Playing In The Ocean Surf Zone
Many Surfski paddlers advise not to play in the surf zone and that it’s just an obstacle that must be crossed to get to open water and then again to get back to shore. The surf zone can give you quite a beating, but can also be fun and increase your skill level so that on race day the pounding swells look a little less intimidating. These tips are intended for a leisurely fun day in the surf and not so much for race day. On race day you have to deal with the conditions present, but a lot of this will still apply.
I’m not a pro by any means, but just someone who has spent some time playing in the surf. I often get asked by other paddlers how to do surf breaks and when I was new to surfski myself couldn’t find anything really helpful on the internet. So I learned by trial and error and have written down here what works for me in hopes to give others some pointers to start with. If you have some advice or a pointer from your experience please contact me and I’ll consider adding your tip.
Pick Your Day
Don’t just decide to play in the surf zone on any day, learn to read the surf report and select a smaller less intense day. The best days are also when the wind is not blowing, so if you can’t downwind due to lack of wind, this could be a fun alterative. On a website like www.surf-forecast.com you can look up the surf report for up to seven days in advance. Things to watch for on the surf report are: (1) The “wave height”, pick a day 5 feet or under for the most fun. (2) The “Period”, this is the average number of seconds between swells. The longer the period the better, so choose a day with at least 12 seconds if possible. (3) The “Energy”, is the combination of the speed and power at which the swells are coming in. In my experience the most fun can be had when the energy is between 100 and 400. With practice and experience you will learn what kind of day is the most fun for you. Start small and work up as your skills increase.
Where To Go
A slow sloping beach is the best as there can be four to seven sets of broken waves (foamy’s) and often you can still touch bottom near the back line of breakers should you fall out. This type of beach provides longer rides and less forceful waves. Steep sloping beaches are not recommended for surf play as there are only one or two hard breaking sets of waves. You can learn to go in and out through steep break, but it’s not a place to play. It’s also best to select a beach with no rocks or waterline debris because if your Surfski gets away from you and heads to the beach you want nothing for it to run into. Beaches in coves or next to capes and jetty’s are preferred as this helps with cross chop, wind blocking and in some cases smaller swells.
You will need a good solid Surfski as the surf zone can be extremely hard on them and boats have been snapped in half by the surf. But if you pick the right day as described above things should be fine. Have a good sturdy wing paddle, a PFD and the appropriate wet or dry suit in cold water conditions. If you use a GoPro it is best to use a head mount or if mounted on your boat a mount with flexibility is recommended as a ridged mount is likely to get snapped off if you lose your Surfski and it rolls up on the beach. If you have rudder options a seven to nine inch surfing rudder is best. However the bigger the rudder the easier it can be damaged if things don’t go just right. Leashes are a bit controversial but in my experience be it a paddle, leg or body leash they should not be warn in the surf zone. Why? Because if you fall out in the surf often your boat will end up sideways (broached) on a wave and rapidly with a lot of force return to the beach on its own. This will usually just snap your leash in two or if you have an extra sturdy leash it will yank whatever body part it’s attached to and be quite painful or tangle you up in a position you don’t want to be in. If you are going for an open water paddle its best to attach your leash once you have crossed the surf zone, then when returning to shore remove it again before crossing the backline of waves. But to each his own on this one.
If you paddle in the surf zone in either direction it’s a given that at some point you are going to tip over and out of your Surfski, especially if you are a beginner. This is something that you are going to have to get comfortable with as it even happens to the pros. A lot of the time you will not be able to hold onto your Surfski as the force of the wave will yank it from you and send it back to the beach. It’s best not to fight the surf and just let your boat go, but hold tight to your paddle. If you are momentarily submerged by a wave and you have lost hold of your Surfski guard your head while coming back up. Your boat may be on its way to the beach or between the next breaker and you, and that wave can throw your boat at you and inflict some serious damage. So be aware of your surroundings until you know where your boat is. If you have fallen out and your Surfski is still with you remount quickly preferably with the nose in the outgoing direction. If your Surfski has gone back to the beach then you and your paddle get to swim to shore. Hold your paddle in front of you and take strokes with it as it’s amazing how much faster you can propel yourself with this technique. Try and pick a beach without a lot of people or children playing in the water as a shore bound Surfski can hit someone and cause injury. One more safety tip is to never be in the water with your Surfski between the incoming breakers and you. This applies if you are trying to remount near the back line or standing in six inches of water. You always want the wave to push you onto your Surfski never your Surfski getting pushed at you. The best bet in any situation if possible is to keep the nose of your boat facing out at all times so the waves cut easily around it.
Before you enter the water stand on the beach and study the breakers. Look for patterns in the waves, where they consistently roll in bigger or smaller. Notice that often waves come in sets, three or four bigger ones then sets of smaller ones. If you can establish a pattern you can time going out with the smaller waves coming at you. Also if you learn to spot a rip current this is often an easier place to get out. Walk out to about knee deep water and set your Surfski in with the nose out towards the breakers and holding onto it. Watch and wait for your break and when you see it jump on and paddle hard and fast straight into the waves (not sideways). Broken waves are often called “foamy’s” as it is a foam tipped wave that has lost most its force when it hit and broke in the shallowing water. Foamy’s you can paddle straight into and your Surfski will cut right through. Do not pause your paddling going through these. Just be sure that when you are to the point of taking a stroke in the middle of the foamy that you reach up and over the front of the wave into the solid water behind the foam, dig in hard with your blade to pull yourself up and over the wave. These foamy’s will become a little stronger each as you go out, but all manageable. You will then approach the backline, which is the spot where the ocean swells meet the shallow slope of the beach and break and this is where the waves are the most forceful. The overall goal when paddling out is to quickly bust over all the foamy’s and get to the back line when there is not a breaking swell and getting safely to deep water. Going over a backline swell just before it breaks is exciting as you can actually catch air on the back side, so be prepared for your boat to slap back down onto the water. However if your timing was off or the swells (See “Period” under “Pick your day” above) are to close together you will face a wall of water coming at you hard. This is the ocean swell starting to break indicated by white water forming on top of the swell and then falling on you. At this point you have a choice to either back off with your paddling for a second giving the wave a chance to break and try to take it as a foamy or full on ahead with a a technique often called the “Tuck and Duck”. To tuck and duck paddle hard and fast straight into the falling wall of water. Then right before the tip of your Surfski skewers the base (trough) of the wave tuck your paddle parallel with your Surfski to your side close to your body and bring your head toward your knees (airplane crash position) and hold your breath. If done properly you will punch through the wave and pop out the back side. But be ready to take a stroke to stabilize yourself and quickly paddle to the safe deep water. At this point you can leash up and go for an open water paddle or turn around and surf one in.
You have paddled out past the backline and have turned around and are now facing the beach. Position yourself a couple hundred feet behind the backline. Stop, relax and watch the swells coming in under you, note a pattern if you can. Take glances over your shoulder to see what is rolling in behind you. You are waiting for a wave to roll in that suits your skill level. Start moving forward slowly and when you have selected a swell let it get close enough so that you can match its speed before it passes under you. Paddle hard if necessary to stay slightly ahead of it, but slightly overtaking the back of your Surfski. If done correctly you’ll feel the wave grab your boat accelerating you, and you are now surfing. Stop paddling and use the rounded front of your paddle blade like an outrigger to help keep your balance and control your speed. The goal now is to keep your Surfski higher up on the face of the swell and keeping the nose of your boat out of the trough if possible. Speed is controlled by your paddle that you have skimming the top of the water like an outrigger. Push down and slightly rotate the blade of your paddle to slow down or take the pressure off to speed up. If your Surfski starts to go sideways (broaching) you will need to take some hard fast strokes to accelerate out of it. Slowing down in a broaching situation will only put you cross ways in the wave faster, acceleration is your only hope at that point. Assuming everything is going well and you are surfing along on a swell, now use your ears keeping your eyes on the nose of your boat. Listen for the swell you are riding to break, and once you hear the crash take a few hard strokes to stabilize and accelerate slightly ahead of the newly created foamy to avoid broaching. Then relax again and let the wave push you to shore accelerating as needed for stability. Stop your Surfski before the rudder hits the sand or with some practice you can learn to dig your paddle in hard and make a fairly sharp turn in the shallows and head right back out for more fun.