How To Kayak Surf

How To Kayak Surf

In this article we’re going to introduce and walk you through the process of learning the basics of kayak surfing, and provide a firm foundation to learn and build upon the techniques required.

What is kayak surfing? …the basics

Kayak surfing, interestingly also known as surf kayaking, is a sport that involves surfing waves in a kayak instead of a conventional surfboard.

Kayak surfing started off as a recreational activity among kayaking enthusiasts, but later turned into a sport in its own right. 

Building popularity over Europe and the United States, kayak surfing is very similar to conventional surfing, differing mostly in the type of equipment used. In one case you use a surfboard while in the other you use a kayak.

The two main pieces of equipment you need to begin kayak surfing are a surf kayak and paddle. There are several types of kayaks designed specifically for this purpose, but all of them are made either out of rotomolded plastic or rotomolded composite glass, as these are the strongest materials to withstand the stress of surfing in the ocean. 

As for the paddles used by kayak surfers, they are double sided, just like standard kayaking paddles, and can be anywhere between 1.6 meters and 2.3 meters in length. The most common type of paddling blades used are feathered, as they pass most easily through rough waves. 

In kayak surfing competitions, each surfer is judged by the quality of moves they make within the set time limit, which is again very much like surf competitions. 

Understanding the surf zone

In order to develop the right kayak surfing skills, it is important to have a good understanding of the surf zone, which is the area where the waves are you’ll be surfing.

If you’re on a gentle wave, you can easily surf without exerting too much effort. All you have to do in such cases is use your rudders to keep your kayak under control. 

If you’re on a steep breaking wave however, you will need a lot more effort to maintain your place on the face of the wave. The steeper the wave, the more you have to do to remain on the face. It’s like the Red Queen said to Alice in Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Caroll:

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Replace ‘run’ with ‘paddle’ and you can pretty much use the same saying to describe big wave kayak surfing. 

That said, there is some terminology to understand in order to make sense of the whole situation:

The shoulder

The edge of a breaking wave will, more often than not, stay green longer than the middle section, which is quite top heavy. This makes longer and smoother rides easier to achieve. This edge is known as the shoulder of the wave. 

Spilling surf

The best (and often safest) place to learn how to surf is off of a beach with a gentle slope. Here the swell won’t instantly release its energy, but will do it gradually enough that beginners can safely learn. This is known as spilling surf.

Soup

This one’s quite simple: It’s the field of foamy water that forms at the end of the surf zone.

Rip current

A rip current is formed when wave energy reflects off the shore. In that case, an offshore current forms. It’s great for launching, but can be dangerous for swimmers. If you ever find yourself caught in a rip current, don’t try to swim against it. Instead, swim perpendicular to it until you reach the edge and can safety paddle back to shore.

How to kayak surf

How do you surf on a kayak?

Preparation

First, you need to make a judgment call. Assess the conditions as soon as you get to the ocean. If the water looks too rough, or gives you an uneasy feeling, don’t go kayak surfing. It’s not worth your safety, especially if you’re a beginner.

However don’t always let this be something to discourage you. The waves rarely ever stay the same. They fluctuate with the tide throughout the day, and there will always be another opportunity. Your first priority, however, is your own safety. 

You should also dress appropriately. You never never know when you might be flipped over and dumped by a waves on the wrong kind of surface, such as sand littered with corals, at which point a helmet might be the very thing that saves your life. You should also carry a personal floatation device with you at all times.

Finally, make sure to survey the waves while you’re still at the shore. Come up with a strategy for how you and your kayak will launch the surf and catch the break. Time the waves as best as you can with your eyes to see if they falter enough to allow you to paddle out to them.

If there isn’t a lull, you might have to paddle through the waves or around them. Based on your judgment here, you can make a decision about whether to enter the ocean or not. 

Launching from the beach

The next step is to launch from the beach. This isn’t too hard actually, though the main thing to avoid here is ‘sand paddling’, which involves going through the motions of paddling your kayak forward without water around you.

We assure you, it doesn’t work one bit. It’s also likely to damage your blades and it certainly doesn’t look cool. 

The easiest way to launch yourself is to lift your boat (with you inside it) forward by pushing down with one hand as you hold the paddle in the other. This will take the weight off of your fins, after which you can slide forwards.

Paddling out through waves

In order to paddle out effectively, you need to have some good timing. If you do it just right, you’ll end up having a very easy paddle. The secret is to have a controlled paddling strategy.

One good way to do this is to sprint and then stop and wait, then paddle slowly again, then sprint, then stop and wait. This is a much better strategy than just paddling without looking out for the waves coming at you. 

Waves come in groups, known as sets, which means that the best strategy is to time your paddling to coincide with a lull between the next one approaching. 

The hardest part of paddling out is the impact zone, which means you should try to get through it as fast as you can, and preferably when there isn’t a group of waves coming towards you. How well you time your arrival at the impact zone determines how easy it will be for you to paddle out. 

The easiest kind of paddling you’ll ever experience is the kind where you do it over a set of unbroken waves. In fact, kayak surfers often try their best to get to the shoulder of the wave so that they can enjoy the smooth sailing from there.

Positioning

Body position – The most important thing to remember when kayak surfing is that your center of gravity is as low as possible, which means you should strive to remain upright throughout the process.

This is the position that gives the most control of your kayak. That doesn’t mean that you absolutely shouldn’t lean back, especially if it’s necessary. You can lean backwards and forwards as often as you need to. Just make sure you don’t stay in that position too long and get back to the upright position as soon as you can. 

Paddle position – Your paddle is the steering wheel of your kayak, and so you should use it as a rudder at all times. Use the paddle to hold your angle as you work your way across the face of the wave. For the ideal rudder action, your paddle should be parallel to your kayak, with your front hand between shoulder and eye level and your elbows down.

This helps your blade to cut as deep as possible into the water. It also prevents your rudder acting as a brake and pulling you away from the wave. You should also rotate your upper body to face your paddle as this keeps your shoulders safe and gives your rudder the highest possible power. 

Catching a wave

The idea behind catching a wave is to match its speed. You should put yourself beyond where the breakers are. If you’re on a faster kayak, such as a sea kayak, you might be able to catch the shoulder of the surf zone or the non-breaking waves offshore. These are probably easier places to start out. 

As you paddle out with the waves, look over your shoulder. Look out for the wave you want to catch. When you spot it, sit upright to center your weight and paddle forward with rapid and powerful strokes as the wave lifts up your kayak.

If you time it just right, your kayak will slide joyously down the face of the wave. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself right on top of the wave. In that case, lean forward and get ready for a rough ride.

Riding a wave

As you slide down the face of the wave, lean back just a little and use your paddle to perform a stern rudder so that the crest has time to catch up with you. 

Shorter kayaks can easily carve turns on the face just like a regular surfer on a surf board would. When trying to edge your kayak, your instincts might tell you to tilt your kayak as you make each turn.

This works well on a smooth and flat wave, but not on steeper ones, especially the ones that are breaking. In such contexts, tilt your kayak in a downstream direction as you switch from one ferry angle to another. 

Tips and techniques

There may be many, but they can all conceivable be reduced to just two main tips:

1. Learn to kayak roll

This should be the first thing you learn, even before you start kayak surfing.

The very last thing you should ever try to do is swim out of your kayak. Of course, you may be a good swimmer and might be able to swim back to shore if your kayak capsizes, but then it would be extremely hard to rescue your equipment.

Learn to kayak roll so you can easily right yourself when capsizing. 

2. Use the right kayak

Not all kayaks are made equal, and certainly not when it comes to surfing. You can’t just use any old recreational kayak to go kayak surfing.

We’ll actually look at types of surf kayaks next.

Kayak surfing Tips and techniques

Types of surf kayaks

Whitewater kayaks

Whitewater kayaks are primarily designed for whitewater kayaking on rivers. So, while they can be used for surfing, they may not give you the full performance of a proper surf kayak.

They have rounded hulls to help them maneuver on rivers, while surf kayaks have more planar hulls. That said, there are some whitewater kayaks that have high rockers and planing hulls, making them excellent for surfing.

Recreational kayaks

As mentioned above, recreational kayaks aren’t really made for surfing. They are designed for flatwater and are difficult to control on steep waves.

Some recreational kayaks, however, may be used for surfing if they don’t have channels along the bottom and have good versatility.

Sea kayaks

Sea kayaks aren’t primarily built for surfing. They are long and narrow, unlike whitewater kayaks, and have lots of storage space to support long distance kayaking.

That said, their long and narrow shape might be of benefit when on smaller waves as it makes you move faster.

Surf Kayaks

Surf kayaks, as you might have guessed from the name, are designed primarily for surfing.

In fact, their hulls are often designed just like a surfboard, with sharp edges and a low profile bow and stern. This makes it easier to ride waves.

Surf Skis

Surf skis are narrow and long, and can be used both to race and to save lives. They are often twice as long as regular surf kayaks, which means they can travel much faster in the water.

The design also makes it easier for paddlers to stay stable on waves and ride through them and even back to the shore.

Equipment

For the optimal kayak surfing experience, you should make sure to bring along the right equipment:

  • PFD – A PFD, or personal floatation device, will come to your rescue if you find yourself stranded out at sea while surfing and need to stay afloat. Make sure to buy one that fits you comfortably but leaves room for you to move your shoulders and upper body.
  • Whitewater rated helmet – Not all kayaking helmets are meant for use on whitewater. This is why you should make sure to buy one that is rated correctly.
  • Reinforced paddle – For surfing, you will need a paddle that’s built to withstand the harrowing ordeal of repeated impact with the surf line. That’s why you should go for reinforced paddles.

What size waves can a kayak handle?

Surf kayaks are designed precisely to deal with rough waves. Being able to comfortably navigate rough waves depends on the experience of the kayak surfer, and it’s totally up to you to decide where to draw the line for where a wave is just too big to navigate. 

For most kayakers, waves between 1 and 3 feet high are fairly easy to handle for most kayakers, but larger and rougher ones can require more experience and skill to navigate.

An experienced kayaker can easily handle waves up to 6 feet high. These conditions, however, may intimidate a beginner. You should therefore not attempt a breaking wave without proper practice on smaller and smoother waves, and also the right equipment.

Surf Kayaking Etiquette

Don’t surf in overcrowded spots – You should preferably do it in a relatively quite area where a few other surfers. Surfing next to “normal” surfers is a danger to both them and you.

Stay out of other kayakers’ way – Paddle away from the surf area. To avoid a collision never paddle through an area where others are surfing.

Surf when it’s your turn – If you’re part of a line-up, go only when it’s your turn, and make sure you go when there is no one downwave.

Don’t steal other surfers’ waves – While surfers can easily drop in on each other’s waves, you can’t do this very well in a kayak. They are larger and harder to maneuver than surfboards, and it’s much easier (and more dangerous) to collide in such situations.

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