Bombproofing your Roll

Although capsizes in kayaks are quite rare, most kayakers who desire to advance their skills and their adventures will usually learn how to roll to not only insure their safety but give themselves a sense of security. However it’s not that uncommon to see paddlers who never fail with their roll to suddenly swim when they encounter their first actual capsize. The usual reason is because they can’t get back to the familiar territory of their roll-up position on their favored side of the kayak. You can practice your roll in rough water, but if you practice entering from your normal set-up position you are actually denying many of the realities that can occur on an actual capsize.

Learning to roll from a set-up position simplifies the learning process since you hold or “remember” this position when you come around to the other side. If you learn to tuck your head low to the kayak deck and give yourself a good shove to capsize, you’ll end up on the other side of the kayak in the perfect position to execute your roll. Some people have a confusing time in the beginning and will lower themselves into the water on their roll-up side and finish from there. I guess that would be a half a roll. In either case, you end up in a position where you can sweep the paddle out and execute your roll. After a while that motion gets imbedded in your memory and it becomes an automatic event.

 The unfortunate and often shocking part about a capsize is that you will not be in your set-up position and furthermore, you will not be in the familiar finishing position that you need to be in to complete the roll. During an actual capsize, you are usually bracing or paddling. As you capsize, the paddle acts like an outrigger that often prevents you from falling into a fully settled position under the kayak. A dry suit with a lot of air in it will also not allow you to sink under the kayak. You often end up in a position that doesn’t allow you to roll up on your favored side or even use an offside roll if you have one.

You can actually do an enormous amount of preparation for any conditions by practicing a few things in calm water. Although it’s beneficial, rolling from your set-up position in rough water only prepares you to roll from your set-up in rough water. It’s an extreme false sense of security. If you practice the few simple things outlined here, you will be light years ahead in your ability to roll up on an actual capsize.

It may take a little courage to abandon the comfort of your set-up position and encounter a few of these positions, but you’ll quickly find out how easy they are. Practice initially in calm water with no wind. Work in shallow water so you can stand up if you have to wet exit and if possible, use spotters on both sides ready for a bow rescue. A dive mask is essential in the beginning to see what’s happening and later you can close your eyes or just use nose plugs. As far as nose plugs for practice – if you capsize, the last thing on your mind will be your nose. You’ll do what you have to from your training and experience. For these exercises, use any rolling style or paddle type that you’re comfortable with. (The drawings reflect a paddler setting up on the left side.)

The Paddling Position Capsize (above)

This is easy. Sitting in your kayak, you are holding the paddle in your paddling position. Then bring it along side your kayak in your rolling set-up position. Do this 5 or 6 times with your eyes closed. Now you are going to capsize on your regular setup side but in your paddling position like the photo and do exactly what you practiced under water – and roll up.  Once you sink underwater in your paddling position, you will put the paddle in your setup position and finish your roll. Do it a few times until you get totally comfortable with it. It’s a little scary to abandon the comfortable feeling of your set-up position but once you do it you’ll see how easy it actually is! This simple exercise is actually a major hurdle – entering the water and not being in your set up position – just like a real capsize.

Now the offside. (see the Dry Practice drawing) This time set up on your offside. Bring the paddle into your paddling position and then into your normal on-side set up. Do that sequence 6 or more times with your eyes closed. You will now enter the water from an off side set-up like the lower part of the drawing. Repeat what you just practiced. Bring the paddle into a paddling position under water and over to the other side to finish your roll. Try not to over-analyze. If you get confused, spend some more time doing the dry practice until it becomes automatic. Use the dive mask so you can see what’s happening.

Once you do these two exercises, you will have already made enormous gains in your ability to roll up from a capsize. There will always be a little heart pounding on a real capsize but the more you practice the calmer you will be. Ultimately in both of these maneuvers, you are getting yourself over to your roll up side of the cockpit from strange positions just as it might occur on a real capsize. Believe it or not, those two positions are it. You’ll be on one side or another in either of those positions on a capsize. However….


Getting pinned (illustration above).

The wind and current can pin you on one side after a capsize. (see Pinned Drawing above) The drawing shows a paddler who is held in the most common position after a capsize. If there is even slight wind and current as shown by the arrows, the paddler often gets suspended in a face down position making it quite difficult to get into the familiar territory of their roll-up position. This is a frightening position for any kayaker who has not practiced it and can often lead to a wet exit. You have already been in this position in the two previous exercises except now you are going to have to use your torso muscles to twist your body over to your roll-up side of the kayak. Even people who do lots of rolling practice often become paralyzed when under water if they are unaccustomed to using their hips and torso muscles while upside down. When we learn to roll, we tend to use gravity and momentum to carry us around to the other side.

Get in your set up position but don’t tuck your body forward. Enter the water gently and push the paddle out away from the boat. In many cases you’ll be floating or just under water face down a lot like the pinned drawing. Now use your torso muscles and force yourself under the boat and around to the other side so you can roll up. Once you get confident, you’ll be able to pull yourself from side to side. The important thing is to learn to use your torso muscles to move your position upside down underwater. You are not a weight on a pendulum but totally able to control your position underwater even in very strong current. This is the last and one of the most important steps in bomb proofing your roll.vv

Women or light paddlers have a higher PFD buoyancy ratio than large men and are more likely to float on a capsize whereas a large man will probably sink deeper or fully. A 200 lb man could use a large pfd with around 19 lbs of buoyancy and a light small person might use the same pfd. However, large people can also get suspended off to the side of the kayak on a capsize as well and should give these things a try and not assume they will sink below the kayak.

Paddle Orientation

The feathered paddle, can be a strong adversary in rolling recovery. Try to hang on to that paddling grip because if you let go you’ll have to re-orient your hands to the blade position.  Forget that bump in the paddle. It won’t work with gloves and a little panic.


I slide my hand down the paddle to the blade as in the drawing to find my orientation if I loose it. The feathered paddle will also give you resistance under water because while one blade is slicing the other is in a purchase or power position. If the FP is your choice, you’ll just have to get used to pushing it around underwater. When you can’t see you start to develop a feel for what the blade ends are doing and use the slicing position to lead the paddle to where you want to put it. It’s not easy – it just takes time and practice. This is where the dive mask is a great asset in learning to maneuver your paddle. The Greenland paddle is easy to maneuver underwater since you always know what the blades are doing and the unfeathered Euro Paddle is easier than the feathered paddle underwater. If you watch seasoned white water paddlers with feathered paddles, they make rolling in tough situations look easy… so it can be done with practice and experience.

If your are playing in rough water or surf and you find yourself in a capsizing position beyond any hope of a brace, the best thing you can do is immediately tuck forward and get in your rolling set-up position which will eliminate a lot of paddle maneuvering under water and simplify getting to your roll-up finishing position.

Be patient in learning these positions and maneuvers. It takes time and practice to get competent on the water but these exercises will advance your rolling ability so it will work when it’s really needed. It’s also good to practice rolling from your normal set-up position because it keeps you comfortable under water and refines your finish executions. The more you practice the less panic you’ll feel under water allowing you to smoothly move your paddle and body into your roll up position. Greenland style paddles who do many different roll variations are actually doing this kind of “out of position” practice.  No matter what stage you are at, remember, all paddlers knew nothing about paddling at one time too.  Little by little you’ll get to be comfortable in any position underwater and your ability to recover from a capsize will be vastly improved. Practice safe and enjoy the process.

Outer-Island Kayak