Discovery kayaking Progressive Coaching and Guiding

Have you ever wondered why as sea kayakers we should learn to roll on both sides? Or perhaps you have struggled to roll in a real dynamic situation but are fine rolling in the calm water?  Here we are going to focus on why we need to develop rolling on both sides in a sea kayak.

Like driving, your most significant learning takes place after you have passed your test on the real-life roads and the situations that the highways and motorways throw at you.  This is the same with rolling and for this Focus I’ll assume there is already a minimal level of being able to roll a sea kayak in calm seas and swimming pools and you have a good grasp of the techniques required.

What happens then when we find ourselves in a performance roll/rolling in anger i.e. the real-life situation where there was no preparation for being upside down as we got flipped by a wave, lost our balance or edged the wrong way when crossing and eddy line? 

First and foremost, our air supply is limited and probably due to the cold water shock and the surprise of being upside down with limited visibility in aerated water our natural physiological responses kick in. This chain of events increases the heart rate, raise the blood pressure and unless we have trained for this situation anxiety starts to build.  All of which means our available oxygen supply is being used much more rapidly and not surprisingly where you thought you could hold your breath for at least 45 seconds (plenty of time to execute the roll) in normal circumstances, it appears that you will be doing well to manage 5 seconds. Which is why many of us when learning have just enough time to pull the deck and possibly do not even attempt to roll.

All of this is totally understandable and most kayakers have been there and the key to overcoming these physiological factors is to vary your training and progressively practice rolling in ever so slightly more difficult and real situations.  Always start in warm water and gradually dip your paddle in as the water cools down.  The use of a neoprene skull cap is a good tool to help reduce the brain freeze and also the rush of cold water into the inner ear, never nice. Honestly, while your training the use of a nose clip is a must and as you progress occasionally roll without one whilst practicing to get the full immersion experience but most times keep it on.

Rolling on both sides is coming but for those that want some simple quick tips on how to progress in conditions, here they are.

  1. Find the conditions you are happy in then with a good friend or coach have a purposeful training session in some small onshore waves, practice facing head on then both left and right side.  Now try starting from different positions around the sea kayak, leaning forward, backwards, hold the paddle in 1 hand as you capsize, go over on one side and then return to that side and roll, hang upside down and drift for 10 seconds before rolling up.  The more variations you can come up with, always using both sides, the more realistic the training will be.
  2. The next task will be to find some moving water with a distinct eddy line no real waves just a variation in the direction of the water.  Yep, you guessed it, now just start using this flow of water and practice the same as above first facing head on then both left and right side of the sea kayak facing the flow.  All the time feel the pressure of the water and how it interacts on you, your kayak and the paddle.  All the other games can be practiced here and the more varieties you can come up with the better.
  3. Once you are comfortable with 1&2 you can set your own conditions gradually increasing the wave sizes and then adding rough water to the moving water and eventually putting it altogether in a tide race or a beach break.

This is where it becomes apparent as to why we need to develop rolling on both sides.

On a beach break or in a fast-flowing tide race, or for that matter a white water river the direction the water is traveling in is key to a successful roll.  Every cubic meter of water weighs 1000kg and trust me if you try to push against this not much is going to happen.   This is probably why most sea kayakers who can roll regularly find themselves struggling every now and then when they are fighting to roll up against the immense power of the water.   This explains why we focus on the need to develop rolling on both sides in a sea kayak.

On the other hand, if you use the force of this water to help you, rolling the sea kayak becomes much easier.  In which case how do we know which way the water is flowing and how do I know where my paddle should be in relation to that water?

Taking a localised fast flowing body of water, a tide race, water leaving a harbour, tides converging around a headland, or a white water river the direction of flow is normally obvious.  If unsure you can look for the direction debris floats, buoys point, moored boats point (unless there is very strong wind), resting sea birds move.  All of these will help indicate the flow of water. If conditions are right (or wrong depending on your view) and there is a wave train on a headland the way the waves form will indicate in advance the direction of the flow.

Fig1 Penrhyn Mawr Tide race

Sea kayak rolling at Penrhyn Mawr

Looking at Fig 1 we can see the main flow runs right to left and this flow will be considerably stronger than the back eddies as there is a greater volume of water moving through the channel.  In which case if your needed to roll here, then to use the water your paddle needs to be down stream of you and your kayak.  If you try rolling with your paddle and body upstream towards the front of the race you will find yourself fighting against the flow of water to reach the surface and if you succeed, when the kayak is hip flicked up this too will be against the tremendous force of water and make the process extremely difficult.  Executing the roll regardless of which way you are facing means getting the paddle downstream in the flow and allowing the water to help you and your kayak up.  Therefore, to be confident rolling a sea kayak in fast moving water we need to develop rolling on both sides because sooner or later you will not have the option of which side you choose.

In the back eddies depending on where you are and how strong the back flow is you will again need to have the paddle on the down stream side of the flow.  In this case that could be either to the left or right of the picture depending on where one was to capsize.  Once more the ability to develop rolling on both sides would be beneficial here.  Having said that the eddies are generally quieter and unless you are stuck on the eddy line you have a good chance if you relax of being spun into position by the water before you roll.  This obviously requires a good calm state of mind and highlights the need to slowly progress your rolling practice.

Fig2. Flow of water in the wave. Picture from

Wave dynamics

Now moving onto waves; although it might seem counter intuitive with the wave heading towards the beach or to the front of the tide race the water in the front face of the wave is moving up the wave Fig2.  To make the most of this free conveyor of water your paddle needs to be catching this and using this force to help lift your body and kayak up.  To achieve this regardless of which way you find your kayak facing, left or right, your paddle needs to be ocean side.  This is the same as before, your paddle needs to be going with the water flow and using this free lift.  Not surprisingly many sea kayakers roll in waves without even consciously attempting to set up.  This happens as their paddles catch the free conveyor belt of water and before they realised, they were upside down, they are back on top, looking like the executed the perfect roll.  That is what we need to emulate and that means being able to purposely position your paddle ocean side.  For that to happen your practices needs to focus on how to develop a roll on both sides.

Remember then, always try to get your paddle down stream of the flow or ocean side of the wave and that will help with using the force of the water to lift you and your sea kayak whilst rolling.