by Eric Soares and John Lull
Ever been kayak surfing backwards and get speared in the kidney by the bow of another boater who didn’t even know you were there? Ever have a bloke broach down a big wave and land hull first on your head? These calamities have happened to us. We don’t want them to happen to you, so we offer some suggestions regarding safety etiquette in the surf zone. These courtesies may differ from those in a surf contest, and are safety oriented, not right-of-way based. For reading convenience, we have ordered these ten tips in a logical way. Here we go.
1–Surf in a secret spot where no one else goes. And don’t go blabbing about it, or it will get crowded fast. A crowd, especially if board surfers are about, is the key ingredient for disaster. NEVER paddle in a herd of board surfers, say on a busy weekend at Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz, as kayaks can hurt board surfers and some of these surfer dudes are rabidly territorial. If you know a place where you and your trusted buddies can go where others are unlikely to follow, this is ideal. It’s worth it to paddle a couple of miles to have a great break to yourself. This is what we Tsunami Rangers do 99% of the time.
2-Once you get to your secret spot, stay out of the way of anyone surfing or broaching. This means when you are paddling out to the surfing lineup, you must paddle away from the surfing area and over to the side in a channel where it’s safe to go out. NEVER paddle straight out through the surf impact zone, where others are surfing in, no matter how convenient. If you are paddling out through the surf zone and get smacked by a surfing boat, it’s 100% your fault. It’s akin to driving the wrong way on a one-way street. Also, when paddling out, never follow directly behind another paddler. If a wave hits the paddler in front, it can drive him backwards directly into your bow (this has happened; see story below). Keep in mind the biggest danger out there is other kayaks. Avoid collision at all cost!
I [John Lull] have been speared in the back twice by another kayak. The worst time it was due to a kayaker following directly behind me out at Pillar Point. I was driven backwards by a huge breaking wave and impaled on the bow of the boat behind me. It took several months to recover from the contusions that resulted and I was lucky I didn’t break my back.
3-If you are down wave but out of the surf zone and somehow a surfer (in control) or broacher (out of control) careers toward you, get out of the way fast. It may not be your fault that someone is surfing toward you, but who wants to get skewered? So move out of the surfer’s vector immediately, so he knows he can continue without having to deal with you. Keep your eyes open at all times for other surfers on the wave.
4-If a surfing boat will strike you, wait until the last possible moment and turn upside down shoreward just as you are being struck. By waiting for slight contact to turn upside down, you will avoid a premature capsize and a possible spearing while underwater (a very bad scenario). At any rate, you want the speeding surfer to hit your hull, not your body. Don’t try to turn aside the surfer’s boat with your hand, as his velocity will overpower your strength and you’ll still get hit, but now your hand will also be broken.
Once I [Eric Soares] got wiped out at Pillar Point and came out of my boat, a whitewater “freestyle” kayak I had borrowed. As I was swimming toward shore to retrieve my boat, a friend came upwave to assist me. I yelled at him to go away, but before he could move a big wave broke on him and he landed on my head with his hull. Luckily I wore a helmet and ducked underwater as he was striking me, but I was still knocked out for a couple of seconds. I came to mad as a hornet. Fortunately for him he could paddle faster than I could swim after him.
5-If you are in the surfing line-up, go when it’s your turn and it’s safe. By “safe” we mean no one is down wave in your path. Even though you may have right-of-way, it’s wrong to purposefully surf toward someone and hope they move. You would feel bad if you put someone in the hospital because they were disoriented in the surf and failed to yield to you. Instead, wait until it is safe, then go, even if you miss the best wave of the day. You can lecture the dodo brain about etiquette when you are both waiting in the line-up. By the way, if cretins won’t or can’t be safe and courteous in the surf, even after you have talked with them, paddle away and surf another place or day. Also, remember this: before taking off on a wave look to either side, not just in front of you, because surfing a wave can carry you some distance laterally.
6-If you are surfing, and suddenly someone is there in front of you, simply turn and surf away from them. If you can’t do that, and collision is imminent, wait until the last second (see #4), and capsize seaward away from the outgoing boater. Strike his hull with your hull, not your pointy bow.
7-When in the line-up, do not steal another surfer’s wave. It’s common among board surfers to “drop in” on someone else’s wave if he is not in the pocket (the sweet spot of the break). This is stupid. Kayaks are bigger and less maneuverable than surf boards and collision is much more likely and serious. Resist the urge. If two of you inadvertently drop in on the same wave and there isn’t enough room for both of you, the surfer closest to the break has possession. If you’re farther out on the shoulder, pull off. The guy in the pocket will not be able to get out of your way or pull off as easily.
8-Don’t surf backwards. You can’t see very well and if someone is down wave, either you or she is toast. Now, if every boater is accounted for and it’s safe, then go for it. In fact, if no one is in your way, you can do any surfing trick you fancy, like 360s, endos, pirouettes, and the like. Why not? That’s what surfing is all about.
9-In the line-up, space apart; don’t bunch up. If you are far enough away from your companions, it may be safe enough for more than one person to surf a wave. One guy takes the right shoulder and the other guy takes the left. We do this all the time, and it works because we communicate with each other and stay out of each other’s route. On a steep wave you should both eventually turn in opposite directions to avoid any chance of collision when the wave breaks.
10-Once again, if you have warned unsafe surfers once about etiquette, and they persist in being unsafe, leave immediately. There is no use reasoning with people like this. You don’t want to be there when their karmic cluster bomb goes boom.
Years ago, John Dixon and I [Eric Soares] paddled out to surf at Pillar Point. When we got there we noticed several other boaters were out surfing. One guy in particular was blatantly unsafe. Dixon and I explained the safety procedures to him, but he said he didn’t have to listen to us, so we left Pillar Point and surfed instead at Ross’ Cove. We certainly didn’t want to be around the foolhardy and ignorant surfer. As it turned out, two weeks later that same kayaker died while surfing at Pillar Point.
We hope these safety tips will make your ventures into the surf zone as safe as possible. We couldn’t cover every possibility in this short piece, so we welcome your safety suggestions. And please share your surf zone tales! Just click on the comment button below. Let’s Ride the Grooveline….