Surf, Managing Groups in Surf, Risk Management [59]

By Mark Sundin

Surf, Surfing, Beaches.

Surfing for fun vs. surfing to survive.

In the Sydney region, there are two spots, in my humble opinion, on their day, which are suitable for enjoyable surfing in a sea kayak – Box Head & Bundeena. This has to do with the long, gently sloping, sandy ocean floor in these two locations, & their exposure to & behavior under the influence of ocean swells. On virtually every other beach from Palm Beach to Cronulla, surfing is something best avoided. If you consistently surf your sea kayak on ocean beaches, you will end up hurting yourself.

So, there is a distinct difference between surfing for fun – catching waves, carving faces etc, and surfing to land & survive. One involves intentionally trying to ride the green face of a wave, the other involves riding in on the back of the wave, in an attempt to avoid the soup completely.

Physical factors to consider in planning a trip with surf landing/launching likely.

  1. Beach type – steep, sloping ocean floor (Maroubra, South Bondi), or gentle sloping (Bundeena, The Pass)?
  2. Swell & sea direction & influence on the beach topography – the predominant swell direction on the NSW coast is southerly, the southern corners of most beaches will be safest in most conditions, but there are exceptions (North Maroubra, North Bondi). Where possible, seek local knowledge.
  3. Tide – an exposed sand bank at low tide will produce dangerous barreling surf, at high tide it might be no more than a peaked green wave. Consider effects of tide on exposed rocks or hazards, which may be hidden just below the surface at high tide.
  4. Wavelength – A 1m swell combined with a 12 second wavelength will produce far more testing surf than a 2m swell with a 7 second wavelength. Wavelength data can be checked at

Reading the beach

  1. When landing, determine the wave size & type – barreling or spilling. From a seaward vantage, if you see spray coming off the top of the breaking wave, it is probably barreling. A strong onshore wind will muffle the spray, so factor this in when making your judgment. For size you can safely double the size of the back of the wave, to calculate the face height.
  2. Pre-plan the safest corner of the beach in the predominant conditions – the end of the beach most protected from the swell:
  3. Check for hazards – rocks, logs, swimmers, surfers.
  4. Look for rips – these can be useful in moderate surf, but these present a potential hazard in larger surf, as you may end up out of your boat caught in a powerful seaward or sideways current.
  5. Watch the set pattern – get a feel for the rhythm of the larger sets & their frequency
  6. Look for gutters – these are helpful rest points on the way in & out, areas where waves will not often break, in between the shore dump & outside breaks. Beware of gutters with strong side rips – you don’t want to find yourself slipping into the break zone while resting between sets.

Other factors to consider in planning a trip with likely surf landing/launching.

  • Is the group capable?
  • Do they all have a reliable roll, and surfing experience?
  • Are they confident about a surf landing in the conditions set to prevail?
  • On grade 2 trips, surf landings are to be discouraged if the landing is preplanned, however the need may arise if conditions unexpectedly change during the trip. Do you have a strategy to avoid the landing if the beach is dangerous (an example on a trip, might include factoring in a landing at the Coaldale boat ramp, rather than a pre-planned landing at Stanwell Park)?
  • It is important to remember that many club paddlers do the bare minimum in the surf to attain their sea skills and often have neglected surf skills over forward paddle etc.

Note on Bracing

This is the most important support stroke in the surf, but one most often done incorrectly. It is important to reinforce to your group the need to high brace correctly – hands stretched above the head expose the shoulder to injury. Even on a large wave, correct use of edges & a tight brace with the paddle thrust into the face of the wave will avoid a capsize. Emphasise commitment to the stroke over involvement – like bacon & eggs, the chicken was involved, but the pig, the pig was committed!!

Managing Groups in Surf.

Surf Landing

On-water briefing – outline the beach characteristics, areas to avoid, allocate the order for each paddler to land & time separation (at least a minute), make sure everyone has a helmet & all deck gear is stowed or properly tethered, allocate beach-master (your best surfer), reinforce signaling & commitment to bracing

Psychology – in a rough landing, send in paddlers alternating between strong & not-so strong surfers. This builds confidence as the weaker paddler invariably sees the preceding paddler go through unscathed. Always encourage; never play up the dangers. On a more challenging landing, it can be a good idea to have the beach-master land, and then break out again, to let the leader know the full story of the conditions. This will raise the confidence of hesitant group members. It is also helpful if the leader & beach-master have a pre-agreed signal for a no-go.

Rescue – make sure all members are aware that in a wet-exit situation in the surf zone, the paddler is on his or her own. When in doubt, swim – the boat & gear will invariably wash onto the shore. The beach-master may be able to assist the swimmer, but this can’t always be guaranteed.

Keep waiting paddlers out of the break zone – 50 or 60 metres is sufficient distance to ensure a freak set doesn’t wash everyone through at once.

Guard against sea sickness among those waiting – point boats into the conditions & discourage map reading, looking down onto the deck to adjust gear etc.

Remind paddlers to stay on the ocean side of their boat when exiting the boat onshore, emphasise the perils of the shore break – better not to get turned turtle onto the hard shore sand.

Surf Launching

Check wave size, patterns etc, look for changed beach properties (high/low tide), between when you land, & when you intend to depart. Determine a route through the break, brief group on the rendezvous point beyond the break (further rather than closer). A rip can be useful, however as with the landings, this should only be an option where these is little likelihood of a wet exit.

Have an experienced paddler (probably not your beach-master coming in) lead out & follow the best route. Alternate paddlers by skill once again, to build confidence. Secure each paddler in their boat, pop on the skirt & steady them in the shallows. Wait for a lull, tell them to paddle hard & tuck into an impact (remember to emphasise the paddle position to the side, rather than over/in front of the face in an impact). Remind them you will be on the beach to fish them out in the event of a mishap. The leader should try to be out among the first few paddlers, to ensure any on-water incidents during the wait are attended to. The last paddler off the beach should be a strong & capable surfer.

The triangle of death is an area approximately 45 degrees to either side of the rhumb line of a landing route. The broad area will be more likely to come into play in accordance with swell size, wave type & currents, and should always be considered in assessing the risks associated with any beach landing.

A typical risk assessment
Hazard Risk Likelihood Consequences Control Measures
Dumping Shorebreak Broken boat Unlikely Walk out for paddler (minor). Land between prominent areas of shorebreak.
Concussion or spinal injury from capsize in shorebreak. Likely Loss of confidence for paddler, serious injury or hospitalization (minor to extreme). Helmets, pre-landing reminder of shore dump danger, land between areas of prominent shorebreak. Find another place to land.
Lost Gear. Likely Minor Tether or stow all deck gear.
Rocks Broken boat or bones Unlikely As above Land between prominent areas of shorebreak
Surfers Injury to swimmer, possible insurance claim Unlikely Loss of confidence for paddler, injury or hospitalization (minor to extreme) Land between prominent areas of shorebreak.
Swimmers Injury to swimmer, possible insurance claim Unlikely Loss of confidence for paddler, injury, or hospitalization (minor to extreme) Land between prominent areas of shorebreak.
Paddler caught between beach & boat. Leg injury to paddler. Likely Multiple impact injuries from constant collisions in the surf zone. Pre-landing briefing on this particular danger.
Collision with another boat. Concussion, spinal injury, bruise, drowning. Unlikely Loss of confidence for paddler, injury, drowning or hospitalization (minor to extreme). Clear landings – rather than landing every 30 seconds, or to some set time span, wait for each paddler to get to the beach before the next run.
Group member expressing panic or distress about landing. Spread of panic through the group, paddlers worrying about the distressed paddler rather than their own game. Unlikely Loss of confidence in leader, possibility of spiraling problems. Find another landing spot.
Seasickness while waiting to land. Sick & distressed paddlers, unable to concentrate on the demands of a landing. Likely Dangerous lack of concentration, balance. Point boats into the wind & sea, keep everyone chatting & focused, discourage any map reading etc.