How To Roll A Kayak

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13 feet Saturn Inflatable Self Bailing Whitewater Kayak - in use on riverAre you getting ready to take on some whitewater in your kayak? It’s ESSENTIAL you are in the know of how to roll your kayak if so! Read this simple how to roll a kayak and practice this exercise until you fully control it!

Life can be full of white water, whether you choose to jump in or not!

Now, this stuff is turbulent… aggressive… and quite frankly, fearsome! Like a lot of life’s challenges, it comes in various levels of intensity – from a placid coral-reef lagoon (eg. grade zero) to an embroiled river being pinched through a steep rocky ravine (eg. grade 5 rapid).

Learning how to roll a white-water-kayak and/or a touring-sea-kayak with confidence is an amazingly liberating skill.

Rolling a kayak like a stoic will boost your confidence and allow you to overcome your fears by reducing your sense of helplessness, both in- and out-of-the-water.

Once you understand the simple three-step technique, you can create a safe situation where you’ll be rolling kayak likes a pro! Just make sure to practice the roll exercise with your own kayak, whether you have a cheap budget kayak, fishing kayak or a high-quality kayak. This exercise can help you save your life!

*** NOTE ***

There are a few ways you can roll a kayak, what we’ve detailed out here is what you would refer to as a C-TO-C-ROLL. We chose to cover one because, in the beginning, that’s all you will want to know otherwise it could all become very confusing!


Putting this technique into practice requires the support of at least one trustworthy helper; they will roll your kayak right-side-up while you are still in the early stages of developing the skill.

What You Need

  • One handy helper

Your helper(s) must be sure-footed in the water. Therefore they must be able to stand with head out of the water and be strong enough to rotate the kayak loaded with the weight of your body at strange angles.

Their support will enable you to overcome your fear step by step, so it is very important that you trust them completely.

  • Helmet (and nose peg?)

Safety first! Always paddle with a helmet and when training or trying out new moves a nose peg could help you as well!

  • Wash Skirt

Wearing a proper-fitting neoprene wash skirt is essential to prevent the kayak from flooding when you are rolling both into and out of the water.

  • Confidence

Being confident in holding your breath while upside down and then pulling the wash skirt release tab to eject yourself from the kayak is the first skill to practice before you begin learning to roll your kayak.

  • Determination

When you’ve survived your first roll, you’ll feel more empowered to survive it again and again, even though it will take some repeated struggle to get the hang of it. Practicing your newly learned skillset under progressively more difficult conditions (with appropriate safety measures in place) will improve your confidence to face unexpected adversity head-on.

The 3 Steps to a Succesful Roll

Step 1: Set-up positioning

Hold paddle with both arms straight out, then twist torso 90 degrees so that your dominant hand is towards the front of the kayak and both hands are down at the water level but up against the kayak (paddle is parallel to kayak).

Now take a deep breath and don’t let it out as you pull your chin to your chest, then lean over the side maintaining the position of the paddle so that it is still pressed against the kayak as near the surface as possible.

Once your kayak is completely upside down and your torso is still twisted at 90 degrees with the paddle parallel to the kayak and as near to the surface as possible, you are ready for step 2.

Step 2: Single paddle stroke

The blade being controlled by your dominant hand should now be pushed out perpendicular to the kayak and be fully extended as near the surface as possible.

You need to look at the blade and maintain your gaze upon it as you pull it down with one strong stroke, bringing your thigh towards that arm by contracting core muscles between your hip and upper arm.

This hip-rotation is the critical action to right yourself and your kayak, however, you must leave your head pointing down for as long as possible – which is why you must continue watching the blade out past your dominant hand as it plunges deeper into the water.

Coordinating the stroke downward at the same time as you rotate your hips upwards is necessary to provide the extra resistance for your hip rotation to take place. A stroke downwards without the upward hip rotation will not be sufficient.

Step 3: Surfacing from the roll

You must not begin step 3 before your hips are rotated and pulling your torso up out of the water. It is counter-intuitive, however very important, that at this stage you still have your head facing down.

I’m sorry, but you must just have faith in the buoyancy of the kayak and your helper’s hands at the ready… the last movement to surface from the roll is to maintain your gaze on the blade of the paddle until your head is yanked up and out of the water by your torso which was pulled upwards by the full rotation of your hips.

You should tend to lean backward as your head finally emerges due to your gaze being fixed in the stroke direction. 


  • You must not pull your head towards the surface, if you do, your hips remain downturned and prevent your head from reaching the surface, preventing you from taking a breath and wasting precious oxygen and energy.
  • It is very distressing if you cannot get your hips fully-rotated, so be sure to have a signal that your helper understands in order to rescue you by turning the kayak upright – this saves energy and keeps you more relaxed and ready to make more attempts.
  • Be comfortable with being rescued, it is unlikely you will be able to roll yourself, even after eleven or more attempts. It’s more frustrating to eject yourself and flood the kayak with every attempt.


  • Watch some videos on how to roll a kayak, visual learning is rather helpful. Here are some suggestions from us:
  • Practice in a pool / flat lake with a partner
  • Wear all the gear you would if you were out on a trip, the difference in weight and maneuverability does make an impact on your rolling abilities


The S-cubed (S^3) system will save you – Set-up, Stroke, and Surface.

Have faith in the sequence

(1) Set-up positioning

(2) a single paddle stroke

(3) surfacing from the roll

Step 1 is important for early development of your kayak roll, but once you’ve done it a few times, it becomes less important how you get upside down – you will just find yourself starting from there.

Step 2 is what you really need to understand so that when you practice you don’t rush anything, which allows Step 3 to happen effortlessly.

And remember…

The more you practice this skill, the more you develop that stoic perspective on being upside down, strapped into a kayak and unable to breathe… still sounds a bit scary, I know… but trust me. More importantly, trust the S^3 system.

The more you put yourself in that situation, the more comfortable you become, until it doesn’t bother you at all.

Imagine finding yourself there by accident.

You are not inclined to panic because you trust your training.

You are now confident in your ability to roll right up out of that dangerous situation, to take another breath, and another rapid, and another, etc.

One Response

  1. Deanna Lyons

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