Calm Water Surf/Preparing for the Surf Zone
By Wayne Horodowich

There are a number of excellent articles discussing surfing techniques and how to handle the surf zone ("Ins & Outs of the Surf Zone" by Haack & Soares SK Spring 87, "The Surf Zone: Advanced Techniques" by Soares SK Winter 89, "Surf Zone Techniques for Ocean Kayakers" by Lull SK Summer 91 and the most recent "Surfing for Sea Kayakers: An Introduction" by Foster SK October 99.) The information in these articles is invaluable. However, I feel more attention should be paid to the most essential skill in the surf zone which is side surfing.

Handling the surf zone is dependant upon the ability of staying upright when hit by a wave while in a broached (side-ways) position. If a kayaker cannot learn this skill they will never feel comfortable or be very successful in the surf zone because sooner than later all kayaks end up broached with a wave upon them. In addition to remaining upright after the initial impact, knowing how to side surf to shore while balanced over your kayak is vital to your success in staying upright.

I have seen a great deal of anxiety on the faces of students just prior to their first encounter with the surf zone. I have often wished I had a way to better prepare students for the surf zone. The usual dry land drills never seemed to get the results that I wanted. I needed a way to simulate the feeling of getting hit by a wave while in the broached position. I wanted to have a drill that could be taught in calm water that would simulate the forces of wave impact and side surfing so the student would know what to expect before entering the real surf zone. I often wished for a wave machine in the campus pool so I could teach surf in a controlled environment. . I am happy to say I have found a way to simulate that feeling with the aid of my rescue sling instead of a wave machine.

In order to appreciate this calm water drill we need to analyze what happens when we are hit by a wave while we are in a broached position in our kayaks. Anyone who has survived side surfing or teaches surf classes knows the key to success is a combination of edging your kayak and bracing. Most people who are asked how to take a wave when broached will respond lean and brace into the wave. While this statement is correct I feel not enough depth is given to this explanation. I want to commend Nigel Foster for his explanation of what happens when hit by a wave when broached in his Getting Started section of his October surfing article. When in a broached position in your kayak the most important element to your success in staying upright is the edging of your kayak. If you do not edge your kayak with the top deck toward the wave you will capsize when hit. Sitting straight up in the kayak with no edging is a guarantee capsize. Edging the kayak in the wrong direction (top deck away from the wave) not only means a capsize, it means a very fast capsize.

After edging your kayak the next piece of the equation you need is a brace to keep yourself upright after impact and to help get your upper body back over the balance point of your kayak while it is still edged and side surfing toward shore. Lets look at what happens when we are hit by a wave while in our kayak.

In photo A, the kayaker is ready for the wave to impact the side of the kayak. The kayak is edged correctly. Keep in mind the larger the wave the greater the edging that is needed. Notice the upper body is balanced over the boat. Upon impact of the wave (photo B) the kayak is knocked out from under the upper body of the kayaker. This leaves the kayaker ready to fall into the water on the wave side. This is when the brace is needed. The brace keeps the kayaker from going under. The brace also provides the kayaker the opportunity to get their upper body balance over their kayak again. The sooner one can re-balance over their kayak (photo C) the more control the kayaker will have while side surfing towards shore.

In big waves edging alone isnÕt enough. I have had to throw my body into powerful waves with paddle in brace position so I wouldnÕt capsize. After the impact of these large waves I was able to regain my balance over my kayak but I still had to maintain the edging as I moved quickly towards shore.


One of the great aspects of side surfing is the lift the water dynamics provides to the kayakerÕs brace. The faster the side surf the more powerful the lift on the paddle. As the power of the wave dissipates the lifting power on the paddle also decreases which means the kayaker had better be balanced over their kayak or they will do a slow capsize toward the wave.

The reason I make such a big point about getting your balance point back over your kayak is because of the increased options you are provided. One can side surf toward shore leaning on the force of the wave. However, you are limited to move your kayak in any other direction if you need you paddle for constant support. If you are balanced over your kayak you could initiate a forward or back stroke while moving sideways toward shore. This will allow you a chance to avoid obstacles (rocks, swimmer, surfers, kayakers, etc.) that you may be approaching.

A word of caution regarding side surfing. It is not uncommon for novices to capsize after successfully surviving the impact zone. While traveling sideways the kayaker regains their balance over the boat but forgets to keep the kayak on edge. Sitting straight up while side surfing will mean a capsize.

This same feeling can be experienced in any calm water setting. The key is to find a way to knock the kayak out from under the kayaker, while the kayaker is balanced over their boat in the edged position. Instead of knocking the boat out how about pulling it out. Here are the steps to follow: 1) Loosely loop a piece of sling webbing around the boat as seen in figure D. Have the webbing placed so the kayak will move sideways evenly (I have found that point to be around the lap of the kayaker.) I use a fifteen foot piece of one inch tubular climbing webbing as my sling. I tie the ends together to create a seven foot loop. It is vital that the kayak has the freedom to roll as needed within the sling.

2) Kayaker gets ready for the simulated wave by edging the boat in a ready to brace position. 3) Your partner takes the webbing and quickly pulls the kayak sideways. Notice in figure E the kayakerÕs upper body is exposed to the water just as in Figure B. Since the upper body is over the water and no longer balanced over the boat the brace keeps the kayaker from capsizing.

4) In order to stay upright the kayaker needs to brace while side surfing (figure F) which is the same technique used in the surf in figure C. The longer and faster you keep the kayak moving sideways the more lifting power there is to the paddle blade which will allow the kayaker to practice the feeling of side surfing. It also allows the kayaker time to recover to a balanced position over their kayak.

Aside from simulating the feeling of side surfing in the ocean when hit by a wave I have found other uses for this exercise: Bracing practice Side surfing drills for white water holes (hydraulics) Practice tucking during capsize if edging the wrong way Advantages of practicing in clam water: 1) Lesser anxiety to the student 2) Quick righting of the student if a capsize occurs 3) Immediate feedback from the instructor who is right there and not chasing you through the surf. Leaning the wrong way in the surf will end in a guaranteed capsize. Instead of having that first experience in the surf why not try it in calm water. Instead of the kayaker leaning correctly have them edge the kayak the wrong way when pulled by the sling. The resulting capsize it a lot less traumatic than the real wave. It will give the student a chance to practice how to tuck correctly before the real thing. During this part of the drill the person pulling the sling should watch out for the paddle to avoid getting hit by the blade. Other simulations can be done with a standard sea kayaking tow rope (a tow rope with a section of bungee cord is preferable.) If you want to get the feeling of punching through waves attach a towline to the stern of the kayak and apply resistance to the kayaker every eight to ten seconds (common wave period.) The idea is to let the kayaker build some momentum and then stop them in place with tension on the towrope. Once the kayaker is near a full stop ease off and let them build momentum again before stopping them. In really big waves, not only will the kayaker be stopped but they could end up going backwards and having to forward paddle against backward momentum. You could also practice back paddling while being pulled forward. When coming toward shore in surf one may have to back paddle over an oncoming swell or wave. Those swells or waves will try to push the kayak forward but the kayaker needs to back paddle to avoid being surfed to shore in an uncontrolled manner. Being pulled forward by a tow rope and practicing back paddling against such a force will help simulate the power needed while stroking and some of the balance that is needed in the surf. As I mentioned earlier in the article if you find yourself in a position of side surfing towards a rock or swimmer or any other obstacle you can also move forward and backwards while side surfing. A good way to practice this technique is to have a friend pull you sideways while you try to paddle forward or backwards and maintain your balance over your edged boat. While side surfing toward shore you will need to continue using your brace. The more successful you are in maintaining your balance over your edged boat the greater the opportunity you will have in inserting forward or backward strokes while bracing. If you wish to paddle forward I suggest using a high sculling brace with forward strokes included. If you need to paddle backwards I recommend you use a low sculling brace with a backstroke included. As you master this technique go out and try it in the surf. The next time you find yourself side surfing toward shore and there is an obstacle in your path you will have a chance to avoid it. I do not believe or profess these drills are a substitute for learning in the surf zone. However, I strongly believe you will have greater success during your first surf zone outing if you can simulate the feelings you will have before getting there. My experience has shown me realistic simulations taught in a controlled environment aids in the learning process. There are many that may never have the chance to learn in a surf zone, which makes this simulation more valuable. Some day one of these kayakers may be in a situation of being hit by a wave or running into a standing wave during a tidal flow. When that day arrives I would much rather have practiced the side surfing drills in calm water before my real water experience rather than not having any practice at all. There is a lot more I can add about teaching those who want to survive and enjoy the surf zone but I will refer you to the excellent articles referenced earlier in this article. My goal for this article was to focus on side surfing and to share some calm water drills that will help you get ready for the surf zone.

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