak rolls. 

The importance of learning a kayak roll

In essence, a kayak roll, also referred to as an Eskimo roll, is a self-rescue technique that allows you to recover from a capsized kayak and into the upright position in an efficient manner. This technique not only saves you time and energy when fighting a capsized kayak but is often the safest self-rescue technique for challenging conditions.

For instance, whitewater kayakers are urged to master this skill because swimming in whitewater is tiring, frightening and leaves you more vulnerable to hazards. Another advantage of mastering this skill is that it is a great confidence builder, which means you’ll be more relaxed on the water and more inclined to try new things.

Like most skills, however, it takes repetitive practice and most people require specific rolling lessons to perfect this skill. Which brings us to the following questions: “Is learning a kayak roll really necessary?

What are the different types of rolls?

The basic kayak or Eskimo roll maneuver is to simply roll upside down, brace your paddle for balance and then flip yourself upright again with a simultaneous hip snap and paddle stroke.

Nevertheless, there are over 100 different types of rolls being put to practice nowadays where one is preferred over the other depending on the situation. Surprisingly enough, most of these kayaking rolls were developed by Inuit kayak hunters that relied on them for survival in the arctic waters.

We’ll start by highlighting the two most popular kayaking rolls for beginner paddlers to learn followed by the more advanced kayak rolls.

C to C roll: Ideal for beginners

The C to C roll, also known as the hip snap roll or hip flick roll, relies on the ‘hip flick’ for getting the paddler back to the upright position. Its name is derived from the shape your body forms as you perform the roll.

The first “C” is when you curl up towards the surface with the paddle perpendicular to the paddle. The second “C” is when you pull the paddle down toward your head as you flick your hips up.

It is considered an easy to learn kayaking roll, because it can be broken down into three simple steps:

  1. Set-up
    This is where your body forms the first “C” by placing the paddle alongside the kayak with the front blade flat to the water’s surface and the power face up. The side that you decide to set up on is determined by your control hand. This means that right-handed people set up on the left side of the kayak so that your control (right) hand is toward the front. 
  2. Catch
    Once underwater, the goal is to get your head and body as close to the surface and as far out to the side as possible. This way you position your paddle blade in a way that allows you to grab water and will ultimately give you support so that you can hip-snap your kayak upright in the third step.
  3. Recovery
    The last step is where you perform the second “C” as you snap your hips and pull yourself back to the upright position. One common mistake people make in this step is bringing the head up sooner out of the water than the rest of the body. A tip in avoiding this is by watching your paddle blade all the way through the water. This way your head will be the last part of your body out of the water. 

For a more detailed description on how to perform this kayaking roll, check out the following video and article:

Sweep roll: Ideal for beginners

The sweep roll, also referred to as the screw roll, is the second most commonly used roll since it is easy to learn and keeps you protected while upside down. Compared to the C to C roll, this kayaking roll requires less set-up and the paddle offers longer-lasting support giving you more time to combine the hip snap with that paddle support.

On the flip side, however, the sweeping motion requires a lot of space and tends to move the kayak around while you’re rolling making it less stable. In order to perform the sweep roll correctly, the following steps are needed:

  1. Start position
    Similar to the C to C roll, the paddler is meant to lean forwards and to the side of the kayak. The hands are meant to be close to the surface while keeping the paddle shaft parallel to the water. A useful tip here is trying to get your lips to the surface. 
  2. Pause
    Once underwater, you want to allow the boat to settle and get into the start position correctly. You don’t want to rush or loosen the grip on the paddle as this will lead to a failed kayak roll.
  3. Sweep
    This is where the paddle is swept away from the boat at or near the surface by uncoiling the body rotation built up in the start position. Keep in mind that you shouldn’t feel yourself having tension on the paddle blade.
  4. Knee drive
    The sweep and knee drive happen simultaneously. It is when you drive the knee into the thigh brace and hereby starting the sweep motion and body rotation. 
  5. Finish
    The finish position is when you have feathered the blade, completed your knee drive and the body rotation. By doing this, you’ll be rotated looking down the paddle shaft towards the blade that just completed the sweep, with the other hand tucked into your chin.

For a more detailed description on how to perform the sweep roll, check out the following video:

Reverse screw roll: Ideal for uncomfortable starting position

Thus far, we have discussed two types of Eskimo rolls in which the starting position is having your upper body leaning forward and to the side of the kayak. In calm water, this starting position can easily be enforced, but the same cannot be expected in rough water. It is easy to get off balance and flip when kayaking in whitewater, ending up leaning back towards the rear deck or the paddle pinned to the stern of the kayak.

For these types of situations, the reverse screw roll, also known as the back deck roll, is recommended. It relies on the upper body leaning back towards the stern of the kayak as the starting position.

As a result, you spend less time underwater getting into the starting position of a standard Eskimo roll and the head stays much closer to the surface throughout the roll. That being said, it does leave the paddler’s face exposed and puts the shoulders at risk. 

A useful tip for this Eskimo roll is committing yourself to flipping over once you’ve passed the point of no return. This implies throwing yourself on the back deck of your kayak and leading the way with your paddle and body. This will allow you to start the process of rolling yourself upright before your kayak has even finished flipping over!

What follows is a video tutorial demonstrating how to practice for the reverse screw roll along with a step by step guide from a trusted kayak instructor.

Hand roll: Ideal if you’ve lost your paddle

The difference between the hand roll and the other Eskimo rolls discussed so far is that this kayaking roll doesn’t require a paddle to execute. Mother nature is unpredictable so it is likely that you will lose your kayak paddle while underwater, especially when whitewater kayaking.

Mastering the hand roll will ensure that you are prepared for this kind of situation, but also boost your confidence level when whitewater kayaking. It is also useful when running big waterfalls since landing at high speed without a kayak paddle poses less risk as opposed to with a paddle.

The idea behind the hand roll setup is the same as the c-to-c and sweep rolls and contains the following steps:

  1. Set up
    Similar to the c to c and the sweep roll, the body needs to be as far out to the side of the kayak and as close to the surface as possible as to maximize the hip snap. The difference however lies in the body position in which your head and chest are facing downward, instead of looking up towards the sky. 
  2. Catch
    The catch phase can be initiated via a two handed catch or a double pump technique. The two handed roll uses a single and powerful brace to aid in the hips snap, while the double pump technique uses one arm at a time to provide longer lasting bracing support. 
  3. Recovery

The last part is swinging your body over your back deck, thereby keeping your center of gravity as low as possible and ensuring that your head is the last thing to come up. 

The following videos give you a visual understanding of how to perform the hand roll:

Useful tips for learning a kayak roll

Equipment

Goggles

Sea Kayak

Nose Clip

Often, people purchase a kayak that is comfortable, meaning one that sits tall and that is stable. Unfortunately, these types of kayaks are often too big for the person and therefore pose additional challenges for the beginning roller.

The first challenge is that big wide kayaks tend to be stable upside down as well, which causes the paddler to overcome this tipping point while underwater and uncomfortable. Also, they need more exertion of the core and leg muscles to do the hips snap.

The second challenge is that larger kayaks tend to have higher back decks and thus also higher cockpit rims. As a result, it’s harder to lay back due to the position of the kayaker’s butt and back relative to the coaming edge. In addition, some kayaks are equipped with a backrest that rises above the cockpit coaming thereby intensifying the height problem even further. Thus, you should use a kayak that is narrow and equipped with a seat that sits low such as whitewater kayaks and sea kayaks. 

Lastly, consider investing in a good pair of goggles and nose clips. The sinus pressure that can be created by repeated rolling without nose clips can cause intense pain. The goggles will help you see how the paddle is moving underwater while keeping you oriented.

Physical fitness

Lower back flexibility

Torso rotation

Hamstring stretch

In order to perform the kayaking rolls discussed above easily, it helps if you are flexible in your lower back, hamstring, and torso. The core should also be strong which refers to the abdominal muscles and obliques. 

Starting with the torso, when seated in a kayak, rotate from the core and see how far you can twist and rotate the shoulders. Ideally, your shoulders should be able to become parallel to the kayak’s keel. This will aid in getting your shoulders flat on the water when performing any of the aforementioned kayak rolls. 

The c to c roll, sweep roll, and hand roll require the paddler to stay very low when leaning forward to the kayak deck. This is only achievable if you are able to stretch your hamstrings considerably. If your hamstrings aren’t flexible then the tension in them will have to be resisted by extra-strong abs.

To check hamstring flexibility, a simple toe touching exercise should suffice giving that you keep a straight back when doing so. Ideally, your hands should extend beyond the feet while keeping your back straight. 

The flexibility of the lower back is important when performing the starting position of the reverse screw roll or the finishing position of the c-to-c, sweep and hand roll. The greater the distance between the base of the seat and the rim of the cockpit the more flexible the paddlers back will need to be to bend over and below on the deck. 

Lastly, rolling requires good core strength for pulling the torso back into the upright position. Weak abdominal muscles will result in more dependence on the paddle for support when performing the hips snap. 

Mental fitness

The most common mistakes paddlers make when learning a kayak roll is being tensed and/or hasty. They tense their muscles because they are worried about their ability to complete a roll. However, being relaxed and calm while rolling gives you enough time to get into the right position and use your body’s natural buoyancy.

Other paddlers tend to haste things since they are worried about their ability to breathe through the motions and get their head above water. As such, they make compromises such as bad posture and use strength rather than technique. 

A useful tip for relaxing when kayak rolling is to practice holding your breath for 10 – 20 seconds while upside down on a kayak underwater.

Having someone stand by you as you perform a kayak roll helps increase your sense of safety. Thus, consider taking a kayaking course or having a trusted person guide you through your learning process.

Ally Mash
Ally Mash
Ally is an avid outdoor enthusiast who has spent most of his free time backpacking through South America, Iceland, Vietnam, and Europe. He loves sharing his experience through blogging. His mission is to get more people in the mindset of protecting our planet by sharing its beauty.

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