Articles - How To Roll a Open Canoe

James Weir
James Weir
James Weir - Posted on 03 Dec 2009

How to Roll Your Canoe

Paddling Canadian canoes on fast moving or whitewater is an exhilarating experience. But what happens when it all goes wrong? When you find yourself capsized by the power of the river? No sweat, you just reach round and roll that sucker back up! Easy, well at least it is when you know how. We tracked down a man who knows about getting a boat the right way up and asked him to shed some light on the dark art of rolling a canoe. Open boating fanatic, James Weir, has represented Great Britain, as a member of the GB freestyle squad, at both world and European championships for many years. Add to this many successful descents of classic whitewater rivers and you have a man who knows a thing or two about rolling when it counts.

Open canoe rolling, or for that matter rolling a decked C1, is a simple technique not too dissimilar from the technique used by our two-bladed brothers and sisters to roll a kayak. There are, however, a few basic differences and by understanding these and applying some slightly different rules it should be easy for any paddler to master the open canoe roll. 
    Rolling is the skill used to right yourself and your canoe after you have capsized. Staying in your canoe after you’ve capsized and rolling yourself back upright is a fundamental skill necessary to master before venturing onto moving or whitewater. It is the fastest and, indeed, one of the safest forms of self-rescue when it all goes wrong and you find yourself upside down. It is important, however, and much easier to learn, to practice on flat water or in a swimming pool. That way you can perfect the techniques involved before having to roll in anger in a real life capsize situation out on the river.
    The technique for rolling a whitewater open canoe is exactly the same as you would use for, a whitewater C1, C1 slalom canoe, or a wild water racer C1. 
    The first matter to attend to is the outfitting of the canoe. Loose or incorrect outfitting will hamper your chances of successfully rolling, as you will not be able to grip the canoe efficiently with your legs and transfer your rolling energy into the canoe. The saddle and knee blocks should be glued into the canoe in a position that you find comfortable and secure; ideally your weight should be slightly forward of the centre line of the canoe. It is also advisable to add hip pads to your boat, as this will stop you from shifting sideways off the saddle and keep your body in a central position. Adding a block of foam to the rear of the saddle, to support the lower back, will also assist in providing a snug fit in your canoe and maximise your chances of rolling successfully and increase your comfort and enjoyment of open canoe paddling. 
    The addition of thigh straps, secured to the rear thwart and the bottom of the canoe or saddle, will undoubtedly increase control of the boat in whitewater and reduce the chances of falling out. Straps are not necessary for learning to roll but will increase control over the canoe for the more advanced canoe paddler. 
    Before venturing onto whitewater, ensure you can quickly release any straps you have fitted in your canoe and you can exit the canoe quickly and safely in any situation. 
    Once you have a comfortably outfitted canoe the first type of roll to try is a half roll. Set up with the paddle outstretched at 90o to the canoe in an extended low brace position. Capsize onto the paddle, and wait for the canoe to settle upside down. Reach out as far as possible and try to float your body and the paddle on the surface of the water. Flick your hips to start the canoe rolling back upright again and, as you feel the canoe gaining momentum, push down on the paddle, keeping your weight above the paddle at all times. You should now find yourself in an exaggerated low brace position, so continue with the paddle pushing down and forwards on the water, keeping the blade as close to the surface as possible. Once the blade has reached the front of the canoe, the roll is nearly finished, so bring the paddle up into the forward paddling position and paddle forward one stroke. This last forward stroke will assist you in regaining the balance of the canoe and paddling yourself out of the situation that caused the initial capsize. 
    Although this is simple to explain in a few words, in reality it will take a little longer to master. Concentrate on rolling slowly, but smoothly. Too slow and the canoe will stall out before the roll is complete, as all the rolling energy will be used before the canoe is upright. Too fast and you will rush through the water and not gain sufficient purchase on the surface to roll successfully. Rolling too fast may also cause you to roll up on one side and instantly capsize again on the other!
    The only difference between the half roll and a full roll is setting up the paddle underwater before the roll is executed. Orientating yourself underwater is probably the most complicated part of learning to roll successfully. Wait until the canoe has settled upside down, then reach up and out with the paddle until you are in the familiar position that you’ve learned from the half roll, with your body floating on the surface of the water and the paddle outstretched at 90o to the canoe. You should, through practice, now be more familiar with the rolling movement and be able to break the roll down into three simple steps:

.1 Reach out with the paddle blade and float your body to the surface, the start position for the roll. Think, ‘REACH AND FLOAT’.

2. Now start the roll by flicking with your hips and rolling the canoe back upright. Think, ‘HIP FLICK’.

3. Finish the roll by low bracing, remembering to keep your weight over the paddle and leaning forwards. Think, ‘RECOVER FORWARDS’. 

Explained simply, rolling a canoe is a straightforward process that every paddler can master in a fairly short time. The main                                                                                      problems encountered are all as a result of the body’s memory trying to make you lean backwards and not forwards at the end of the roll. Kneeling instead of sitting can also lead to an alien feeling and can lead to confusion. Try to become comfortable and familiar with your canoe before you start learning to roll.   
    So, that’s it - get out there and have a go. Don’t forget to print off and take this article with you to refer to as you learn. And remember, a happy, smiling canoeist is a better canoeist!

For more info on Canoe Coaching contact James at -

James is supported by Kober paddlesEsquif Canoes, Nookie Equipment, Delta Sportswear and Sweet Helmets


Here's a great video of Canoe Rolling

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