There comes a point in almost all paddlers development that they want to or need to learn to roll. However, performing a roll in a river kayak, sea kayak, Greenland kayak, freestyle kayak/canoe  or OC1 is possibly the first time a paddle is faced with learning a complex three dimension skill which may take months to years to master.

So, is there a right time in their paddling development to start coaching this?

And, is there a right way to coach this complex skill?

Technical Opinion

No doubt every paddler and coach you ask will have their own opinions which are generally based on their own learning experiences, personal rolling knowledge and rolling capabilities. Coaches will also be able to add in their coaching experience, time within the industry as well as prior knowledge of the individual, paddlers learning styles and their natural ability. All may play a key factor in determining the appropriate methods of providing individualised coaching.

By producing three informative, educational and hopefully thought provoking posts, I aim to refresh some old ideas, offer research feedback and possibly bring some new material to light about acquiring this skill and coaching process. The outcome may help benefit paddlers, coaches and tutors alike. You never know, some of these ideas’s and suggestions may indeed be transferable into other areas of the sports coaching process too.

I plan to present these three ‘Coaching the Roll’ posts as;

Part 1 – Why do paddlers want and/or need to learn to roll

Part 2 – Current statistics collected on both learning to roll and coaching the roll

Part 3 – Present finding and suggest possible outcomes

Coaching the Roll – Part 1

Before your read through these four suggested reasons why paddlers may want to or indeed need to learn how to roll (which are listed in no particular order), please go make yourself your favorite hot drink so you can sip, ponder and reflect on the topics and comments below!


To assist in keep the visual learner engaged whilst hopefully reinforcing a number of learning points, I’ve included a number of short video clips and inspirational quotes.

So, if your ready – Why do paddlers want to and/or need to learn to roll?

1/ Decrease fear and anxiety of capsizing

Capsizing Fun

Starting the process of learning to roll and making it initially a fun activity will certainly help create a positive mind set for long term learning. By attempting a roll (to self-right completely), executing a half roll (part success, enough to gain a breath, whilst taking the head and body closer to the water surface) or ejecting from the craft, a paddler now has three options ‘potentially’ to enhance their safety and expanding their paddling comfort zone.

Think it, Do It

Other coaches may opt not to teach rolling at an early improver level, instead focus on coaching good posture, connection and balance whilst active paddling. Focusing on increase stability of the craft and in turn confidence through success. By keeping the blade (or blades) active, the paddler from an early stage can stay upright and in control in most but the trickiest conditions. By not paddling making the craft and unstable, the paddler starts then thinking about bracing, capsizing and reactionary skills are instantly engaged.

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Monkey See, Monkey Do

By shifting the focusing on easier ‘can do’ skills including active paddling as mentioned above, the paddler can maintain momentum and stability. Similar to learning to ride a bike, the slower you go the more balance/skill you need. Too much speed however, things start happen too fast with little thinking/ response time mean loss in control. Being more confident and in turn relaxed, the paddler has time to look ahead, read the water, plan the route and react consciously by altering edge, trim, speed plus apply steering as and when required. A skilled paddler is one who can read the water well, react almost instantly whilst stay in control and not requiring the need for a roll. With time and experience this becomes an unconscious automatic skill.

The short video clip below featured the winning run from Joe Morley at the 2013 Sickline Extreme Kayaking Race. Joe clearly demonstrates the benefits of active paddling without the need for a brace or roll throughout this winning run!

Jedi Instincts

By the very nature of learning to roll and repeatedly capsizing, the paddler becomes used to the feelings and sensation associated with being upsides down underwater. Rolling practise may also help desensitise the initial panic when capsizing by accident, and will certainly reduce the paddlers overall arousal levels once the craft has past the point of no return and accepting they are capsizing due to the previous massed practise (in a similar environment). If trained to, the paddler may even be able to react quick enough and take a last big breath before their head goes under water, further signaling awareness, training and conscious reaction.

Rolling, Rolling, Rolling

However, when learning and practising new components of the roll, being able to stay underwater for a longer period of time is an advantage. This can also help train the body and mind for when a roll may fail. If the paddler can stay relaxed underwater they can then attempt to re-set up and try a second or third roll. Should they feel uncomfortable and lack confidence in the success of the roll and the need to eject, a reserve of ‘air’ (breath holding) may be required depending on the position and environment the boat has ended up.

Re-enter & Roll

The short video clip below demonstrates when applying a technically correct roll, the paddler does not require to hold their breath and be upside down for long, even when executing a re-enter & roll technique in a sea kayak. The paddler here is underwater for only six seconds. A capsize with a successful first roll is considerably quicker in all but the most extreme environments.

Not Today

Before going into advanced environments, paddlers should be well aware and able to spot the potential of pining, strainers and other high risks. Portaging around a tough rapid may be a good option to reduce the risk and simply leave some challenging rapids or waters for another adventure once gained more experience, self confidence and personal skill. By choosing your ‘battles’ you can succeed on also increases success. A loss or swim may greatly knock ones confidence.  Another important factor may include the assessment of who is with you and should anything go wrong, have they the skills and safety experience to assist in a rescue.

2/ Increase skill set for technically challenging waters

When a paddlers takes on a more challenging environment, the skill level required to paddle it successfully also increases along with the risks of injury should the be unsuccessful. There comes a point where a paddlers has to realise that a strong roll is a essential requirement for certain environments and if they wish to enter that environment, then the simple ‘if I capsize, I’ll swim’ attitude will likely result in severe injury as a minimum. Having a solid roll means the paddler spends far less time upside down exposed to danger and regaining control of the craft and paddle to safety. Not all paddling environments are safe swimming environments.

Hanging in There

Teaching paddlers to attempt to roll and hang in (staying connected within their boat upsides down) may have both positive and negative effects on the paddler. Positives in that the paddler is improving under water confidence in more varied environments and conditions and hopefully long term able to relax and not panic whilst await for the boat to fully capsize. During which time preparing in mind what rolling technique to initiate after setting up (if required). Almost like becoming a human capacitor and storing up energy awaiting to discharge it as a roll once good to go.

Crash, Bang, Wallop

Negatives can also occur the longer the paddler is under water (especially in moving water). and the risk of injury to head, face, body and arms coming into contact with rock etc becomes greater. Should the first roll fail, a second or third roll may be less successful due to paddler fatigue. Why do tennis players rarely go for an ‘ace’ on their second serve? Should the paddler completely fail to roll after a few attempts, the fatigue of hanging in may have a direct impact on the speed and reaction to eject from the craft. Swimming is also likely to become more laboured and less responsive to the conditions than possibly if ejected immediately or after a first attempt to roll. Extreme kayakers however in extreme environments may also disagree that swimming is safer and opt to stay within there kayak which may offer some protection for the lower body, additional floatation/buoyancy to remain higher up on the surface of the water and if the opportunity available, the option to hand roll. This does need skill awareness of your position on the water and knowledge of other options including eddies, take outs or length of feature.

Rough n Tumble

Some environments may still test the paddler’s skill level and their ability to react and recover. Here is a prefect example from Rush Sturges not 100% sure of his ability to ‘clean’ the fall but his skill and awareness see’s him survive even although he snaps his paddler early on. You see him recover and work through various options.

No matter how good the paddler is when taking on a rapid, a strong feature or a similar drop, their planned landing or route may not be fully controllable and improvisation may be required. A similar scenario may also occur on the sea with inconsistent waves and/or whirlpools forcing a sea kayaker to become unbalanced and capsize.

Over Challenging

If the environment is overly challenging for the skill level of the paddler, they are more likely to become reactionary to the features and forces and the outcome is loss of control and capsizing. Improver to intermediate level of paddler are very likely to have lesser rolling ability than their paddling skill. This then making any attempt at rolling upright successfully a ‘long shot’. There are times that the position of the body, boat and/or blade acts on the water in the paddlers favour and assist with righting the boat. Then the question is, can the paddler regain control or do they end up immediately upsides down again!

No Guarantee

And just because someone can roll in a warm heated swimming pool doesn’t mean they can and always will be able to roll outside. There are a number of additional factors a paddler needs to control when rolling on moving water, white water or open water. After recovering from an unprepared capsize the paddler then needs to focus on applying a technically perfect roll.

Fear Factor

Factors that can distract the paddler, reduce focus and decrease performance include;

  • the shock of cold water immersion causing a shock reflex,
  • the boat continuing to be moved around and not come to rest
  • lack of visibility due to aerated and colour of the water
  • lack of breath and/or confidence
  • capsizing in a shallow or dangerous environment causing head, body, boat and/or blade coming into contact with rock
  • losing grip/letting go/snap their paddle

Even the most experienced paddlers can fail their rolls (occasionally). The factors listed above certainly aren’t an exhaustive list.

Total Belief

Yes You Can

Learning to roll requires not only psychological strength, but the knowledge and ability to react appropriately underwater to some or a number of factors listed above. Inexperienced paddlers are more likely to rush their set up and perform an ineffective roll due to panic and over reaction from these unexpected or unfamiliar external factors.

But remember, failing is simply practising for success!

3/ Greenland Kayaking

Qaannat Kattuffiat (the Greenland Kayaking Association) is a Greenlandic organization that’s dedicated to keeping the traditional kayaking skills alive. This includes rolling, paddling techniques, kayak building, tuilik making (full kayak jacket)  and other aspects of the Greenland kayaking culture.’

Failure Isn’t An Option

‘Greenlanders of old, in their bitterly cold waters, largely practiced the “roll or die” philosophy. A kayak, combined with a tuilik was considered a drysuit, spraydeck and PFD.’ It’s also interesting to hear that they viewed and still do today that ‘self rescue without leaving the kayak (rolling, sculling, bracing) as a basic skill!’ Greenlandic hunters regularly went out kayaking on these dangerous waters on their own. Their lives and families depended on staying alive and that meant staying in their boat even when upside down. Once out and exposed to the baltic temperatures, severe hypothermia would set in and the resulting effect would not permit what would normally be a long paddle back to either land or shelter. Staying upright, alert and out of the water also meant the hunters didn’t become the hunted!

Champion Rollers

‘Greenlanders developed scores of rolls in order to deal with the hazards of hunting in a narrow boat and using harpoon line. For example sculling rolls allow you to recover even if you are entangled in line and can’t sweep your paddle. Many of the rolls are useful for specific forms of entanglement. Others allow you to recover if a hand or arm is injured or entangled, too numb to grip a paddle, or to enable you to hold onto a piece of valued gear.’

Life Jacket

Greenlandic paddling gear, such as the tuilik (pronounced “doo-ee-leek”) are used not just because of their historic value, but because they are functional for the environment. Instead of wearing separates (cag, trousers, spraydeck, pfd, skull cap and  etc) tuilik encompases an all in one allowing greater circulation of warm air to all parts of the body rather than having cold zones. The tuilik also offers more floatation than a pfd and allows greater mobility than a standard spraydeck & drysuit.

Greenlandic Rolling Techniques

Above is a short video clip from back in 2009 when Cheri & Turner (Kayak Ways) accompanied by Scottish sea kayaking coach Rowland Woollven treated us to a display of Greenlandic rolling technique at the Scottish Sea Kayaking Symposium on the Isle of Skye. (Apologies for the poor video footage taken from land without a tripod.)

There are currently thirty five (35) capsize maneuvers/skill performed at Greenland kayaking championships. These may be in a minority percentile within the sport of paddling but with their wide range and skill sets, I felt it worth inclusion.

PLEASE NOTE – The paragraphs above in italics relating to this Greenlandic Kayaking section have been taken directly from

4/ National Governing Body Awards

The British Canoe Union offer paddlers the opportunity to gauge their paddling skill levels and knowledge through training and being assessed against the BCU Performance Awards (1-3 star syllabus) and the BCU Leadership Awards (4-5 star syllabus). At three star standard, paddlers in almost all disciplines must be able to demonstrate rolling to a certain degree of competency.

Below is a list of current performance and leadership qualifications highlighting the specific rolling skill required for each level –

White Water Kayak Assessment Requirements (Updated October 2013)

BCU 3 Star White Water – skills including rolling on both sides, on moving water
BCU 4 Star White Water – skills including rolling on both sides, on grade 2(3)
BCU 5 Star White Water Kayak – skills incl. White Water Roll on both sides in grade 4

Sea Kayak Assessment Requirements (Updated October 2013)

BCU 3 Star Sea Kayak – skills on both sides with the only exception of the roll where one side is deemed sufficient
BCU 4 Star Sea Kayak – skill incl. rolling in rough water (on one side only)
BCU 5 Star Sea Kayak – skill incl. roll in rough water. The candidate is required to capsize on both sides, but a roll is only required on one side

White Water OC1 Assessment Requirements (Updated October 2013)

BCU 3 Star White Water OC1 – skills on both sides including rolling on moving water
BCU 4 Star White Water OC1 – skills on both sides including rolling on grade 2(3) water
BCU 5 Star White Water OC1 – skills on both sides including rolling on grade 4 water

Freestyle Assessment Requirements (Updated October 2013)

BCU 3 Star Freestyle Kayak – skills on both sides including rolling on white water
BCU 4 Star Freestyle Kayak – skills on both sides including rolling on white water

BCU 3 Star Freestyle Canoe – all of the core skills including rolling on both sides
BCU 4 Star Freestyle Canoe – skills including a roll on white water ????Both Sides????

BCU 5 Star Freestyle – N/A

Surf Kayak Assessment Requirements (Updated October 2013)

BCU 3 Star Surf Kayak – all skills except the roll where one side is deemed sufficient
BCU 4 Star Surf Kayak – skills including rolling on both sides and in both directions on a wave
BCU 5 Star Surf Kayak – skills on both sides including rolling in advanced surf conditions

Hopefully I have given a clear insight into why paddlers may want to and/or need to learn to roll. I really like the focus on the Greenlandic point of view (not that I agree nor disagree with it) that rolling, sculling and bracing is a ‘basic skill’.

Has this got you thinking about how you roll and do you have your own rolling strategies for different situation? Has this given you other ideas and options? And has this made you consider improving your own rolling skills?

Hopefully there are a few yes’s in there!

Would be great to hear your thoughts and feedback on Part 1 – Email me!

Expect Part 2 – April 2014