Timing the surf

Before you get to the beach look at your equipment. I recommend a surf paddle with a wide blade--touring paddles don't deliver the power needed to plow through or to stay in front of big waves.

Your paddle strength also plays a big role. Are you a strong enough paddler?

And hopefully you come to the beach with knowledge of the bigger picture of ocean conditions.

Once at the beach observe the waves as you prepare to launch. Can you see a pattern? Do you see sets of waves?

Look for breaks in the breakers. Are they Straightline or are there Points and Peaks? As a breaker comes in, there usually is one area that breaks bigger, then the other area breaks bigger with the next breaker. Usually they alternate. See if you can see this.

Determine where the surf break zone is. Most of the time there are two or three rows of broken waves (called the soup zone) and only one area where the waves are actually breaking. The actual break zone is usually not very wide--generally only 20-30 feet.

Rip currents can be a kayaker's best friend, sometimes overpowering the break zone itself, not allowing waves to break where it flows out. If you enter a rip the only way out is to paddle sideways or across the current. Never try to paddle or swim against a rip current unless it is weaker than you. Many drownings occur when swimmers attempt to swim against these currents. Go with it and then swim or kayak in to shore where there is no rip current.

Determine if the waves are spilling or dumping. Personally I would not strap myself to anything if I am trying to paddle through dumpers.

Spilling waves are far easier to deal with than dumping waves. It's very important to know the difference. See surf for more info.

Launch into the soup zone--it's a great place to practice and to develop your surf kayaking skills. Go in and out. You can also move parallel to the beach, turning in time to take each new incoming wave straight on. Be careful not to get hit sideways by an incoming wave. This technique can get you out to a gap in the breaking waves.

The key to getting in and out of a surf zone is momentum. Put the kayak in neutral and see what the wave does to it. You get pushed around and usually turned sideways and eventually knocked over. The most common mistake I've seen sea kayakers make is to hesitate in neutral. You are vulnerable when you're dead in the water; the water is moving and you have to move too.

Approach the break zone and maintain a position just on the inside of the zone. Look for a set of waves, wait until you see the biggest wave of the set. Right after the biggest wave there usually is a window of smaller waves or no waves at all. This is your time to be in position just inside the break zone. Timing is everything; if you're just launching off the beach you'll probably be just in time for the next big wave set to hammer you by the time you get to the break zone.

Before practicing kayak surfing, I recommend that you swim first. If you can't swim there, maybe you shouldn't be kayaking there because sooner or later you will be swimming. Try to develop cold water tolerance/experience. If you never get wet you're in for a great shock when you get dumped off your boat.

If you swim regularly, you can develop a tolerance to the cold water. Body fat plays a major role. If you have little fat, you need to wear a thick wetsuit--5 millimeters or more, commonly called a dive wetsuit. Paddlers with more body fat can usually wear a 3 millimeter wetsuit.

As you know, this doesn't cover all conditions and nothing you ever read will take the place of actual on-the-water experience.

This will not teach you everything you need to know but it will hopefully give you something to think about when you're out there.

Paddle Safe!


Related pages 

Timing is everything

Kayak Surfing Tips

Weather Tips

Put-in of the Month Club

Weather & Kayak Links



Conditions Guide

copyright Storm Steiger 2001

kayakers have visited this page since it was created June 15, 2001