If you think that the only kind of surfing you can do is on a board, or with your body, think again. Kayak surfing is one of the fastest growing wave sports around, both on the ocean and on rivers as well.
Whether you’re ripping a wave on an ice cold river in British Columbia, or you’re catching a 10 foot breaker off the coast of South Africa, kayak surfing’s a blast, and can add spice and variety to your paddling repertoire.
Kayak surfing is just what its name implies – you surf waves inside a kayak. You can surf in whitewater or sea kayaks, although the results are usually quite different. Although whitewater boats with their shorter, flatter hulls and tighter turning radiuses are especially well suited to surfing, you can still surf good swells in a touring or other sea kayak.
As you might imagine, surf kayaking has its own unique challenges, and requires skills that the typical paddler may not possess. For example, most sea kayakers are trained how to launch their boat and get out over the swells into the open water, not how to ride back into the waves as a separate form of paddling entertainment. And most whitewater paddlers are trained on how to navigate down a stretch of river, not how to tackle a rolling breaker.
Surfing in a kayak tends to be easier on the ocean, simply because there are a lot more waves. A wave that can be surfed on a river — especially a popular river in a popular area — will usually have a lot of paddlers waiting in line to surf it. Whereas the ocean a lot more waves and a lot more room for surfing.
The biggest challenge when kayak surfing is often just getting out past the break. If you’ve ever launched in heavy surf, and have been pounded by a barrage of waves, you know how much work this can be. But once you’re finally out past the break, the thrills and excitement are only limited by your paddling skills and your endurance.
If you do decide to give surfing a try, here are some pointers:
1. Know what you’re getting into: This means never getting out into water that’s beyond your skill level. This may seem like common sense, but it’s amazing how many paddlers overestimate their skills and underestimate the conditions, and get into serious trouble because of it. Also be aware that conditions can change rapidly, due to weather and the tides. And make sure you’re a solid paddler with a good roll before you try this.
Before you launch, check out the surf and wave conditions carefully. If there are other surfers, watch how they’re attacking the breakers, and what line they’re using to get out into the break. If it doesn’t look like there’s a sufficient lull between the wave to launch and paddle out, you may have to adjust your approache and paddle around them.
2. Come prepared with the right gear: Again this is common sense, but it too often ignored in the rush to get out into those juicy swells. You’ll need a good helmet for starters, as there’s a good chance you’ll get rolled by a wave at some point and get planted head-first into a sandbar. A pfd is another piece of essential gear, so don’t enter the water wearing one of those as well. And if the water is cold, you’ll need a wetsuit to avoid the risk of hypothermia.
3. Keep waves from breaking on top of you when you can: There’s nothing worse than getting hammered by tons of frothing water and pinned against a sandbar, only to have another wave blast you seconds later. If you see that a wave’s about to break right on top of you, turn to paddle over it, or point your boat directly into the wave and right straight through it. Eventually you’ll get out past the break where the waves are a lot easier to deal with.
4. Plan your line of attack: Once you’re out past the break, the real fun begins. There are two ways you can ride a swell – either at an angle, or straight in toward shore. As you feel the swell building beneath you, start paddling in the direction of shore, at a speed that keeps you even with the wave. If you decide to surf at an angle, keep the bow of the kayak up and away from the direction the wave is breaking. If you point the bow down toward the wave, you run the risk of having a steep wave roll you over.
5. Have a blast! It might take you a while to get the hang of it, but kayak surfing can be an absolute blast, and a great diversion from your normal paddling routine. So get out there and hit those waves!