(Special blog post from Don Kiesling, Tsunami Rangers officer)
Racing is a fun and effective way to improve your paddling skills. In order to go fast, you must hone both your technique and your fitness. Your improved stroke and athleticism will carry over to all of your paddling endeavors. Additionally, you may want to improve your speed by using a surfski. Racing skis are tippier than recreational (cruising / exploring / rock bashing) kayaks, and you will spend many hours improving your balance so that you can focus on paddling and not bracing. Again, improved skill will benefit every paddling outing, making you more comfortable on the water. Finally, races are fun social events, where you can meet many talented and enthusiastic paddlers.
The racing stroke may seem one-dimensional – just a forward stroke over and over again. However, there are many nuances, and one can spend a lifetime on mastery. Each person has to figure out the best method for applying maximum power. Not only on each individual stroke, but over the course of a workout or race, your technique may need to vary. Other examples of when you may change your stroke are in winds, currents, or while drafting another kayak. It’s best to find an experienced paddler or coach to help you identify your optimal technique. Once you’ve spent time practicing it, you will start to figure out how to paddle effectively in the aforementioned conditions.
Although most kayakers are fit from lots of paddling and other sports, your first race will probably be a humbling experience in both watching the top racers speed away from you, and in feeling the fatigue overcome your limbs and lungs. It’s not uncommon to feel “gassed” after the furious first few minutes, and then realize that you’ve got 5, 10, or more miles to go! Don’t worry, it gets easier in subsequent races as your training base builds, your efficiency improves, and you learn the best way to pace yourself. If you’ve trained for other types of racing (running, cycling, swimming, etc.) you may already know some protocols for achieving race-level fitness. If not, you should research this and/or talk to a coach. The basics include building a fitness base with a few months of moderate-intensity paddling and technique work. Then you progress to speed work and race simulation-type efforts. You can also benefit from strength and mobility work, which are great for the off-season.
What is drafting? As in other sports, there can be a significant advantage to being just behind or adjacent to another racer. As a kayak moves forward, the displaced water creates a wave. Another kayak can be positioned on this wave so that it’s pointed slightly downhill, reducing the resistance. In effect, the second kayak is surfing a small wave! The downhill orientation is nearly imperceptible, but the decreased resistance is very obvious. Drafting effectively takes practice, though, so it’s best to practice with a friend before attempting it in a race. You have to find the right position, and especially avoid bumping the boat in front or allowing the front paddler’s paddle to hit your boat. Drafting is only effective in flat or light upwind conditions. In rough conditions and especially downwind, it’s best to use the natural waves to your advantage and find your own line. Finally, be sure to check a race’s rules regarding drafting. Sometimes it’s allowed, sometimes not, and sometimes with restrictions (e.g., only draft boats in your class).
If you haven’t tried a surfski, it might feel weird at first because you don’t use your legs and knees in the same way for boat control. Your contact points are simply your butt, hips, and feet. Although it’s different from a decked kayak, it’s not more difficult, and with some practice you will be feeling comfortable before long. The benefits of surfskis over decked boats include the ease and safety of a simple re-mount procedure in the case of capsize, the simplicity of not needing a spray skirt, the encouragement to dress for the water temperature because you get splashed, and the ergonomic setup for a powerful paddling stroke. However, every surfski is shaped differently and you may have to try several before you find one that feels comfortable.
Top-of-the-line surfskis are roughly 21 feet long by 17 inches wide, with a fairly round hull shape. Therefore, while extremely fast, they’re very tippy for most racing novices, and you aren’t fast when you’re bracing to stay upright! However, the surfski market has recently exploded with designs that are more forgiving due to shorter length, more width, and in some cases, a flatter bottom. A classic mistake is to buy an expert ski, and to struggle with balance for the first few months or years. Some paddlers have quit the sport, and many others have greatly hindered their progress, by trying to start with a surfski that’s too far beyond their abilities. Most novices would be wise to start with a more stable model. As a rough guide, a surfski that is at least 19 inches wide will be a good starting point for experienced kayakers. In some cases, paddlers master their first boat, and then upgrade to a top-of-the-line model later. While some may need to sell that first ski to finance the second, it’s great to hold onto the first one for “big water” days, or to loan to friends who may be itching to try racing. Fortunately, there is a big market for beginner surfskis and they hold their value.
Surfskis are almost always lighter than touring kayaks. Lighter is faster! But the result is that they’re also more fragile. You may be used to running your kayak up onto a beach, or chucking it onto car or garage racks, but you’ll want to baby your racing surfski a little more. Alternatively, get up to speed on doing your own repairs, because composite repair is expensive! This is not to say that surfskis are insufficiently built for their intended use. Just get used to launching and landing in a foot or two of water when possible, and plan to transport and store your ski on foam cradles, or something similar.
Hopefully you’re now stoked to try surfski paddling for fun, fitness, or racing glory! The next article will have more information about racing and finding the good races, so racers: Start your engines!
Please feel free to post your comments and questions just below this article. Don or I will respond where appropriate.
To receive my weekly post, just enter your name, click on the “subscribe” button (near top of right column) and you’ll be notified of each new post. -Eric