What do you do when faced with a surf breakout first thing in the morning? How do we deal with the surf landing at the end of the day?
This article is written for a kayaker who is on a multi-day trip in a loaded kayak, arriving at unfamiliar beaches, in conditions that are less than perfect, where motivation to keep to a schedule or other circumstances make the risk of a hard breakout or landing worth taking.
The two most dangerous and exhilarating parts of the day can be at the very start, breaking out, and the very end, landing.
What to look for from the beach to help you get out
Waves are formed as the sea depth decreases – how suddenly the depth decreases dictates how quickly the waves are formed. The seabed is as undulating as the ground above sea level and this is one of the factors that give the waves their character. This means there will be areas of the surf which form larger waves than others. Have a look around and do not assume the best area you could find at 1800 hours will be the best area at 0600 hours, as the tide level, wind strength and direction could change things dramatically.
Rips can give a helping hand out to sea, the downside is that the outward flow can cause steep dumping waves. If you have trouble seeing the power of rips as they are often hidden, then ask yourself “Where does all that water that is arriving as waves go to?” The tide rises slowly, so the same amount of water that you can see crashing onto the beach is draining away with the same force, mostly hidden from view.
As the tide ebbs the beach will generally become less of a gradient. This means the waves build gradually and are more forgiving to the kayaker. The steeper the ground the quicker the waves form causing many dumping waves to fall in a shorter time. It may be worth while waiting for the tide to subside before giving it a go.
Have a look at where you could end up if you do get hit and washed back to land, will you be washed back to the beach or onto rocks?
Are there any options, such as portage to another launch spot, wait until low tide, afternoon, tomorrow?
It takes practice to read the surf but it’s something you can do by yourself or if with a group ask, “Why pick this area?” Chances are the answer will be “It’s the shortest distance to carry the kayaks…”
If you are really interested, visit your local surf club. They have plenty of literature and knowledge on this and many other relevant topics.
Attach everything to your kayak you do not wish to lose (paddle excluded). When bouncing around in the surf with items on 3-4 foot long pieces of cord, you could find these dragging in the water. This puts a lot of strain on the item and attachment points, not to mention getting wrapped around you. Use bungy cord to keep everything snug against the kayak. Remove your hat, glasses and make secure.
There are two schools of thought;
- with the paddle attached you will retrieve both kayak and paddle (what good is one with out the other). If you manage to keep hold of one, all three of you will eventually be washed to shore.
- if you are rolled there is a chance that the leash will wrap around you, tying you to the kayak, or around your arm, leg or neck, restricting movement.
I ask myself why white water paddlers don’t use a paddle leash; they have much more chance of losing their paddle to the flow of the river with the consequence of being up the creek without it!
Send a strong paddler out first, this will give others a safe rallying point beyond the surf zone and boost moral by showing it can be done (or crush everyone as the star surfer gets spat back to shore).
The paddlers next in line can be held in position in the soup as they await a lull in the sets. This prevents them being caught and dragged sideways along the beach to a reef, rocks, or the heaviest surf.
Those stood up on the beach get a better view of the surf and can advise when a lull in the sets is due, then give a shove to get them well on their way.
If they get tipped there are plenty of helping hands to help collect any kit and drag the soggy paddler back for another go.
Last paddler is the strongest as there is no help for them.
If at the start of the day you have access to the open ocean via a harbour, bay or other way of avoiding the surf you will be keen to head off with little thought of the state of the surf you will have to land through.
Or the surf is low as you set off for the days paddle but the on-shore winds are forecast to pick up and the tide will be high during your estimated arrival time.
Try and pick landing sites which offer shelter from the forecast conditions and have a few alternatives in mind should your choice turn out to be a lemon.
Another way of avoiding a nasty landing is to allow enough time and energy to return to your starting point or another safe area, this ensures you are not totally committed to landing at the one spot. You have arrived and are sitting offshore trying to assess the best landing spot.
An experienced paddler lands first. He uses paddle signals to bring the others in the group in by directing them to the safest part of the beach.
As he is looking out to sea he is better placed to see any sets rolling in and so can signal a ‘stop’ or ‘go’ message.
When in the ‘soup’ he can help drag the paddler and kayak ashore safely.
While in the group nervously waiting your turn, watching with mounting apprehension as kayakers are being dragged unceremoniously onto the beach, your turn could come sooner that you think.
You are waiting outside the surf zone trying to get a good view of what’s going on, but it’s the end of the day, the sea breeze is up which is blowing you closer to the breakers. You are facing the shore to get the view…. bloody hell! That wave broke only a few feet from my bow. You look around to see the alarm in the faces of those who were alongside. You half try to turn the kayak with tired arms (very few think of back paddling), then you are caught in the next set along with your partners. Everybody is swimming – three heads and three kayaks – one problem.
To get around this, allocate someone to turn around and face out to sea to watch for waves, be aware of drift and stay a good distance from the breakers until it’s your turn.
When it’s your turn, try and paddle on the back of a wave, time it so it breaks a few feet ahead of your bow. Don’t pause once you have committed yourself, paddle like hell, use what ever you have left, there is no going back – the waves are queuing up behind you and they don’t pause.
As the next wave rises up you feel the stern rising and speed picking up, things are happening now!
You can use a stern rudder to try and keep the kayak headed in the right direction or resign yourself to the inevitable broach and prepare for the brace as the waves could be too large and fast for the stern rudder to be effective.
A high brace can get you through some pretty intimidating surf quickly and what’s more it looks good (well… better than a wet exit).
Imagine a bather going for a dip then looking up and seeing an 18 foot kayak coming for him beam on. Are they going to have the presence of mind to duck under the surface and wait until you have passed over or will they hold their arms out to try and stop you hitting them?
Check the beach out for bathers and surfers before wiping them out.
Waves are formed as the depth of water decreases. I remember my first attempt at surfboarding; I was just about to jump on the board to ride the wave when I looked down. It was probably only a 4-5 foot wave but as I looked down all I could see was a 6-foot drop onto sand. The water was gone.
When you are upside down, what makes you think you have enough water between you and the ground?
When you set up for a roll make sure you are leaning well forward with your head as close to the kayak as possible. When you have completed the roll you should be leaning forward, well placed to tackle whatever wave has tried to sneak up on you while you were under. Again this is what the white water paddlers do, if it works for grade 3-4 rapids it must be good for surf. White water paddlers also wear helmets, perhaps they have more to protect that sea kayakers?
If you have exited from the kayak and are in the surf, your best friend could become your worst enemy. Do you think you can stop a loaded, water logged kayak with the only thing you have above the water, your head?
Your kayak is much more buoyant than you are, so has more surface area above the water. This will cause the waves to catch the kayak and wash it to shore faster than you. So you may think of grabbing the kayak and getting a free ride.
Some things to think about
When you are in the surf – tired, cold and adrenalin is pumping, your body has a wonderful way of not registering pain, sacrificing this for the greater good of survival.
So you grab anything:
- the rudder wires (slicing your finger to the bone)
- deck netting (your finger gets trapped then broken)
- deck lines on the beach side of the kayak (the next wave throws your kayak at you)
- just the force of a wave pulling the kayak away from you could pull a muscle, dislocate an arm or twist an elbow. There are many other ways to give yourself minor injuries which themselves are unpleasant, but will mean a miserable days paddling tomorrow.
Think before you blindly catch a free ride. You can wrap yourself around the kayak using legs and arms to grimly hang on to ride out big waves or you should have a toggle on both bow and stern of the kayak, which is easy to grab and let go of.
I can hear those who often play in the surf saying “God what a gloom & doom merchant, nothing like that has ever happened to me on any of my play sessions.”
When you head out for a play in the surf you already have a beach in mind, you know the waves will be good as you have been there before and the conditions are right.
Your boat is empty, probably not the boat you use for sea kayak touring but more manoeuvrable.
If you get to the beach and it’s not right, you get back in the car and find another beach, or call it off, you are fresh and well rested and mentally prepared for a thrashing.
Any minor injuries are not a problem so long as you get some one to put the kayak on the car allowing you to drive home for some TLC.
Take up any opportunity to play in manageable surf with others, you will soon find that you can handle more than you thought. It will put into practice most of the kayaking skills you have learnt.