Why opening your mind to different forms of boating will improve your overall skill and knowledge.
A lot of kayakers have a habit of sticking with the same thing, never venturing into any of the many different forms of kayaking disciplines. But doing this really limits your overall knowledge and skill, as well as potentially blocking off a new favourite form of boating!
Over the years I’ve written extensively about the benefits of freestyle for every boater, but today I’m going to talk about surf kayaking.
Kayaking in the sea surf is something I’ve dabbled with for a few years now, but it was only last year that I first bought a dedicated surf boat. Em and I loved to take our boats out in the sea, and if I’m completely honest I do kind of prefer it to rivers. Nothing beats a great session in the surf on a sunny day out of school holiday season. Messing around in the surf is great fun in any boat as long as it’s a good river surfer, like some of the half slices such as the Pyranha Ripper. In a freestyle boat you can practice quite a lot of freestyle moves like blunts, airscrews (not that I can do them), spins, back stabs etc. On the paddle out you can practice moves like kick flips on the green waves.
This is all great fun, but messing around in the surf offers benefits to your river boating as well. Coach Matthew Brook often uses the sea to help prepare himself for trips to large volume white water rivers abroad, because paddling out through large broken waves is amazing practice for coping with massive stoppers and waves in a relatively safe environment. You also get used to taking a beating in some of the waves, holding out until you can roll up. It’s also a great stamina workout, since paddling through a lot of waves is most definitely tiring!
However, it’s when you’re in a dedicated surf boat that the waves really come alive. Most white water boats are too slow to catch a lot of waves when they are still green, and when they do the rail and hull design tends to want to slide sideways down the wave. This isn’t true for all boats. Old school full slices and designs like the Pyranha Ozone perform fairly well considering their white water focus. But, a true surf kayak is able to carve along the face of a wave just like a surfboard, and has much more speed and stiffness to enable it to catch waves in the earlier stages of their forming. Once you’ve carved the face of a wave in a real surf kayak you’ll never want to go back to using a white water boat in the sea, because the feeling is just incredible!
Types of surf kayak
There are some common features across most dedicated surf boats. Notably, you’ll notice that the edges flare out from the bottom of the hull rather than inwards like a white water boat. This creates the aggressive edge that allows a surf kayak to grip a green wave and carve along it. The bottom of a surf kayak hull offers a large wide and totally flat surface. The front of the boat will have a pronounced rocker to help with the paddle out, as well as to help prevent nose dives when catching waves. The rear of the boats generally have absolutely minimal rocker, again in contrast to most white water boats.
There are generally two types of surf kayak (I won’t talk much about wave skis in this article). The first is called an IC, which stands for International Class. This is a classic form of surf kayak, and is the surf kayak equivalent of a long board, with the ability to catch slower, smaller waves than the HP boats below. IC boats allow for smooth carving turns and don’t really lend themselves to going aerial, although some newer designs are challenging this.
The HP kayak, which stands for High Performance, is like a shortboard. These are the most aggressive forms of surf kayak, and perform best in mid to large conditions. These are the freestyle boats of surf kayaking, performing fast switch back turns, and aerial moves off the wave crests, much like shortboards do in traditional board surfing.
There are other hybrid varieties of surf kayak that merge the two classes, such as the Hobson Apex and the Ride Eclipse. Additionally, there are sit on top variations of surf kayaks, along with wave skis, which are very long and narrow.
I recently bought a Hobson Apex because it is designed to work in the widest variety of conditions. It can handle small, clean waves, as well as some mank. If I was up to pushing things, it can cope with sizeable surf as well. It’s also a stunning work of art to look at!
Surf kayaks are designed to be at their most stable at speed on a wave face, so they have a reputation as being very grabby, unbalanced, and difficult to roll when on the paddle out. New designs are much more forgiving than the old ones, and on the rolling front I haven’t found any difficulty so far. If you have a solid white water roll and good technique, you’ll be able to roll a surf kayak no problem. Older boats could be more cramped than more recent ones, too. The latest boats handle keyhole decks, and they have lots of foot room, so they are just as easy to get out of as a modern white water boat.
Being in a kayak in the surf can be intimidating. When you are sat down in a craft and a breaking wave is heading towards you, or a green wave is about to break right on top of you as you paddle out, even 2-3ft surf can appear quite sizeable as you look up at it! 5-6ft surf from a sitting down position can appear enormous, but make no mistake, even the smaller waves can have some real power behind them. Being on the face of a wave is like being pushed along by a train, and when you first take off, the feeling of acceleration is fabulous.
So, my advice to any white water kayaker is, if you can, try to go out in the surf. Just like trying out freestyle, you never know, you might absolutely love it. I know I do!
Want to see how much fun you can have in a surf kayak? Watch Joe Rea Dickins surfing the Bitches tidal race in Pembrokeshire. You’ll need to click the link, since YouTube embedding has been prevented on the video. But it’s just incredible.