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A slightly less than ideal situation to be in!
Let me start off by saying that I don’t feel at all qualified to write this. Transiting the surf zone is definitely not something that I’ve mastered and I still personally have a lot to learn. That said, I’ve fallen off my kayak enough times and talked with many more experienced paddlers than myself, gaining a few handy hints along the way which may hopefully be of some use to you if you’re still getting knocked around in the surf a bit. I’ll break this up into three parts- Basic skills/preparation, the launch and the return. It would end up being a pretty big read otherwise!
Before attempting to take on any surf launch, please take the time to learn how to perform a deep-water re-entry of your kayak. There are some great tutorials out there on youtube- here's a few to get you started:
It’s important that you practice this with a life jacket on while holding your paddle so that when the time comes you are familiar with the action as there’s often not a lot of time before the next set comes through.
Every trip starts off with checking the forecast and it’s always a good idea to have a look on as many different weather sites as you can to give you an idea of what to expect. Have a look at the swell’s height, direction and period as all of these will make a big difference in how easy any given launch will be. Swell height will determine the size of the waves, but swell period is an often overlooked factor- I have found that longer periods will mean much more power in the waves, but it does come with the tradeoff of having slightly larger windows when it comes to timing gaps. Also worth noting is that different swell forecasts mean different things for different beaches with some being vastly more protected than others. To use a couple more popular areas as examples, Moffats beach is quite manageable in most swells around the 2m mark whereas a mere 1.5m easterly swell at Sunshine beach will really sort out anyone who doesn’t know what they are doing (which usually includes me!).
A very poorly drawn and basic example of how a headland affects the swell at a launch location
Once on the beach (or behind the break!), you will need to spend a good amount of time surveying waves. This is especially important if it’s your first time at any spot as it will help to give you an idea of what the break looks like, how much power there is in the waves and how far you will have to paddle before you’re in safe water.
The most important reason to survey the beach however is helping to decide whether or not the launch is within your skill level. If you don’t think that with your experience that you can make it out on any given day, then simply don’t try! Transiting the surf zone is probably one of the most dangerous parts of this sport so don’t feel the need to be a hero and bite off more than you can chew. It’s far better to build up skills and confidence by gradually increasing the difficulty of your launches and if you get the chance, by heading out with more experienced paddlers.
Once you’ve decided to go though, make sure that you prepare to get dumped, rolled or pitchpoled and go for a swim. With a bit of luck and/or skill, none of these things will happen, but when they do it’s much, much more preferable to have everything ready- unexpected dumpings are usually the most costly for paddlers and their gear alike. This means securing everything inside your hatch and making sure that nothing that could get knocked off by a hit on the sand is sticking out on the deck. Also, make sure you’ve got your lifejacket on! If you get separated from your kayak and/or paddle (more on that later) wearing one is vital to make staying afloat as easy as possible.
Everything noicely secured!
To leash or not to leash
Paddle leashes in the surf are a hotly debated topic. I personally choose to use a leash, but here is an outline of the two schools of thought- have a read and make your own decision.
The thought process behind launching without a leash is that it’s far simpler and there isn’t anything in the water for you to get tangled on. If you come off without a leash, it’s just a matter of keeping a firm hold of the paddle and letting the kayak wash away from you. If you can grab a handle of the kayak with a free hand and hang on, it can be worth a shot in smaller waves to save some swimming, but in more solid conditions hanging onto the paddle is more important as paddles don’t wash back to shore as consistently as kayaks. Needless to say, if you’re not a very strong swimmer, this is not the method for you- getting hammered on the back break 100m from shore only to have your kayak head back in without you isn’t for everyone!
When using a paddle leash specifically for the surf however, it needs to be up to the task. I personally use 8mm bungee cord tied to the front handle of the kayak which means that after coming off, when I hold onto the paddle the kayak has a chance to swing around and face nose-first into the waves, creating much less force on my whole system than a side-on yak does. When everything goes right, it’s then possible to simply drag the kayak back to you using the leash, hop back on and go again. The other bonus here is that if you do somehow lose your grip on the paddle, it will stay with the kayak so once you’re back on you won’t be sitting there without a means of propulsion! One handy tip for leashes is to use the rudder line clips to keep the leash a bit more organised- it should just pop straight out and pull from the handle once tension is applied.
My personal leash setup- it works for me!
As I said though, see what works for you and make your decision based on what seem/feels safest.
This is probably the most valuable skill you can learn and is quite important for avoiding injury. In pretty much all situations when you’re knocked off by a wave, it’s vitally important to avoid letting your kayak get between you and the next wave. It might not seem like the most obvious thing to some at first, but if a long and heavy pieces of fibreglass is picked up and carried by a wave, getting hit by it is going to hurt a lot at the very least if not cause some serious damage. It’s always far safer and easier to avoid getting into a situation where you need to evade a kayak coming at you like a rocket than it is trying to dodge/duck/weave away once it’s hurtling towards you, so always move to the ocean side of the kayak as quickly as possible once you’re knocked into the water. Even if you haven’t fallen off and are simply dismounting on your return to the beach, this rule stands and will help you avoid tripping over and kissing the sand at the last second!
This is how getting off on the wrong side usually ends.
Having short hair was probably bad too.
Next week I’ll run through launching in a bit of detail- hopefully if none of what I just wrote makes sense it will then!
Tight lines and dry bums,