How To: Learn To Roll A Kayak!

PopUp 1,2: The critical moment! If you did everything right, your hips will snap that boat upright beneath you and you’ll be ready to paddle away. Or, you can do what I do and not quite make it . . .

 The critical moment! If you did everything right, your hips will snap that boat upright beneath you and you’ll be ready to paddle away. Or, you can do what I do and not quite make it . . . (Tim Jones photo)

Have you ever tried to learn something new, failed utterly, and then tried again? I highly recommend it. Especially if you are over 40. If you are over 50, it ought to be required by law.

The worse you fail the first time, the more excited you’ll be when (if . . . ) you succeed.

At this moment, my arms are so tired, I’m having trouble typing. All because I’m trying to learn how “Roll” in my new (used) kayak.

I could be trying equally hard to learn to surf, sailboard, or rock climb. None of those things come naturally to me. But rolling a kayak is my personal challenge for July and August (when the water is warm).

At this point you have three options You can use that paddle to roll the boat, or you can wet exit and climb back in. You don’t want to take the third option.

At this point you have three options: 1) You can use that paddle to roll the boat, or 2) you can wet exit and climb back in. You really don’t want to take the third option. (Tim Jones photo)

If you flip over in a closed-cockpit kayak (easy to do in some boats, much harder in others), you have two options . . . well, three if you include drowning.

Option 1 is a “wet exit,” where you separate yourself from the upside-down boat, then either swim it to shore or learn how to turn it over and get back in (a skill in itself.)

Option 2 is to learn to roll the boat back upright. Much neater.

Theoretically, rolling isn’t that difficult. When you find yourself upside-down, you simply twist your body to one side, thrust both hands up through the surface of the water holding your paddle. Then you sweep the flat blade of the paddle against the water as you snap your hips under you and (theoretically) flow back into the now-upright boat like a Slinky toy.

It’s not that easy. It’s a little like golf, where you have to get into exactly the right position, then do about 50 different things in a millisecond to all have it come together.

I tried to learn a couple of years ago in an early-spring kayak clinic with Zoar Outdoor in Charlemont, Mass. But every time I turned upside-down in the cold, muddy water, I promptly forgot everything I was supposed to do.

Then I heard about  an independent instructor Mike Althouse, who has since moved away, but then lived in the lake-rich country of southwestern NH. For $30, Mike offered to teach anyone how to roll a kayak.

We met at a little beach on Island Pond in Stoddard, NH on a warm summer morning. At my request, Mike got in his own boat, showed me how to do it. He made it look easy. Then we began training me. . . . It was much easier watching him.

This is what you look like after you’ve flipped your kayak and are ready to try to roll back upright. You’ve gotta get your body, head and paddle in the right position (see the arms reaching for the surface?), then do everything just right. And don’t forget to hold your breath!

This is what you look like after you’ve flipped your kayak and are ready to try to roll back upright. You’ve gotta get your body, head and paddle in the right position (see the arms reaching for the surface?), then do everything just right. And don’t forget to hold your breath! (Tim Jones photo

First thing we practiced was “the hip snap” which might be easier for someone with actual hips and a more flexible backbone than my creaky, semi-obsolete model. After a few tries I remembered the move from my earlier attempts. The hard part for me is remembering that your head has to come out of the water last, not first!

Next I had to get over my trepidations about hanging out upside down underwater. Hint: nose clips make it easier! So does warm, clear water (which is why many people learn to roll a kayak in a swimming pool)

Then I began putting it together using Mike’s hands instead of the paddle. Several times, I managed to do it exactly right. Hooray!!

By the time we got around to adding the paddle, all of the muscles in my torso and shoulders were too tired to respond any more, so we postponed that phase for another day.

I still haven’t learned how to roll a kayak, but I’m getting closer. And practicing is a good excuse to get out on the water on these warm summer evenings.

What’s your challenge? Rolling a kayak is a good one! I’ll get it right some day!

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About Tim Jones

Tim Jones, Founder and Executive Editor, started skiing at age 4 and hasn't stopped since. He took up Telemark a few years ago and is still terrible at it. In the summer, he hikes, bikes, paddles and fly fishes. In addition to his work at EasternSlopes.com, Tim also writes a pair of syndicated weekly newspaper columns.