Where & how to learn
If you live in a cool climate, the best place to learn is definitely an indoor swimming pool. However you can learn at the beach, or even at sea.
You could teach yourself from these pages, with an unskilled helper, but the easiest way to learn is with an instructor. With a good instructor, you should be able to learn in two 90-minute sessions. It may take four sessions if you are anxious about having your head underwater.
We find that rolling is easier in a low-volume sea kayak than in any high-volume boat. If a child has difficulty learning to roll it could be because their kayak is too wide. See Child-Size Kayaks. It’s probably easier to learn in a 17 foot sea kayak than in an 8 foot playboat. During the sweep phase of a roll, a playboat will spin in the horizontal plane when you would rather it stayed still, and if you lean a long way backwards while rolling a short playboat it tries to go vertical.
It is really helpful if the student wears a dive mask to start with. Later on, many people like to wear a nose clip when practicing rolls, but it is nearly as good if you just breathe out steadily through your nose while under water. If your paddle shaft is a plain tube and does not have an oval cross-section where the control hand holds it, it is cheap and easy to add an indexing grip so you always know the angle of your paddle blades, even with your eyes shut.
Helper in a swimming pool. Clear warm water, waist deep, is ideal. Your helper stands beside you and in the early stages of learning (s)he can help by holding your paddle to keep the blade on the surface. (S)he can also roll you back up if necessary, using the technique described at Swimmer-To-Kayaker Rescue.
A helper need not be a skilled kayaker but will be a lot more use if (s)he knows exactly what you are trying to achieve. (S)he should have a safe and light task, but watch out if the kayaker is muscular and tries to use raw power to make up for lack of technique. Helpers occasionally have to make a vertical leap to avoid having their legs taken off at the knee by a scything paddle blade.
Helper at sea. If you are a confident, sporty person you can learn to roll at sea. You and your helper must both be in kayaks, and it will be easiest if your helper is in something other than a sea kayak.
For the techniques, see Kayaker-To-Kayaker Rescues. Before you go out to roll, have a session in shallow water practicing the bow rescue or paddle rescue, the side rescue and TX-rescue / T-rescue.
When you want to practice your hip snap at sea, use the paddle rescue technique. In other words, get the two kayaks parallel with a gap between them about 2 feet wide. Put your paddle down in front of you so that it bridges the gap between the kayaks. Use the paddle in the same way you would use the rail of a swimming pool.
Practice at sea. Practice in the sea every time you go out. There’s no point learning if you can roll only in a swimming pool, wearing a swimsuit and nose clip, after two minutes warning.
If you have difficulty turning your swimming-pool roll into a reliable roll on the sea, try a little gentle surfing on a friendly beach. The fifth time you drag your flooded kayak up the beach, you will have all the motivation you need to stay in your kayak and roll next time.
When you capsize on a wave, you will find that you have to roll with the wave, not against it. Very often, all you have to do is get your paddle into position to roll with the wave, and the wave itself will roll you back upright again. See the comments at Steyr Roll. Occasionally you will find that you need to wait five or ten seconds before you start your roll, to give the wave time to drop you and move on.
If one member of your kayak group is unwilling to practice rolling at sea, it may be because they want to do more practice in a nice warm swimming pool (fair enough!) or that they need to re-think the clothing they wear for kayak trips. If there is no way to overcome their reluctance, they will be a liability on an advanced trip. Any trip may count as “advanced” if the group include young or inexperienced kayakers. For our definition see Formal Navigation For Advanced Trips.