Jennifer H. Yearley
ACA Level 5 Advanced Open Water Coastal Kayak Instructor, BC Advanced Sea Leader (BCU 5 Star)
The surf zone is a region of beauty and power. It provides a gateway to coastal exploration and can provide an unparalleled playground for those who become comfortable with it, but it can also be dangerous. For many paddlers, learning to handle surf well and with consistent control is one of the most challenging aspects of training that they undertake. And the surf zone is no single thing! Properties of different surf breaks can differ markedly from one another, can be dramatically affected by the reshaping of beaches and sandbars that takes place with storms, and of course are always going to be subject to the variation that is imposed by different swell features, tide height, and other environmental effects. However, there are certain principles that are generally applicable, and which provide a tactical and technical framework that can be used to approach surf contexts wherever you may find them. This article is not intended to replace instruction by a qualified instructor, and given the hazards that paddling in surf can present even when the surf is small, seeking out such instruction is strongly recommended.
Sizing up the Scene
Big surf or small, the principles for getting through are basically the same. What differs is the magnitude of the consequences for errors. The bigger and more powerful the surf, the more precise, consistent, and certain you need to be about your timing, your tactics, and your technique. The take home? Start small! There is very little about large surf that cannot be learned in the lower consequences world of small surf. Work put into practicing in small surf translates surprisingly directly to much larger surf when you find that you need to do so.
In preparing for any paddling session that will involve handling a surf break, it is prudent to first consult a reputable swell forecasting resource to begin to get a sense of how big and powerful the surf is likely to be. In some instances, the time taken to review the swell forecast from the warmth and comfort of one’s own living room is more than enough to make one decide that going to the movies may be a better plan than trying the particular paddle that was originally in mind. It is nice to be able to tell things like that before going to all the trouble of loading up one’s gear! However, often it is difficult to tell for certain from a forecast whether things are going to be manageable or not at the site where you are going, and different forecasting sites may disagree with one another by enough of a margin that the only way to be certain about what you are going to see is to actually go out there and have a look.
Taking a look
One of the most important things to do before any surf launch that may have even a little bit of challenge to it is to stop… And just watch for a while. Take your time. Get a good sense of what you are going to be dealing with before you even think about getting on the water. In some parts of the world such as along the Pacific coast, it is very common to have multiple different swells coming through that are of differing sizes, periods, and directions. Really big wave sets may come through relatively infrequently, but if they are out there, you need to know about them! When getting your boat ready, make sure to clear all the gear off your deck that you can. For anything that absolutely has to be on deck, make sure it is very securely attached. The ability of even small surf to remove gear from a kayak deck is absolutely remarkable.
Getting ready to launch
Study the anatomy of the surf zone you are planning to launch in. Important features to consider are properties of the soup zone (a relatively low energy area where foam piles from broken waves roll through) and the impact zone (the region where waves are breaking).
Anatomy of the Surf Zone
Is there a nice wide soup zone that you can get afloat in, where you can creep up toward the impact zone, and can safely watch and wait and choose your timing from? The presence of a good wide soup zone is a very important factor in how easy a surf launch is likely to be. It provides you with a relatively relaxed way to get afloat, to choose your timing carefully, and to build good momentum to get over and through any waves in the impact zone when you make your decision to cross it.
Relaxed launch into a wide friendly soup zone
Also important to look for from the beach are rips, also called rip currents. These are areas where water flows strongly back out to sea and are often detectable by the fact that the waves are consistently smaller or even absent in the area of the rip. Rips are important for two reasons. They can provide you with a very convenient outward-flowing conveyer belt through a region of consistently smaller waves, and can therefore make your job much easier if you launch directly into the rip. On the other hand, if you find yourself out of your boat in a rip, you can quite rapidly be swept out to sea. In this situation, it is important to swim parallel to the beach to get out of the the outward-flowing current before you try to swim back towards land.
Waiting patiently in the soup to select timing for crossing the impact zone.
Also see video link: Monitoring the Impact Zone from the Soup
Some features that can make a launch more challenging include a wide impact zone, as this takes more time to get across – putting one at risk of encountering larger waves for a longer period of time – or a narrow or very shallow soup zone, especially when there are good-sized waves breaking close in to the beach. Waves don’t need to be very big to cause you a problem if they are breaking in so close that it is hard to gain momentum to deal with them. While this is a hallmark of dumping surf beaches, it can also be seen on beaches with more variable break patterns, so is worth looking for specifically.
Steep break close in to the beach, with narrow soup zone and shallow water. These kinds of surf breaks can be challenging to get through and potentially dangerous.
On dumping surf beaches, which typically have minimal to no soup zone in which to get afloat prior to choosing one’s timing to try to break out through the impact zone, both careful timing and a very aggressive approach immediately upon getting afloat may be required to make sure that one musters momentum as quickly as possible and does not get caught out by an explosive wave jacking up rapidly in the paddle out. As a general principle on such beaches, once afloat, it is wise to paddle like a herd of raging elephants is at your heels until you are certain you are beyond the impact zone. There are times this will be overkill, but it is a reflex that will serve you well over the long term.
Also see video link: Launching from Beach with Dumping Surf.
Another phenomenon that can make launching difficult even in the face of a nice soup zone is sidewash. When sand ridges along a beach, or other features such as creek or river outlets result in water that flows not just up the beach and back down with the rhythm of the waves, but also side- or crossways along the length of the beach, it can be very difficult to keep one’s boat from broaching (turning sideways) as one readies to launch.
Water washing up cross-ways can make it very difficult to stay straight while launching.
When the water keeps rotating your boat sideways on the sand, there are three main options. Someone can hold onto your boat to keep it straight until you are well afloat or, if your balance is good you can try a “scramble launch” in which you hop into the boat with it already afloat or, you can try to be very fast and get yourself onto the water before you get turned sideways. If the sidewash is due to ridges of sand on the beach, launching from the apex of a ridge will minimize your exposure to sideways water flow.
The scramble launch can be very useful when there is water pushing you sideways on the sand, or instances where you need to get afloat and immediately paddling hard on a dumping surf beach. However, it requires good balance and coordination. Practice is necessary for this to be a workable solution.
When your evaluation of the impact zone from the soup tells you it’s time to try to cross – you have noticed a window in which waves are smaller or absent – paddle out with all the energy you can muster. For a challenging impact zone, the main goal is to get across fast. Paddle across it as if your hair was on fire. As if the very devil himself was at your back. If the impact zone is wide, you may be hard-pressed to make it across before a big wave rises up in front of you. In dumping breaks, a wave can rise up in front of you very suddenly and be on you almost before you have time to register it. With enough momentum and forward speed however, it is often possible to make it up and over very big waves before they break. Even if you realize you are not quite going to make it over the top before the wave breaks, momentum and proper technique will often let you punch through it. Tuck your body forward as you enter the wave, spearing it with your paddle. Plunge your paddle aggressively into the back of the wave and pull yourself through. Wherever possible, do not let the waves have their way with you! Take control!
Also see video link: Committed Paddle Out.
Up and over the top of a big wave right before it breaks. This requires a committed and aggressive approach with lots of momentum. Practice on small waves first.
Occasionally, we all will mistime the approach to an ugly wave and find ourselves in a position where it is about to break right on our head. This is never fun. If one has a solid roll, one way to handle this with a minimum of pain and suffering is to strategically capsize right in front of the wave as it begins to break, taking the impact on hull instead of head, then rolling up on the other side. It sounds drastic, but as long as one is comfortable with one’s roll, this can yield a very satisfactory outcome, with all the worst violence of the wave visited on the exterior of the boat, while we ourselves are quite safe and protected underwater. One just needs the presence of mind to remember to capsize, which oddly enough, can sometimes be hard to do in this circumstance.
Also see video link Strategic Capsize and Roll.
Of course, having made it out, eventually we have to come back in. As delightful as the ocean is, it’s lovely to be able to get out and stretch and have a proper meal on land from time to time. Determining the size of waves from the back can be quite difficult however, and it is helpful to have made a mental image of their size and properties at the time of launch (though these features can change dramatically across the course of a day).
It can be difficult to assess the size of the waves from the back as one prepares to land. Visual references on the shore may help, but this is largely a matter of experience in a given location.
There are three fundamental ways to try to approach a surf landing. If there are long lulls between waves, sprinting in during one of these lulls can be a viable option, particularly if the impact zone is narrow. It is important to proceed quickly even if the lulls seem long however, as waves can still catch you out if you are too leisurely in your crossing. One of my own teachers used to describe dawdling in the impact zone as “playing on the freeway.” Don’t play on the freeway! It’s a guaranteed recipe for undesirable outcomes.
Paddling in during a lull between waves.
One downside of paddling in between waves is that you are not able to make use of the waves’ energy to move you speedily toward the beach. Because of this, it can be a fairly slow and laborious method of landing. Another option is to surf a wave in. This allows one to make maximal use of the wave’s energy in proceeding toward the beach, and if one has good surfing skills, this can be done with a certain amount of control. However, it is not possible with some wave types (explosively dumping waves cannot be surfed) and may not be desirable with others (those with a violent wall-like closeout).
Surfing in makes use of wave energy to get you across the impact zone quickly.
An additional option, and often the best one in dumping surf, is to ride in on top of a wave. On dumping beaches, which are typically steep, there is often a powerful suck-back of water as the broken waves recede. Because of this, it can be difficult to get high enough up the beach to be safe from subsequent waves when paddling in under one’s own power. While explosively dumping waves cannot be surfed, using a wave’s energy can still be important to make sure that one is propelled far enough up the beach to be safe from the next wave. If one can position one’s self to come in on a wave such that the tip of one’s bow hangs over the crest of that wave, one can make good use of wave energy, and be carried well up the beach to safety
See video link Landing on Beach with Dumping Surf.
Sometimes, regardless of how carefully one tries to time one’s progress toward the beach to keep it as controlled as possible, one will find one’s self caught by a breaking wave from behind.
When this occurs, your boat will broach and you will find yourself parallel to the wave, which substantially reduces your control. To maintain the most control in the overall situation, it is helpful to pre-set an angle before the breaking wave hits you, so that you are certain that the wave will turn you in the direction you most want to go. This may be to make sure that you can brace and sidesurf in on your strong side, or simply may help allow you to avoid a hazard ahead of you in the water or on the beach. As you begin to broach, lean into the wave and apply a good solid brace along the top of the foam pile (if it’s small enough) or jabbed right into the middle of it (if it’s a big one). The more energetic and powerful the wave, the more energetic and powerful your corresponding lean into the wave will have to be to prevent the wave from window-shading you toward the beach. With really big breaking waves, I throw my whole bodyweight into the foam pile with everything I’ve got, like a linebacker making a tackle in American football. No delicate edging there – it’s a full-on tackle maneuver. Smaller waves can be handled correspondingly more gently, but big or small, keeping one’s braces close to the body in these maneuvers is important to prevent shoulder injuries.
Low brace with edge into a broached sidesurf.
Lean into the wave!
To maintain the best control in a landing, you need to pay careful attention to each wave coming up behind you and choose the ones you want to work with. Waves that might surf you out of control or that are bigger or steeper than you want to deal with, you can back paddle over or just let them pass underneath you. Paddling in right on the crest or high on the back of a wave is often a good solution, allowing you to use wave energy, and keeping you safe from waves coming up from behind.
See video link Controlled Landing
Even with all these different landing techniques possible, when there is a wide impact zone and multiple lines of breaking surf, one will often end up making use of all of them at different points on the way in!
On reaching the sand, wait until you feel your boat “stick” on terra firma before popping your spray deck and hopping out or you risk a rude surprise as you find yourself still swirling about and potentially being pulled back toward ongoing wave action, with an open cockpit to boot. Once you feel the earth grab you properly, get your spray deck off, hop out quickly, and pull the boat up the beach to make sure you are well out of the way of any bigger waves that may have followed you in!
Wait till you feel your boat “stick” in the sand, then hop out!
The surf zone can be a challenging environment. But it is also exciting, skill building, enormous amounts of fun, and very rewarding if one puts the time into learning to handle it. Start small. The consequences are lower, the basic principles, tactics, and techniques are identical, and fear is much reduced. Small surf is a great learning environment, and almost everything you learn in small surf can be directly transferred to larger surf eventually as you build your skills. Be patient. Take time to watch, and learn to read the water. Many of the most common errors I see with paddlers in the surf zone are a result of impatience. And finally, seek out proper instruction. There are real hazards in the surf zone, so when getting started, work with someone who can help teach you to stay safe. The surf is an amazing place to paddle and play. Learning to do it well and safely is thoroughly worth the investment of time and energy.