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What is Surf Kayaking?

Combine surfing and kayaking? Yes, please! If you fancy the thrill of riding the waves without balancing on a board, then check out the growing sport of surf kayaking. Surf kayaking is just like it sounds - surfing with your kayak. And while it is as simple as that, it isn’t necessarily easy. While you can catch a wave with just about any kayak, some are designed specifically for surfing. And while you can paddle out and try the first wave you see, there are some tips and tricks to doing it right. And while you can pick the first beach you see, there are rules and etiquette to keep you and others safe.

So read on to learn more about surfing your kayak.

What is Surf Kayaking?

Surf kayaking is using your kayak to surf a wave. This growing sport often uses specially designed kayaks intended for that use, but almost any kayak can be used to catch and surf a wave (at least for a while). Surf kayaking is similar to board surfing, so you might find surf kayakers wherever you find board surfers. 

How to Surf Kayak

Like any time you consider heading out on the ocean, the first step is to consider the sea conditions and not launch in red flag conditions or anytime you are outside your skill zone. 

At its simplest, to catch your first wave, you simply paddle hard as it comes up behind you. When you feel the lift from the wave, you lean your upper body back and use your paddle as a rudder. As you ride the wave, you are surfing. But, as you can imagine, there is much more to it than that.

Getting past the breakers

The first step to catching a great wave is getting out to them. This is one of the physically hardest parts of surf kayaking as you need to paddle hard to get through the broken waves and to the line of breaking waves. Point your kayak into the waves and paddle hard. Lean back to lift the nose of the kayak as you reach the whitewater. This will help you get the front of the boat over the foam. If you capsize, keep a good hold of your paddle, hold the boat between you and the beach (so a powerful wave doesn’t slam it into you), and always wear a buoyancy aid. Alternatively, you could look for areas of calmer water and places where the waves break shallow to get out and then paddle to the more aggressive waves.

Positioning

  • Body position. You should hold your body centered and as upright as possible while surfing. You can actively use your body to lean but always return to the centered body position as soon as you can.
  • Paddle position. In surf kayaking, your paddle acts as a rudder, steering your kayak. You will use it to ferry your kayak across the wave. The best position for steering your kayak is to plant the paddle parallel to your yak, with your elbows in, and your front hand between shoulder and eye level. Keeping the paddle in close and parallel keeps it from acting as a break. Keeping your hand high helps maintain an active blade deep in the water. When you have the blade in this position, you should rotate your upper body to face the paddle. This gives the rudder power and keeps your shoulders safe.
  • Boat position. Generally, your boat will be either parallel to the wave or about 45 degrees (ferry angle). If you are pointed to 12:00, you are heading straight down the face of the wave. This is fine on a fairly flat wave. If you are on more extreme waves, you will need to “ferry angle”, alternating from one side of the kayak to the other.

Essential Kayak Surfing Skills

  • Catching a wave. Position yourself past the line of breaking waves. You can practice just trying to catch the swells right offshore. When you do see a wave you want (usually by keeping your eye over your shoulder on the waves that are approaching), sit tall and paddle forward aggressively. The wave will begin to lift the stern and if your timing is right you will accelerate down the face of the wave. If you find yourself “stuck” on the crest, throw your weight forward and you’ll find yourself on a thrilling ride.
  • Riding the face. As you ride the wave, lean back and use your paddle as a rudder to slow down and allow the crest of the wave to catch you. At this point carve turns like board surfers, if you have the right kind of kayak. Shorter, more rockered kayaks let you operate more like a surfboard. You can zig-zag across the wave, switching your kayak from one side to the other. As you pass 12 o’clock with the front of your kayak, tilt your boat on the other edge and switch the side you rudder on.
  • Broaching & side surfing. Broaching occurs when your bow gets swamped in the trough and you get turned broadside into the crest. This is more likely to happen with longer kayaks. If you catch it early, you are able to get out of it by leaning back to get the bow unstuck and then edging aggressively to get back on track. If that doesn’t work, you can side-surf. Lean hard into the wave with your elbows tucked in close. Use your paddle braced into the foam to steer.
  • Spins. You can also use aggressive bracing with the paddle to turn / spin your kayak out of a broach. Tilt into the wave, turn your brace into a forward sweep, and your kayak will turn just enough to free your bow.

Type of Kayaks for Surf Kayaking

As mentioned above, almost any kayak can surf a wave for a time. However, if you are interested in really exploring the surf kayaking sport, there are certain characteristics that your kayak should have. 

Kayak Length

Generally, surf kayaks should be playful and maneuverable which means a shorter craft. (However, some people can even surf long sea kayaks. They are good for speed when getting out to the waves, but then are harder and heavier to maneuver once you’ve caught a wave.). Consider the length of the kayak for surfing.

Fins

Surf kayaks often come equipped with up to four fins, although a three-fin thruster is most common. This helps with control on moving waves.

Kayak Material

Typically, surf kayaks are made of composites like carbon fiber, Kevlar, or fiberglass. Rotomolded plastic is also quite common. 

Hull Design

Two popular types of hulls are planing and displacement. Displacement hulls are common as they cut through the waves rather than slide across them. This is great at low speeds and allows for easier rolls, but it doesn’t grab the wave well or turn easily.

The planing hull is known to be low speed when getting out to the wave, but once it catches a wave it is extremely fast. It glides over the surface of the water rather than pushing through it. It also has chines* which gives it excellent maneuverability.

*A chine is a sharp change in angle in the cross section of a hull.

Rocker

Surf Kayaks tend to have more extreme rockers. This curvature of the hull (how much the kayak looks like a banana) will slow the boat but it will make it less likely to get the bow caught in the bottom of the wave or get swamped. 

Sit-In vs Sit-On-Top Kayaks

You can surf both sit-in (more traditional) and sit-on-top (new evolution) kayaks. Traditionally, sit-in kayaks were used since there was less likelihood of you falling out (off). However, new sit-on-tops are really making waves (pun intended) in the surf kayaking world.

A note about sit-on-tops: there is a danger to an abandoned kayak floating on the waves (and sit-on-tops do tend to sit on top of the water, whereas a sit-in will fill with water and start to slow down). Use leashes to stay connected and reduce the chances of a wayward boat hurting others.

Equipment & Gear for Surf Kayaking

Paddle

One of the most important pieces of equipment for surf kayaking (besides your kayak) is a good paddle. Typically, it will be a double-sided paddle. Your surf kayak paddle should be made of durable material able to withstand the rigors of the surf zone. Fiberglass, plastic, and carbon fiber are common. The length of the paddle will depend on the dimensions of the boat and paddler.

Apparel

Dress for surf kayaking as you would dress to surf. A wet or dry suit might be necessary depending on the water temperatures. And you should plan on getting wet. Footwear is also an important consideration as you might want a water shoe to help grip the foot pegs in your yak.

Helmet

Helmets are recommended for surf kayaking because of the danger inherent in the sport. The chances of getting hit in the head with a stray paddle or run-away kayak are higher than a leisurely paddle around a lake.

Personal Flotation Device

Always wear a personal flotation device (PFD) as well. Whenever you are participating in a water sport it is wise to have a functional life jacket or buoyancy device ON your person.

Basic Surf Kayak Launching & Landing Techniques

Beach Launching

Launching in the surf can be a bit tricky. And you should be prepared to get wet. A huge part of getting out to surfable waves is timing. Depending on the conditions and how protected the beach is you might be looking at two to three wave lines to get out to where you need to be.

  • Step One: wade out with your kayak until it is floating freely on the water.
  • Step Two: point the nose of the kayak out to sea
  • Step Three: patiently wait for a break in the first set of waves. Once you see a lull, start paddling hard. Once you commit you need to keep going. Keep the nose pointed right at the wave.
  • Step Four: Once you get over the first set of waves, you can relax a minute in the calm space before the next set. Continue to watch the waves.  (A great place to watch and wait is in the foam just after the wave has lost its power but as close to the break as possible.)
  • Step Five: Repeat steps 3-4. Each time you come up to another set of breaking waves, you need to watch, wait, and then paddle hard.

If you do get knocked off, keep hold of your kayak & paddle and let the wave sweep up back into that gutter so you can use the calmer water to remount and try again.

Beach Landing

Like launching a kayak, landing also requires patience and timing. If you are already surfing the waves, it might actually be easier since you are already timing and catching waves.

  • Step One: Access the surf by pausing a minute, especially if you’ve been surfing and in a different area than you are returning to. Watch how the waves break and time your reentry.
  • Step Two: Ride or Chase the Wave depending on how the waves are moving. You can catch a wave and ride it into shore. Or you can choose to let the wave pass and then spring behind it. This allows you to have time between breaking waves to secure your equipment.
  • Step Three: Dismount quickly and secure the kayak. As you approach shore it is shallow enough to get off. Hop out and quickly control your boat. Grab the bow and haul it to shore. A loose kayak can be quite a danger, especially to swimmers and waders if the beach is busy.

Safety & Etiquette Tips for Surf Kayaking

One vitally important note for surf kayakers: BE CAREFUL OF OTHERS. By the very nature of this sport, you are going to be sharing space with beach-goers, waders, swimmers, and board surfers. Any of them are liable to get hurt if you can’t or don’t control your craft. Kayaks are bigger and less maneuverable so you can get yourself - and others - in a jam if you aren’t careful.

  • Avoid busy areas. The best waves are often the most populated. This means having to share the waves. If you are new to surfing kayaking, avoiding busy areas is wise. Find secluded beaches or go at off-pike hours. A kayak can often catch a wave easier than a board so use that to surf less gnarly waves and enjoy practicing.
  • Know your skill level. A fundamental rule of surfing: your proximity to others must be directly proportional to your ability to steer your craft. In other words, if you don’t have the ability to move quickly and efficiently around others, then you have a duty to leave more space between you. For example, if you are in a touring kayak or in any danger of broaching or pearling, stay well away from other surfers or beachgoers. If you have a specially designed surf kayak with extremely tight turns (and you know how to use it!), then you can safely maintain closer quarters.
  • Wear a PFD. If you are spending any time out on the waves, you are going to want to wear a buoyancy aid. Stay safe and invest in a PFD that you will wear, something comfortable and effective.
  • Use leashes. Because loose gear can become a danger to yourself and others, do your best to secure it so you don’t lose it. 
  • Right of way. There are quite a few “rules of the road” for surfing so be sure that you know who has the right of way on a wave. Check out this helpful chart adapted from Surf Ski Quarterly.

Knowing how to handle surfing can be great for catching a wave or even just getting your kayak out to the blue expanse of the ocean for a kayak surfing adventure. There are so many things that this versatile little boat can do! Happy Kayak Surfing!

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