04 - Basic Surf Paddling Techniques

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Surf poses a whole new set of problems and opportunites for the touring kayaker. Here are some tips on how to handle it.

Surf Paddling!
by Bruce Fisher

When is the best surfing?

Generally the days following storms provide the best (largest) waves. Winds blowing from the ocean to the shore also can add to a wave's strength, whereas wind moving from land to ocean will diminish a wave's strength. If the wave is small, the wind will reduce its effect, making it less surfable. If the wave is large, the winds can hold the waves up before they break, providing a steeper wave face and more exciting ride. Additionally, low tide usually offers the best surfing because the angle of the beach at low tide is usually less steep than at high tide. This makes it important to look at tide charts for your area before surfing.

Do I need any gear like life jackets?

It is important to wear life jackets for flotation purposes (except in areas like Hawaii where you want to avoid being wash over coral reefs) - currents can easily take you out if you flip. It also makes rescue more successful if you are knocked unconscious. Life jackets make good cushions for your body when you slam into and slide at high speeds on the sand. If you are there to surf for sport, as opposed to just landing or launching, it is also wise to wear a helmet. Some type of sandal or shoe also helps the feet absorb the impact if you should pirouette into the sand!

How do I launch into the surf?

If launching by yourself, or if you are the last person in a group to launch, try to set your kayak on the beach in such a manner that it faces directly (straight) into the waves, and in the waves just enough that you can push yourself off, yet not be knocked about by waves as you are securing your spray-skirt. This will be in an area somewhere below where the highest waves are washing up, and above the smaller sets. Knuckle-walk your boat into the surf using one of the larger waves to partially support your boat. Watch your paddle. If you have assistance, you can launch slightly further out as your friend steadies the boat.

As you are getting ready, be studying the wave sets coming in. Once you launch, paddle hard. I have received comments supporting two different schools of thought for making progress through large waves. One maintains that when a good size wave comes at you, paddle fast directly toward it, then quickly lean forward in tucked ready-to-roll position and "needle it" when wave hits. This presents the absolutely smallest area of resistance and eliminates a direct face and chest hit by the wave or paddle (and places your paddle in a rolling position in the event that this relatively unstable position results in being flipped). The other school of thought suggests that one should keep paddling very hard and try to time the strokes so that at the last minute you can bend forward, but instead of going into a roll position, reach forward with the paddle into the wave with the paddle shaft at a downward angle in relation the axis of the boat so that if the wave catches the paddle, it will be pushed downward instead of up-and over. This way you can keep paddling, and can maintain thrust while the wave hits. In either case, once it has passed, resume paddling out. It is very important to stay perpendicular to the waves, so that you don't get turned sideways (broached). It is also necessary to have sufficient (maximum) forward speed as the wave arrives so that you don't start surfing backwards!

If your roll is completely reliable, and there are no rocks, you have the option of turning upside down and dragging deeper water with your paddle to avoid the wave's impact, but practice this with smaller waves first because of the unusual ways that the currents can pull on your arms - injury is possible. Also be aware of the fact that the first exposure of the eyes to salt water when rolling can be very distracting.

There is often a "soup" zone between the waves crashing on the beach and the breaking waves further out which can be used to check spray skirts, catch a breath, etc. As you are going out, start glancing back at the beach for landmarks to establish your drift and / or your return area.

What about when I get out there past the breakers?

As opposed to the deliberate gunwale lifting while surfing, when out in the swells it is important to have very relaxed and loose hips. Be flexible as the waves pass underneath you. Waves can and do collapse and explode unpredictably, and staying loose is a big help. Use short strokes with a lot of quick braces thrown in. This is where your rounded bottom (narrow) boats are actually more stable than the more flat bottom boats, (as opposed to the reverse in calm flat water).

And use common sense; It is a good idea to keep some distance from Jellyfish. Keep a lot of distance from Portuguese Man-O-War. Don't do rescue / roll practice over a school of Blues. Paddling with dolphins is fun, but if you see two pods meeting clear out fast.

How do I paddle my loaded boat back in through the surf to land safely?

First analyse the waves. Are they dumping, spilling, or surging? If they just lose energy as they wash up on the beach, no problem. If they are dumping on the beach, you will hear a crashing or booming kind of sound. The waves will have a streaking pattern to them and often display water splashing into the air. Avoid landing through these waves. They can do some serious damage. If the waves are spilling, that is, if the wave has a nice crest which gradually breaks further down the wave as it comes in, the wave is considered to be a spilling wave and should have manageable surfing characteristics. Those waves are typically wide and have a continual rather than booming sound. 54% of the waves in the world are dumping waves, so beware.

Observe the wave sets, try to anticipate the beginning of a relatively calm period. Many people like to catch the last wave of a set, so that when they lose the wave, they will not be clobbered by the next waves as much. While paddling in, try to stay "between" the sets if possible. When approaching the area where waves are breaking on the shore, pick a wave and paddle in behind it, following as closely as possible.

Some waves will catch you though, so try to surf them in, "ruddering" with your paddle to maintain control. It is important to lean towards the wave, and raise the knee (and that side of the boat) which is further from the wave, since the wave wants to lift on the side of the boat closest to it and roll the boat. If you are exactly perpendicular to a large wave, you may find yourself doing an inadvertent ender, so using your paddle to maintain a slight angle to the perpendicular of the wave is important.

If you loose your angle and find yourself broaching the wave, you can surf the wave sideways by leaning into it fairly hard and bracing on the wave with your paddle. You may be able to avoid obstacles by paddling forward or backward while on / in the wave. If you fail to lift the shore-side knee or don't lean into the wave you will get window-shaded. It is extremely important to tuck forward into a roll-setup position if you ender or flip -you will be in a much safer position should you impact on the sand

Another way (safe and conservative method) to approach the beach is to paddle backwards. When a big wave approaches start paddling forward in time to contact it with speed, then tuck forward and "needle" the wave, presenting as small an area of resistance as possible. After it passes by, resume paddling backwards toward the shore

Note: Some folks like to practice with a plastic non-loaded river kayak to pick up skills (experience the ender / pirouette phenomenon and such) before landing a fully loaded sea kayak.

How do I exit the boat (gracefully) when landing?

With fibreglass kayaks, as your depth approaches a foot or less, observe the last wave passing by (the one you just followed in), and immediately pop the spray skirt off and hop out quickly and smoothly on the ocean side of the boat. Getting out on the beach side can result in the next wave driving the boat into your legs. Quickly grab the boat to carry / drag it onto the shore in a controlled manner. You may want to lift the ocean side of the cockpit rim upward momentarily to keep water from entering as the next wave comes along. If you are paddling a plastic kayak you will probably prefer to just paddle hard up onto the shore, and alternately drive your fists into the sand to hold your position as the wave recedes while permitting each new wave to push you up further onto the beach. Then remove spray skirt and exit the boat.

How do I catch waves to surf for sport (as opposed to trying to just get in safely)?

Establish a position in the waves where you desire to catch the waves, making sure that it is clear of other surfers and that swimmers aren't going to be slain in your path. Note relevant rocks, piers, and corral reef formations. Start counting waves in each set and get a feel for the pattern. When you see one you like, paddle hard to acquire maximum speed and lean forward as the wave arrives. You will have to use a ruddering action with your paddle to maintain your desired direction or angle to the wave. Keep the beach-side of your gunwhale raised and lean into the wave. You will find your paddle being used for steering control and bracing simultaneously. Next is the tricky part. The best rides are right at or in the edge of where the spilling wave is spilling, while aiming the boat slightly away from the breaking area, maintaining that relative position to the sliding spilling crest of the wave. Executing good boat-control and style while there is what separates the surfers from the landlubbers.

While paddling back out to catch the next wave, be wary of other boaters or surfboards coming at you at a high rate of speed. Be prepared to dodge far out of their way and even turn upside down if a collision is imminent. Better yet, stay far away from what you perceive could be their path before such actions are necessary

What kind boat is best for surfing?

Strictly personal preference. What represents easy turning / sweet carving / high manoeuvrability for one person may be thought of as a total lack of challenge for another. I've seen open canoeists surfing the same challenging waves as sit-on-tops with equal success and fun. One quick maintenance note though; If you use a river kayak with those sliding metal foot peg mechanisms it is wise to spray the mechanicals with WD40 or something like that, then after your done surfing, alternate more lubricant with a good strong garden hose to get the sand out and the pegs moving freely. Otherwise the foot pegs will lock permanently in position due to the sand and salt.

What are some of the safety concerns?

Again, always paddle in areas that have spilling waves as opposed to dumping waves. You can get hurt there, as well as damage gear. Also don't hang out in the waves breaking on the shore for the same reasons.

A life jacket and helmet is most highly recommended, but if this document doesn't convince you, a short period of time in decent waves will! Sand abrasion with a kayak on top of you is serious stuff. Water shoes or something on you feet will give some protection against metal / plastic foot pegs when you experience the sudden impact of pirouetting in the sand - the ankles will still be sore though. Wet or dry suits are highly recommended, not as much for comfort, but rather to assist in vital heat retention should you exit the boat some distance from shore.

If you flip, tuck forward quickly. Face plants are no fun in either rocks or sand.

Ask local surfers about nasty tides and currents. Be aware of high vs. low tide effects and what it is now. Be aware of low-pressure systems coming in on the backs of high-pressure systems (wind direction and wave characteristic change).

Paddling with a friend is recommended, both for the camaraderie and the support should you find yourself in trouble.

What about surfing with other surfers?

When you join the crowd, consider yourself at the back of the line. When a good wave comes, several people may start, but the one closest to the edge of the breaking part of the wave is considered to have the right of way (and is indeed in the best position to surf that wave). Don't try to drop in on a wave. - If someone is already on a wave, never try to ride it. Never.

Be cognisant of the fact that folks with surf boards usually have to work a little harder to get on a wave, and will be starting out a few seconds earlier - if you see that, don't try to "out-race" them for the wave and create a conflict - be cool.

Boat control around other surfers is critical. If you don't have boat control, find an empty beach and get it.

When paddling out through the waves, watch out for incoming surfers. Paddle out through the white stuff (yes, it is harder than the smoother areas) as you approach people surfing in, so that you do not position yourself in such a manner as to cut the surfer off or cause him or her to modify his line to avoid you.

Additional reading

Seakayaker magazine: Understanding Tides - Issue # 43, Playing in Tide Rips - Issue # 34, Surf Zone Techniques - Issue # 29, Tide Rips, Issue # 9.


I wish to thank Carlisle Landel for critical input into this page. Pease note that I have attempted to make this FAQ as complete and objective as possible. I very much welcome any comments, corrections, or suggestions for improvement in content or presentation.

- Bruce Fisher - Copyright 1995

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