Once upon a time it was called “rolling in a circle.” The term directional rolling is an updated tag line, but it is still rolling in a circle; meaning setting up to roll in the direction you are falling.  Directional rolling is a skill that every boater should be working to hone.

When a kayaker sets up to roll, it does not take too long to figure out it is much more efficient to fall towards the paddle and roll in a circle rather than falling away from the paddle.  Why? Because of the momentum gained going with the fall.  It gets your body and paddle to the surface much more efficiently. It speeds up the rolling process. Momentum is a plus.

If directional rolling makes sense when setting up to execute a practice roll then it should make just as much sense when applied on the river.  The idea behind directional rolling is that you should always roll in the direction you are falling.  The advantage is that you then have the momentum of your “fall” to help you in the roll.   You will most likely also have the downstream flowing current creating even more momentum because most often, kayakers fall to the upstream because of catch an upstream edge. Instead of hard bracing that can hurt the shoulder, when you feel yourself tipping over past the point of no return, aggressively go into the directional roll and get it over with.

The major obstacle to directional rolling is not having a roll on both sides.  If you can only roll on one side, then you’d best hope that you only tip over in one direction.  Solution: learn to roll on both sides.  And use both sides until there is no such thing as “onside/off side.” In fact we term it right hand roll and left hand roll. No more on side/off side!

Advantages to rolling on both sides:

  • You can roll directionally. Whichever side you fall to is an automatic set up. There is no need to wait until you are upside down and then struggle to get your paddle to the set up position on the one side you know how to use.
  • If you miss a roll on one side, you are more than likely going to fall in the opposite direction. Translation: if, for example, you miss your right hand/on-side roll, you are most likely going to fall back to the right, setting you up for a lefty/off-side roll.  Directional rolling menas you just switch and go with the side you are falling towards.
  • If you have a good roll and you miss your roll, chances are that the water is working against you. By immediately switching you grab the water that is working with you or get set up away from the obstacle you are up against or switch to being set up on the upstream side of the hole you are upside down surfing in….
  • Directionally rolling in any play boating scenario is super efficient and helps keep you in the feature. And stern squirting is the best place to have to learn to aggressively roll directionally.

How to Start Directional Rolling?
Learn to roll on your second side.  There is absolutely no reason to not roll on both sides. And in fact, most paddlers have a better roll on the second side they learn because the learning process is shorter. You do not have the baggage of learning what a hip snap is, what it means to have your paddle at the surface, how to keep your head down  because these are all concepts you worked through in your original roll learning. Most people are surprised how well their second side works when they give it a chance. And if you miss one side you are automatically set up to switch back to the more-familiar side, which in turn builds more confidence in your roll and your ability to try more than once.

When is it time to learn the second side?
As soon as you are successfully rolling on your first side.  And nay nay to the idea that it will mess you up on your original roll-not if you have some muscle memory in that first side.  In fact, if the first side is just not getting anywhere, try learning to roll on the other side and it might just help break through whatever it was holding you back from successfully rolling.

Every whitewater kayaker should have the following as a goal:

  • Having a roll on both sides (even if you favor one side over the other—most of us do)
  • Switching from one side to the next automatically
  • Never rolling twice in a row on the same side
  • Rolling directionally so that whichever way you are falling is the side you go to set up on.
  • Instead of thinking you have an “on side and off side” it is a rightly and lefty roll. That takes away the stigma that one side is easy and the other hard to execute.
  • And finally – on the river don’t fight the fall. Once you reach a certain point-you are beyond balance recovery. Instead of slapping the water with that brace and putting a huge strain on your shoulder, just commit and roll!

Directional rolling might not mean drier hair, but it will mean less-wet hair! And more efficient technique on the river–which will make your shoulders happy.