Surf Launch 101 Part 3: Coming Back!
Now that you know how to strap your rods in and punch out through a nasty shorey, there's only one thing left! It's the part that will either make you look like you really really know what you’re doing or it will make you wish that there was nobody else on the beach to have witnessed your 5m fibreglass steed effortlessly relieve itself of you... The surf return!
This can be the most fun or the most terrifying point of your paddle depending on where you are and how you approach things, but much like launching if you have a bit of practice, some awareness of how the beach breaks are positioned and time your run right you’ll either be able to surf back in like a boss or at the very least avoid having a bit ol’ dumper sneak up behind you and send you flying.
Returning is really quite similar to launching in that if you want to make it in upright- timing gaps between waves and reaching safe zones in the gutters between breaks is your best bet. The main difference is of course that on the back and mid breaks you can catch waves and use their speed, as well as have a bit of fun! If you want to avoid catching waves or stay upright in the shorey however, the best option is usually to sit just on the outside of where the waves are breaking without letting any dump on top of you, then wait for a bit of a lull and paddle hard just after one breaks and try and sit on the back of it to reach the gutter before the next wave catches up to you.
It ends up being basically the same kind of timing as when picking gaps during the launch but in reverse so again, get out there and practice! It’s definitely a good idea to get familiar with how to navigate a surf return like this as on the big days when the waves have some serious power in them, trying to catch them and getting it wrong can have some pretty solid consequences on yourself or your gear unless you’re some kind of Dave McGregorish wave wizard.
Davey showing the right angle to cruise in on.
Note how he stays in the clean water!
If you’ve got the right day and beach for it though and want to have a bit of fun on the way back in, definitely try and catch a few waves!
The following is a very simplified and probably wrong way to look at, but when I personally am planning on surfing back in on waves I find it helpful to think of them in a more vertical sense instead of as something that pushes at you along the surface of the water. That is to say that if a wave stands up and you’re on it with a little bit of initial speed, you’ll basically ‘fall’ or ‘slide’ down its face and use gravity to pick up speed. This means that if you find yourself very high up on a very steep wave, you’ll be sliding down it very quickly and if the nose of your kayak is pointed into the water it’s going to keep going downwards, catch in the water and cause you to flip pretty much instantly. The ideal place to be on a wave when surfing it, for me, is just in front of it so that the back of the kayak is picked up by the wave just enough to push you forwards while the nose of the kayak is far enough in front of the wave that it stays flat above the surface of the water and doesn’t bury in or ‘submarine’.
This is where different kayak shapes come into their own. A surf specific hull like a surf fisha, supalite, pinnacle or one of the old erics tunnys with more rocker (hull curvature when looking at the kayak from side on) lets the front stay parallel to and above the surface of the water when on a wave much more easily (the broad, voluminous nose helps too) than say a profisha 575 which has a flatter shape, more length and a pointed nose which will dig in if you try and surf a wave in the same way.That’s not to say that you should be taking waves late, but with these styles of kayaks it’s possible to pick up speed quickly and have a bit of a steeper drop which can make for some very fun waveriding. Shorter kayaks also turn a lot more easily which lets you peel back off over waves without much trouble if you want.
A broad nose and lots of rocker helps to keep yaks like the Surf Fisha 470 from nosediving so easily
That’s not to say that longer skis are less capable when launching or returning through surf- it simply means you need to attack the wave differently. In fact, an old 495 with a good rider in its seat will leave even a specific surf ski with an inexperienced rider for dead if it’s used the right way. For example, flatter, longer kayaks with pointed noses like the longer profishas, evos and fishas need to be surfed as close to in front of the wave as possible and the best way to do this is to catch the wave early and paddle fast. You're not trying to get pitted, dude.
If you hop on too late though or the wave is just too steep, you will need to take an angled approach once you start picking up speed to avoid having the nose point straight down and ‘pitchpole’ as mentioned before, especially in big waves. Should the wave break on you after you've turned, you're also in the perfect spot to brace. Catching the wave early means paddling as fast as possible before the swell that you’ve chosen starts standing up too much before breaking- the idea is to be well ahead of the wave when it does break to prevent slinging forward too quickly or on too much of a downwards angle which should stop your nose from digging in. Alternatively, you can choose to peel off the back of a wave just before it breaks then paddle on the back of it much like you would in the avoidance tactic, but this lets you use some built-up momentum in your favour and is a great way at tackling nasty, steep breaks safely.
Peeling off the back just before a wave breaks is a great way to not get thrown around!
When it doesn’t go to plan…
If you do find yourself catching a wave too late or have one catch up to you, it’s vital that you turn your kayak side on (parallel) to the waves as quickly as possible to set up for a brace by using both your rudder pedal and your paddle. Kayaks can surf themselves in sideways with no troubles, but if you keep a kayak perpendicular to a break and try shooting straight down the face without being in the perfect position on a perfect day, some pretty impressive flips, pitchpoles and wipeouts are inevitable.
Coming down a steep wave straight-on will usually see you getting thrown off
Possibly the most important skill when returning through surf is learning to brace into waves. Technically, if you time everything perfectly you’re not going to need to be very good at this, but if you make a mistake and/or end up side on to a wave, a good, well-practiced brace is your last chance at staying upright. Bracing, put simply, is leaning into a broken wave with your paddle in order to counterbalance against the wave trying to flip you over towards the beach. Plant your paddle into the wave as it’s pushing you along, lean into it to balance and hopefully you will stay upright! The good news is that it’s a fairly natural action and if you lean in too far it’s quite safe and unlikely to cause damage to you or your kayak, but the bad news is that it can be a bit tricky to get right and does require practice. One tip which I use to help with this is to straddle the kayak with both legs- I can often then use the beach-side leg to lift the leading edge of the kayak and keep it from flipping while getting a bit better stability. I’m weird though so it might not work for you, but if you find yourself falling off a lot feel free to give it a shot!
A well executed brace can see you recover from some pretty nasty nosedives
A few final tips
- Don’t try to surf on a steep shorey. It doesn’t work very well. :(
- Try not to catch the same wave as someone else! There's often not enough space for both people and it can end in some pretty nasty collisions, even if it's only small surf.
- Have fun! It's way easier to learn quickly if you just take a thrills and spills approach and keep heading out and practicing.
- Avoid swimmers/surfers. They're often not aware of how hard kayaks are to manoeuvre in the waves and won't get out of the way in time to avoid injury.
I reckon that’ll do for the surf articles! As I've mentioned many times, I'm no expert and it's far better to get experience in the surf zone by being in it lots than it is to read about how to tackle it, but hopefully I've shed some light on a few of the basics for anyone who's struggling or isn't too sure where to start. I’ll probably see a few of you out on the water- be sure to say g'day when you paddle past me swimming in the gutter!