At a recent instruction day at Wanda Beach I was reacquainted with the joys and dangers of surfing for fun, in a sea kayak. This of course is in direct contrast to what we should all practise in sea kayaking, which is actually avoiding the surf, as our boats are simply not designed to deal with it.
Unfortunately, even if you manage to avoid surf for months at a time, there will inevitably come a time when you’ll have to negotiate this exhilarating and at times terrifying zone, so you should make sure you have the skills to deal with the basics.
Conditions were perfect on the training day, with a light offshore breeze, one to two metre swell from the east on an eight second period, and a rising tide. The group was John Friedman, Terry Walsh, Bruce McNaughton, Roger Boardman and Peter Levy.
We paddled out through the line-up at about 9 am after a briefing on safety, in particular a refresher on the importance of shoulder safety and correct high bracing technique. Landing through a good spilling six foot surf, the guys all tasted a bit of salt water, with Bruce and Terry managing to roll after being upended. Roger took on everything thrown at him, and braced into some terrific waves, often riding 100 m into the beach. Everyone fell victim to the ‘five yard rule’ — relaxing when on the landing and being dumped upside down by the shore break. That said, with everyone mindful of the need to tuck up, there were no more serious injuries than a few bruised egos.
John and Peter hadn’t previously been in moving water to this degree and both grew more confident as the day progressed.
The incoming tide started to make our spot a bit dumpy, so we relocated to a nice little break that formed about 100 m offshore on the rising tide and all caught some really good waves, before calling it a day after a solid three hours.
When it really mattered, paddling back in to a crowded beach at Wanda, everyone landed without incident, bracing beautifully into the shore break.
I also made sure I landed first and cleared a 50 m gap on the beach of swimmers, with the promise to them that they were very likely to see a bunch of old fellas smash themselves up. There were plenty of expectant cheers as a big shore dumper reared up behind Bruce, followed by admiring applause as he held a perfect brace and skidded up onto the sand. Just goes to show what a crowd can do for your concentration.
After the session, Roger and I took out a couple of surf kayaks for a blast, but the high tide and crowded line-up made it a futile exercise. At least Roger got a small taste of this awesome evolving sport!
All up, a good day out and enough adrenaline expended to ensure nobody needed any rocking on Saturday night.
A few old lessons were reinforced while reflecting on this great day out …
Surf is pretty uncomplicated, besides the fact that it is so difficult to control (if that makes sense). You need to master your boat control using proper edges to turn (rudders are next to useless, and will break in surf if left deployed), pick a good take-off spot, and either get off the wave while it’s still green or engage the whitewater with absolute commitment and good technique. This means a solid high or low brace, no over-extension of your shoulder joint. Then, if you do manage to get capsized, you have to have the grace under fire to be able to hold your tuck position, then roll up once the fury on the surface of the water has subsided. Rolling isn’t about being able to pull off a textbook manoeuvre 10 yards off the beach at Clontarf — it’s about developing a reflex action, which is your first instinct when you’re capsized without warning. When is this most likely? Of course, in a moving water environment like the surf zone. Once you can roll in a controlled environment, get out into some small moving water and play for an hour or so — I guarantee you’ll get capsized at least half a dozen times, giving you a perfect opportunity to test your new roll. Once you can roll in the surf, you can roll.
As for riding the waves, a good progression to remember is to move from your forward paddle stroke to catch the wave, evolving into a good, fully-rotated stern rudder with edges to hold your position and direct the boat left or right, a gradual low brace evolving from your stern rudder, with the high brace to finish when the wave impacts on your now-broached deck. I’m right handed and much stronger on my brace on that side, so I’ll generally look for a right-handed break, edge my boat as I gain momentum to direct the boat on a slight angle to the right with the break, then either ride the green water to its end, or be ready on my stronger side with a high brace. That said, it’s also a good idea to constantly work on your off-side support strokes so they’re merely less of a strength, as opposed to a weakness.
So, what to look for if you are heading to an ocean beach, as opposed to a bar break like Bundeena or Box Head? First and foremost, space. Boardriders and swimmers need to be given a wide berth, ideally a good hundred metres either side of your take-off spot. Ideally, you want to be riding the outermost break, so if you do get clobbered you’ll be upside down in deep water, and the wave will release you from its power, rather than drag you 200 metres in to shore upside down. Given that a wave will break in water around 1.3 times its height (so, a 10 ft wave will break in 13 ft of water), this means you’ve got to go looking for a sandbank formed past the beach break. If it’s bigger than four feet, with the odd bigger set, you should probably forget about a ‘fun’ session. It will more likely be an ‘experiential’ one. Look on the forecasts for wavelength, more than swell size. A long wavelength (10-14 seconds) will bring enough power to a 1 m swell to make it a very interesting surf, whereas a one and a half to two metre swell with a seven or eight second wavelength will have a lot less power. It goes without saying that any steepness in the formation of the waves is to be avoided. We can really only surf our clumsy sea kayaks in a spilling wave; dumpers are best left to the short boarders.
Don’t fool around in shore break; it will eventually hurt you. As Dr Trevor cheerfully told me a few years ago, every time you surf a sea kayak, you’re one wave closer to the one that will bust your shoulder. Playing with surf that is likely to upend you onto hard sand with almighty force is only going to shorten that inevitability. Remember, the beach-side of your boat is a no-go zone, once you’re moving. A brace on the beach side will pop your shoulder like a cork, while exiting your kayak on the beach side will get you a set of bruised shins, at best.
A helmet is a must. I don’t buy the argument that they make you brave beyond your ability and thus likely to take on something you can’t handle. The simple fact is, if you don’t need a head, you don’t need a helmet. I have had numerous encounters with paddle/kayak/rocks/sea bed which would have left me dazed or bleeding without a helmet. Instead, I stagger out of the water with a ‘what the … ‘ look on my face and a few scratches on my shiny Gath. When in doubt — that awful feeling when you realise that you’re in the wrong spot on a big wave — put your foot down. Sometimes it’s safer to power down the face and have the whitewater engulf you, than being taken over the falls after you stop paddling or try vainly to back off.
Surf kayaking is an evolving sport and a different kettle of fish altogether. In a country like Australia where great surf is abundant, I can see a time in the not-too-distant future where surf kayaking takes over from whitewater paddling, and sea kayakers have a surf kayak as their fun-boat. Surfing in a surf kayak is pure joy, with a much broader wave type available to you, and much less dire consequences when you wipe out, as the wave has much less boat to ‘hang on to’ and smash around. You do, however need a good skill set and a roll that works under pressure.
(Disclaimer: Please don’t hold me responsible if you follow my advice and get cleaned up! Surf is unpredictable and even the most experienced paddlers are humbled more often than they care to acknowledge. Before you do anything, get good instruction on proper support strokes, etiquette and technique, surf in a group and watch out for each other and other beachgoers, wear helmets and use your common sense. You only need a two foot wave to have fun and get your skills base started in the surf.) ¦
Mark Sundin is a Level 2 Sea Instructor, surf kayaker and co-founder of Expedition Kayaks.
Editor’s note: This article was developed by Mark from his posting on the Club Chatline. To join in the discussion and/or see what others have said, see the thread ‘NSWSKC Surf Training’ under ‘Trip Reports’ started on 30 Jan 2008.