How to kayak from outside the breakers to the beach
by Eric Soares and John Lull
“Ah thought Ah’s goin’ t’ DIEEEE!” Georgia girl Bonnie Brill loves to tell the tale of how she was hit by a sucker wave at Maverick’s in Half Moon Bay, was turned over, under, sideways and down, dragged across the reef and deposited into calm water. Not only did she live, but she received nary a scratch on her person or boat. What a lucky gal she is. But she could have been down on her luck that day and faced a different outcome. In today’s post, we will discuss how to safely get in to shore from outside the sets.
In a previous post, we discussed how to safely get from the beach, through the breakers, and out to sea (see https://tsunamirangers.com/2011/06/20/entering-the-surf-zone/). Everything written there about scouting, swimming in surf to acclimate, and practicing in the soup applies here. Now let’s talk about how to come in with the waves.
Before you make any move to exit the sea and return to shore, point your bow out to sea, so you can quickly paddle out past the breakers should an extra-large set show up. That way you won’t get caught from behind by a sucker wave and suffer a calamity. From this position, spend some time to determine how big and steep waves are and how often they arrive. Then make a plan, based upon these choices.
Assuming it’s just you coming in (and not a pod of laden kayaks—a topic for a future post), wait for a big window (that is, a long duration before another big set comes in), turn shoreward and follow the last wave of a big set into shore before the next wave set arrives. This involves paddling hard all the way to shore and requires the least skill.
This is a viable option only if there are very long windows between wave sets. You cannot out-run a big, fast-moving wave and could get caught right in the impact zone. If you plan on paddling in areas where you have to land in surf, it’s best to learn how to handle surf and pick one of the choices outlined below.
If the waves are consistently very big or steeply plunging, and there is not enough of a window to follow a set as in the first choice, then turn and catch a ride on the lip of the last wave of a medium-sized set. Do not drop down into the face, but let the momentum of the near-breaking wave carry you toward shore. Just as it breaks, back-paddle off the lip, let it break in front of you, then paddle forward, staying on top of the whitewater in to shore before a new set catches up with you. It takes considerable skill, gained through practice, to pull this choice off, but it definitely works if you time it well. The trick is to stay right on top of the wave, allowing it to carry you forward without taking the drop down the wave face. (See the photo at the top of this essay for the proper position on the lip).
Wait for the last wave of a moderately big and shapely set, then surf the wave all the way to the beach. This is the most efficient and fun way to get to shore assuming the waves look reasonable to ride (not overly steep or dumping). Set up just outside the area where the waves are steepening, look over your shoulder and pick the wave that looks best to you; usually the last wave of a set, big enough to carry you right through the surf zone and well up on the beach. Then paddle forward, allowing the wave to pick up your stern and start the kayak moving down the face. You want to be almost perpendicular to the wave, with only the slightest angle to avoid pitch-poling. If you take too much angle in a sea kayak, the momentum will push you sideways to the wave. Maintain your trajectory with a stern rudder stroke and lean back as the wave breaks to help keep the bow clear. Then continue to hold your course with a stern rudder through the soup zone. If you do it right, you’ll ride bow-first right up onto the beach. Quickly exit the kayak to one side, lifting both legs out at the same time. Never straddle the kayak!
Always be prepared for a broach (coming in sideways, that is, parallel with the waves). If you get pushed sideways to the wave, instantly brace into the wave by jamming your paddle into the wave face. You may have to lean your body initially if the wave is powerful, but the most important thing is to tilt the kayak into the wave so the hull planes as the wave pushes the kayak across the water toward shore (that is, present your hull to the shore so your body is protected from hitting anything down wave). Relax, ride along sideways, and maintain the boat lean right up onto the sand. Then leap out on the seaward side (to prevent having your boat slam into your legs), grab your boat and run it up above the surf line.
You may actually choose to ‘surf and broach’ on purpose if in a long sea kayak. Catch the wave, angling to your chosen side, surf it until it breaks, quickly lean into the wave and broach in the rest of the way.
Those are your three choices. Some instructors advocate facing out to sea as you backpaddle or surf backwards into shore, so you can see if big waves are coming and can paddle over a wave if need be. In small surf, this works okay but is not needed. In bigger surf the “go in backwards” method is too slow and awkward, and invites out-of-control back surfing, possibly resulting in collision with something or someone behind you. We don’t recommend it.
Go out and practice all three methods of exiting the surf zone, especially surfing. You may find surfing so fun that you get addicted to it. Click on this Sea Kayaker Magazine link to see ace paddler Gregg Berman surfing in almost to shore in a sea kayak: http://www.seakayakermag.com/2011/shbreak.htm.
Please ask questions about coming in through surf and offer your suggestions on the best way to do it. And share your “caught from behind” stories. Just press on the comments button below and go for it. John Lull and I will respond to questions and comments. G-e-r-o-n-i-m-o!