The surf zone can be a very challenging and exciting place when you are in your sea kayak. It can also be very terrifying because of the powerful forces that are being unleashed. To a novice the surf zone usually means lack of control. It feels as though the breaking waves rule and you are just a cork bobbing around at the whim of these waves. That is exactly how I felt when I first ventured into the surf zone.
Before I go into the techniques one can use for some degree of control in the surf zone I want to emphasize the incredible responsibility we all have as kayakers going through the surf zone. Please read Surf Zone Responsibilities before your next visit to the surf zone. As the pilot of your vessel you need to exercise excellent judgment, use a well thought out strategy and have the skills to execute some degree of control because your kayak can be a lethal weapon in a surf zone to others and yourself.
Due to the size of a sea kayak there is only limited control one has when in the surf zone. If your kayak is perpendicular to the breaking waves it presents the least amount of resistance and the paddler can usually counteract the force of the whitewater wave by paddling forwards or backwards depending on how you are facing. Of course the larger the wave the harder you have to paddle to maintain your position and even more paddle power is needed to punch through the wave. (See Launching a Kayak Through Surf)
Sooner or later most sea kayaks get turned parallel to the whitewater waves and end up side surfing to shore in the broached position. This is when kayakers feel the least amount of control. Just staying upright while side surfing is a major challenge to the untrained kayaker. As we will soon see a trained paddler has various levels of control when being side surfed toward shore by a whitewater wave.
Whether you get turned sideways in the surf zone or have planned to set up for side surfing, correct edging and leaning will be your key to success. Your brace will keep you from capsizing toward the wave but staying upright will be a result of lifting the knee opposite the wave for proper edging.
If you edge, lean and brace correctly you will side surf toward shore. Your speed and direction will be determined by the wave. If you are approaching an obstacle you will run into it or over it (if there is enough water.) I have to say it is a very helpless and awful feeling heading toward something &/or someone knowing you cannot stop and you will probably hit it or run them down. Let's explore some options for control when side surfing.
When the waves are small or begin to dissipate using your paddle as a brake by doing a hanging draw stroke is a way to slow down and sometimes get off of the wave. If the waves are big it is not very likely this technique will work but it does get more effective toward shore as the wave loses it's energy. This is also the location you will most likely find more swimmers and children. If the draw doesn't work it is always an option to capsize and let your body act as a sea anchor to slow you down but you leave yourself exposed to whatever lies beneath the waves. It should be obvious that helmets are a necessity in the surf zone.
Since you cannot stop and we have discussed the possibility of slowing down, the only two other realistic alternatives when side surfing are moving forwards or backwards. Regardless of the direction you pick it is critical that you maintain the correct lean and edging and keep your balance point over the kayak. If you are resting on your brace your success will be very limited. Being able to balance over your kayak while keeping it edged is the key to this skill.
This is where your sculling skills will come in handy. In order to move forward when side surfing you will need to scull your paddle forward in the high brace position. Sculling it forward gives you a potential brace if you lose your balance when performing this skill. When your paddle is ready for a forward stroke do the stroke with a climbing angle on the blade so you get forward momentum and a brace at the same time. I usually end up having my blade angle at 45 degrees when doing these types of strokes.
If I keep this combination sculling and supportive stroke going while I maintain my kayak on edge, I can move forward while side surfing. This allows me the opportunity to avoid an obstacle if I am side surfing towards it.
This is also the technique I use to try and turn my kayak toward shore when the wave loses its energy near shore. This way I can land pointing toward shore and not hit the beach sideways. Turning the kayak is best done when the wave starts to go under your kayak. Doing the hanging draw may get you up on that wave as mentioned earlier.
If you are side surfing and your only clear path is paddling backwards here is how to do it. Instead of using a high sculling brace/supportive forward stroke combination I recommend you use a low sculling brace/supportive reverse stroke combo. Using a high sculling brace variation for backing up puts your shoulder in a very risky position. It is very easy to over extend your shoulder in a high brace when backing up which can cause strains and or dislocations.
Since many paddlers practice the high sculling brace a lot more than a low sculling brace I suggest you practice this on flat water before using it in the surf zone. When you are side surfing toward shore get into your low brace position and maintain your correct edging. Then scull the low brace back while rotating your torso (better balance and shoulder protection). Once you are in position for a reverse stroke do so with the back of the blade while keeping the blade on a climbing angle so you get support and backwards momentum. Repeat the stroke and you will go backwards while side surfing hopefully avoiding the obstacle.
If you execute good judgment when picking a launching and landing area through a surf zone then these skills will not be necessary other than practice and play. However, if an unseen obstacle should present itself or you are where you shouldn't be then being able to move in multiple planes is a necessity. If all else fails remember it is best to hit obstacles with the bottom of your kayak for the least amount of damage.
These skills are a coordinated effort of paddle movements and body control (boat, body & blade). I encourage you to practice and perfect these skills on quiet water before attempting them in the surf zone.
I love paddling in the surf zone. I have a very healthy respect for the forces King Neptune can unleash. I believe regular and methodical practicing in the surf zone is the only way to perfect these skills.
Wayne Horodowich, founder of The University of Sea Kayaking (USK), writes monthly articles for the USK web site. In addition, Wayne has produced the popular "In Depth" Instructional Video Series for Sea Kayaking.