Surf Techniques



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Surfing can be a lot of fun. But it can also be dangerous. In any case, it is an essential skill for any touring paddler. There is no better way to build your technique for bracing, edging, boat control and rolling in real conditions.




If you are kayaking on the coast, sooner or later you will have to deal with surf, especially if you are touring. Here are some tips for kayaking in the surf zone.

Breaking out through the surf seems easy enough. Just point out to sea and paddle. But if you spend a little time watching the surf, you will soon realize that not all waves are the same size. They come in sets of roughly seven. Some of the waves in each of the sets are larger than the others. Unless you just like the extra effort, it may be worth it to try to time the waves to get to the critical spot on a smaller wave.

There are three types of breaking waves. In order from the easiest to handle to the most dangerous they are - spilling, curling and dumping waves.

Spilling waves are found on beaches with very gradual slopes. The waves build up slowly as the progress into the slightly shallower water, gaining height until the tops begin to tumble down the forward slope in a long line of white foam. This spilling action can reduce the height of the wave by as much as half of the unbroken waves behind it. These waves are easy to handle as you only have to overcome the tumbling foam as it races toward you. Timing is not critical as the wave is seldom steep before it breaks and once it does it gets smaller. The foam line stays approximately the same size of a long period of time and distance. These types of waves are common on the beaches of Alaska, and British Columbia.

Curling waves are waves that are coming into much more rapidly shoaling beach in relation to its wave height (movie large curling surf). These waves build quickly and the top portion of the wave "curls" over the bottom part and crashes onto the foot of the wave itself. The foam line is much shorter in horizontal distance and foam zone is less extensive than for spilling waves. One wants to avoid being on the face of the wave when the wave is actually curling. On a big enough wave, a curling wave can catch up your kayak and throw you backwards bow over stern toward the beach. This can be disconcerting. So you want to be met by the wave either before it curls or after.

Timing this can be trickier than it sounds as different size waves break at different locations. Larger waves break further out from the beach than the smaller waves. While you might time a first small wave well and take it just after it breaks, A strong paddle out to sea might find you right in the curl of the larger wave behind it. There is no substitute for practice to get a feel for this.

A little time watching and counting before committing to going out into the surf can be helpful. You should know the period of the waves - how many seconds between one wave breaking and the next and how much variation there is in where the waves break for different waves. Then when the wave breaks ahead of you, you should know how long you have until the next wave breaks. This can be helpful if you find your self upside down and need to roll up. Rolling up right before the next wave can make a successful roll short lived.

If the surf is big and you time it wrong you will have to make a choice. If you are far enough up the wave and it looks as if the curl won't be starting on the way back down by the time you get there, you can just paddle strongly, lean forward into the wave and bury your paddle blade into the face of the wave. This should pull you over the top. Leaning forward resists the waves attempt to tumble you and your kayak over backwards, reduces the area of impact of the curling water coming down the deck of your kayak. and lets you reach further into the face of the wave. As the wave passes sit back up as you finish your stroke and lean backwards. This reduces the impact as the boat drops into the trough of the wave on the other side.

If you don't think you will make it over before the wave curl goes past vertical, then you have to decide either to take the curl in the face, which is advisable only for small waves, or intentionally capsize and roll up on the other side. In either case make sure the bow of your boat is perpendicular to the wave front otherwise you are headed for a possible wild ride toward the beach. Leaning forward close to the deck is a good idea in either case, as it will either reduce the impact of the curl on your body or reduce the chances of striking the bottom if your decided to go over. Hold on strong to your paddle and keep the paddle parallel to your kayak and perpendicular to the wave. If you get it set crosswise to the wave it may be ripped from your hands. Once the wave passes roll up quickly and get ready for the next one. If you don;t get going quick, you will be faced with the same situation all over again.

Dumping waves are waves that come into a beach that rises very quickly or even abruptly with a ledge. ( movie large explosive dumping surf ) The wave humps up and curls quickly and viciously, often with the water from the curl actually striking the bottom and roiling the sand. These types of waves are dangerous and should be studiously avoided. Serious injury to shoulders and necks and even kayak hulls can result from trying to launch into a dumping surf.

Coming into the beach in surf.

When launching into surf, at least you can easily see what it is that you are headed for. When coming into a beach it is often difficult to see what it is that you are dealing with. Spending some time observing the waves is a good idea. Remember that the backs of the waves are much less steep than the front of the waves. Stuff that doesn't look too bad from the sea can get pretty nasty on the other side. Remember avoid dumping waves is at all possible. ( See below on how to handle dumping waves if you absolutely must.)

When coming into the shore you need to decide if you are going to try to ride the wave in or avoid riding the wave in. The bigger they are the more you may want to avoid riding them in.

If you want to ride them in, perhaps because they are small, then you need to be able to get up some speed to match the wave as it comes toward you. Especially in a heavily laden boat, it will take several paddle strokes to get the kayak moving so that the wave doesn't just pass you by. Leaning forward can help you catch a wave that may be passing you by. You can also scoot your boat forward by quickly thrusting your lower body forward. Once you have caught the wave however, you want to quickly lean back so that more of the kayak stays in the wave and the wave doesn't pitch you end over end. Leaning back will also help keep your rudder in the water, although in my experience, the rudder is usually sticking out in the air on the back side of the wave, or it has been rotated up to near uselessness because of the speed of the boat through the water.

You need to be careful that when riding on steep waves that you don't pitch pole - also known as an "ender" or as a "pearl" (as in diving). This can come about in two ways. One the rear end of the boat is caught by the strong curl of a big wave and is shoved out over the bow of the boat. If this happens, it means you made a bad decision about riding the wave. Leaning back before going vertical can help, but if the wave is strong you are going over. All that is left is survival. Try to fall to the side of the boat so that the wave doesn't trash you under the boar. Good luck. I have seen very exceptional surf kayak riders plant their paddles to one side and flip around to ride the wave backwards but this is a god like move.

The other way that an ender happens is the boat slides rapidly down the face of the steep wave and plants the nose of the kayak into the trough of the wave where it naturally slows drastically. The rear of the boat continues to float on top of the advancing wave. Keeping your weight back helps to keep the nose shallow. Having a boat with a lot of hull volume in the bow helps protect against this. That stiletto bow on your cool looking kayak doesn't seem so smart now does it? Finally, riding the wave with a slight angle will also help from burying the nose.

Of course if you are riding down the wave on an angle, the more rapidly advancing top portion of the wave will tend to make to kayak turn parallel to the wave crest in a "broach". Depending on the shape of your kayak hull and the intensity of the wave this will happen slowly with warning or incredibly quickly. Once the broach is under way you must prepare and apply your brace by J-leaning the hull and leaning some body weight into the wave face. In all most all conditions a low brace will work. If it is a big wave just stick it into the body of the wave. Low braces are much safer for the shoulders than a high brace in a wave.

Once you have established your lean and brace into the wave, try to keep most of your lean weight on the boat not on the paddle. The wave will be slowly dissipating so you will need less of a lean as the wave continues into shore. By applying your brace forward or aft you can move along the face of the wave to the front or the rear. remember to practice broaching to both sides.

Changing directions on the face of the wave can be very difficult in a touring kayak. But the usual turning methods will work. If the boat starts turning to the right and you don't want it to, lift the left knee in a J-Lean, place the paddle on the left (high) side for a stern rudder to shove the back of the kayak around and straighten the course. if the boat continues to turn and broach imminent, you will need to whip the paddle around to the other side to prepare the brace. Being slow here will guarantee a quick rotation into the drink known as "window shading".

Once you are up on the sand pop your skirt and if you can stand up out of the kayak do so. Other wise roll the kayak on it side and exit like a wet exit. stand up and move up the beach before the next wave comes in. If you want to go back out, instead of popping the skirt just lean the kayak on its side and rotate the bow back out to sea. ( This never works in a laden boat.)

If you have decided to try and avoid riding the wave in, you are my friend a prudent kayaker. Having a boat filled with expedition gear will make this considerably easier.

The best technique is to avoid the curl zone altogether. By timing the waves you should be able to get close up on the back of a curling wave and paddle after it as fast as you can. With luck you will clear the curling zone of the next wave and will only have to deal with tumbling foam of the broken wave, perhaps broach riding it into the beach.

If you find yourself climbing up the face of a wave while pointed into the beach and you begin to slide down the face of the wave, just back-paddle as strongly as you can. It is likely that the wave will pass underneath you. Try to clear the curl zone before the next one.

An alternative method of coming into the beach is to back in. Back-paddling toward the beach allows you to keep an eye on what the wave is doing so that you are not surprised. You can then apply all the techniques for launching into the surf, except your objective is the much more easy goal of getting to the beach instead of away from it.

Dumping surf - If you absolutely must come into the beach in dumping surf here is a technique to try to cope with it. Remember that if conditions remain the same, it may be impossible to get away from the beach if the dumping surf is still present. Never try to launch into dumping surf.

Dumping surf is surf that mounds up quickly and breaks viciously, usually right on the beach. The only good thing about this is that the curl zone is small in extent and predictable. So you can get up pretty tight to the curl zone without worrying too much about being sucked in before you are ready. When the wave passes under you and breaks ahead of you, you will notice that the top of the wave is usually broad and smooth and not particularly steep. What you want to do is just let the wave pass under you and actively paddle in on top of the smooth roll of the wave This is more difficult than it sounds because if you are too early you will get trashed by this wave as you go over the falls. If you are too late, you will not ride the shore wash up onto the beach but instead will be drawn back under the next wave by the shore wash returning to sea. Good luck. I am going further down the shore.

Here are some safety tips. Remember to practice in small waves and work up as your techniques improve:

  • Always wear a helmet - This should be obvious.
  • Always wear a PFD - This should be obvious.
  • Never surf alone - This should be obvious
  • Make sure you can easily remove your spray skirt - If you can't get out of the cockpit you are going to have a bad day.
  • Remove your paddle leash and secure all deck items and rigging. - Getting tangled could lead to a Captain Ahab/Moby Dick moment.
  • Avoid other surfers - Kayaks are heavy logs in the surf and can cause considerable damage. A respectable distance is advisable.
  • Avoid other kayakers - Keep plenty of distance up and down the beach between kayakers when in the surf zone. The hardest and most dangerous object out there might be your fellow kayaker and his boat.
  • Avoid steep waves - They are harder to control and potentially destructive.
  • Avoid surf too large for your ability - Being out of control is dangerous. If you enjoy the adrenaline rush, good luck.
  • Lean into waves proportionally to wave strength - Leaning too far into small waves will cause you to 'fall over the back' of the wave, though rolling back from this position is relatively easy. Larger waves obviously require a stronger lean. Aim for a balanced lean with little pressure on the paddle blade.
  • Have elbows high in a low brace and elbows close to the body in a high brace - In a low brace, having the elbows high give more control and allows maximum leverage to be applied if necessary. When using a high brace, the elbows should be close to the ribs and the shaft under the chin (similar to a chin-up position). This might feel uncomfortable at first, but it is safer. Throwing the top arm out and the bottom arm up leaves the paddler vulnerable to shoulder and muscle damage. Having the elbows in close also becomes a more relaxed position.
  • If capsized, hang on and keep head low for protection - A paddler that is in his/her kayak can not be hit by their boat; a swimming paddler can be hit by the kayak, paddle, or rocks. The best course if you capsize is to try and stay in the cockpit until the major turbulence subsides and then wet exit (if you can not roll). While hanging in a submerged kayak, the major concern is the submerged torso striking the bottom or rocks. The safest option here is to have the head down low (high when upside down) towards the foredeck. This hides the face, chest and stomach which are the most sensitive areas. The head could then be covered by a helmet and the back with a buoyancy vest providing the best available protection. Leaning forward has the added advantage of placing the torso in a favorable position to commence a roll.
  • If you wet exit, keep the kayak between you and the beach - The swamped kayak caught in the next wave can bonk you hard. Move to the bow or rear of the kayak, point the other end toward the beach and hold on to the toggle as you swim in toward the beach with the boat.

    Surfing can be fun - but be safe.


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