How to kayak from the beach to outside the breakers
Sea kayaking adventurer Valerie Fons once said, “My greatest fear was waking up in the morning and having to kayak through a surfzone.” She had faced a bear in her tent and an anaconda next to her boat on her journeys; how could she fear a few breaking waves? As a guy who loves the surf zone, I was dumbfounded. I wondered why she was afraid. She told me that she didn’t know how to get through the waves, even with thousands of miles of paddling to her credit. She lacked the skill of entering the surf zone. So, for Valerie and all those competent kayakers out there who suffer the willies about surf, I have put together a few tips on how to successfully make it through the breakers in one piece. Here we go.
The worst likely thing to happen is you get wet. Big deal. So don a wetsuit or drysuit or whatever clothing you need to make you comfortable in the surf, and then wade out in it. Let the breakers hit you. Practice jumping over the waves and diving under and right through them. Swim around in small surf and eventually progress up to 3-foot waves. Body surf until you get a few good rides under your belt. Once you feel good swimming in surf, the worst is over. The fear of getting wet is replaced with the joy of immersion in ionized water. You are now ready to paddle through the surf.
Scout the surfzone before kayaking. This does not mean psych yourself out so you are a quivering mess by the time you get in your boat. Surf scouting means you get high up on the beach and look at the waves for a few minutes. No rush. Notice patterns, see where the waves are steepest, look for channels where waves break less often. Imagine yourself vectoring left and right through the waves until you make it outside the surf. Do this again and again until you can realistically envision yourself making it all the way through, stroke by stroke. This is akin to river kayakers scouting every aspect of a rapid or a climber searching out holds on a pitch. It’s essential that you learn to observe the surf and plan your own path and best time to get through. It’s like learning to drive a car. You must decide when it’s safe to turn onto the street and not let some guy in the back seat decide for you.
Practice maneuvers in the soup zone before breaking through the surf zone. The soup zone is the area just beyond the shore, but before the big breakers. (Note: on really steep beaches, there is no soup zone). Check your boat to ensure it’s shipshape (flotation bags are inflated, hatches are secured, etc.). Strap on your helmet, carry your boat to the water’s edge, get in, put on your spray skirt and turtle your boat down to the water’s edge. When a wavelet laps the shore, scoot into it and voila, you are in the soup. If you paddle a sit-on-top kayak, walk the boat into the soup until knee deep, sit on the seat butt first, then put your feet in. (Never straddle a boat in surf, as bad things can happen).
Once in the soup, just relax, breathe, and sit there for awhile, perpendicular to the oncoming waves. This will take effort, as small waves and currents will try to take you hither and yon. Play for awhile and acclimate to this surf on this particular day. While maneuvering around in the soup, keep a weather eye out for windows of opportunity. Let a few ventanas pass you by, so you can verify that you could have made it. Even if you chicken out and don’t go through the entire surf zone, because it looks too big, too scary, too something, don’t worry. You can keep playing in the soup and make that your goal for the day. But when you see that golden window (no waves breaking) and decide to go for it….
Paddle toward green zones, where the surf isn’t breaking. The late Steve Sinclair called zigging and zagging from green zone to green zone establishing trajectories. If your timing is good (and this takes practice, lots of practice), and you keep up your paddling speed, you may make it through the surf zone without having to face and power through a big breaking wave. This is ideal. But if you must break through one or more large breaking waves, then you have two choices.
Roll upside down as the wave hits you. According to sea kayaking legend Derek Hutchinson, you should turn upside down when facing a really big wave, let the wave pound your boat hull instead of you, then roll back up after the main turbulence passes. I have used this technique successfully, as have other good kayakers, such as Andy Taylor of Force 10. Unfortunately, if the breaking wave is really big, you may end up getting sucked up the falls and flip end-over-end backwards while upside down. It’s disconcerting. Plus, personally, I don’t like to purposefully have my head hanging down underwater as I’m being dragged by a wave, because there could be a rock or other obstacle that could impact your noggin. That brings us to your second option.
Paddle hard and break the wave barrier. This is ideal. When facing a looming skyscraper, don’t freeze up but fire yourself up mentally, put your head down and paddle like a madman right up the wave face and over the top. Don’t stop paddling until you have broken the wave barrier and gone airborne. After clearing the wave, look seaward for the next comber. You may have to do this over and over and need to keep your momentum. Once you have made it all the way through the surf, relax, catch your breath, and move on to your next activity.
As with Derek’s method, you could still fail to clear the wave and get knocked end-over-end backwards, but at least you have a fighting chance of making it (I summit big waves 95% of the time, even when it seems hopeless). But if you end up upside down, rocking in the foam, just relax, hold your breath, and wait for the moment when the traction lets up a bit. Then roll back up, orient yourself, and face the waves again.
It may take a lot of time and energy to get through a gnarly surfzone, so if you are getting knocked over, quickly re-assess whether you can actually make it through the sets on this day. If you are uncertain, go back to the soup zone and practice there for awhile. When tired go back to shore. You had a good workout and learned lessons. It’s all good.
On the other hand, if you earnestly believe you can still make it through the surf, then, with enthusiasm, begin the green zone vectoring process again until you make it. We sometimes go out and practice breaking the wave barrier again and again, purposefully smacking the waves and flying, as it is a key skill and lots of fun. Go out and spend a few days climbing waves and I guarantee you will become more confident and proficient in surf. Your fear will diminish and be replaced with calm awareness. Where there is skill, there is no fear.
Please ask questions about getting through surf and offer your suggestions on the best way to do it. And share your wave barrier stories. Just press on the comments button below and go for it. Cowabunga!