Surf Kayaking for Sea Kayakers Presentation

This presentation is being given at WMCKA, and a few other locations this summer.
I thought this might be interesting for those that have e-mailed me and asked about surfing sea kayaks, or white water kayaks on the Great Lakes. If you have any comments or suggestions please let me know I am interested in your feedback.


  1. Hello! This is my first comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and tell you I genuinely enjoy reading through your articles. Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums that deal with the same subjects? Thanks for your time!

  2. Very well done. I’m fairly new to surf kayaking and theirs not much out there for instruction. Hope you can expand on the “Wave catching and riding part”. Keep up the good work and thanks.

  3. So it’s all in the title! When I read “Surf Kayaking” or “Surf Kayaking for Sea Kayakers” I form expectations and sea kayaks fit right into them. It seems like you intended this presentation as an introduction to specialized surf kayaks in the surf, not surfing in general, and definitely not surfing sea kayaks. I read the latter into it…

    I guess we’ll just disagree on “what surfing really is.” To me any motion propelled by the power of the wave is surfing broadly defined. I find your restriction with respect to diagonal runs and turns too narrow. Slalom versus downhill. Would you say that surf skis are not surfing either?

    I am no sea kayak surfing expert by any stretch of imagination but even I can do a lot in broached position. First of all, it’s a fun ride in its own right! I know you disagree, but I consider that surfing. Avoiding capsize in the position is an extremely valuable skill–something every kayaker who ventures into rough water should know. Beyond that, I can move forward and backwards to avoid obstacles by paddling while bracing. And beyond that, by moving the brace toward bow or stern and digging in hard, one can break the hold of the wave and return to perpendicular orientation with respect to the wave face. Within limits, of course, clearly not possible in 14′ seas. Not nearly the amount of maneuverability the surf kayaks get but surfing, nevertheless.

    I have seen sea kayak surfing competitions in Britain referenced in Derek Hutchinson’s books. Can’t recall exactly which one but I can look it up if you’re interested.

    In general, it’s too bad that there is no serious treatment of sea kayak surfing technique in the literature. You have surf skis owning the swell domain and surf kayaks darting around on the breaking surf. Sea kayaks get a mention in both camps and are quickly dismissed as inferior. That needs to be fixed!

    BTW, have you read Nigel Foster’s “Surf Kayaking?” I would recommend adding it to your references section for sure as well as “ABCs of the Surf Zone” video by University of Sea Kayaking.

  4. Lots of nice stuff about waves and what makes them surfable.

    I generally like your stuff, Keith. Unfortunately, this time I found the presentation too negative in tone and too biased against sea kayaks without good reason for my taste. The fact of the matter is that a lot of people surf sea kayaks and have a lot of fun doing it. I am one of them. Sea kayak surfing competitions are not as popular as surf kayaks but they exist. Ender may be a damnation for the activity for some–for me it’s a fun and skillful maneuver–some of the highest thrill I’ve ever had in a sea kayak.

    As I started reading a presentation “Surf Kayaking for SEA KAYAKERS,” I expected to learn something about how to surf sea kayaks. Alas, that’s not what the presentation about. In my opinion, it’s just not fair to limit the definition of surfing to long diagonal rides and radical turns, point out limitations of sea kayak in surf, deliver a message “you can’t surf sea kayaks, period” and plug surf kayaks on a good number of slides. To justify the title, at least a few slides need to be added about wave selection, take off, positioning on the wave, directional control, edging, leaning, rudering, side surfing, breaking out from broach, pitch-polling, safety!, etc. There’s so much material on sea kayak surfing to cover, why didn’t you include any?

    In my opinion, none of the material about surf kayaks is appropriate in the presentation with this title. Surf kayaks have their place for sure, they are just not a reason to abandon sea kayak surfing.

    • Haris: I appreciate the feedback.

      I think you make some good points about the title and the tone of the presentation when read as a document apart from my tone of voice, which I guarantee is not pedantic or overly sarcastic as it pertains to sea kayaks.

      I think I would respectfully disagree that surfing perpendicular to a wave without the ability to reattain the wave face once you’ve lost the power pocket is surfing. You can have good take-off, wave selection, and edging etc etc and not be able to re-attain the wave face or continually move diagonally along the face, this is purely a factor of the craft, not the pilot.

      An ender to me is a failure of the surfer to control their craft-period. It looks cool and dynamic, but in my opinion it basically demonstrates that the wave was faster than the boat; and the boat stopped planing. I didn’t include any material on “surfing” sea kayaks, because to me that isn’t surfing, that is being surfed beyond your control. You simply can’t control your craft well enough based on its inherent limitations.

      For instance in a sea kayak once you’re broached and bongo sliding towards the beach, what can you do to overcome that force? Capsize. And even then you’re still headed for the beach upside down. You can really only regain control on smaller waves, 1-3 footers (if that) by regaining enough planing hull speed to sweep on the backside of the wave to either start surfing perpendicular to shore again forwards or backwards. In a surf kayak this is simply not a problem if the foam pile hits you from the side, you either drop down the face or flatten out the hull to regain the greenwater again. To me, that is surfing.

      The purpose of the presentation is to open up the audience to the idea of what surfing really is, and to me that is a much more fluid dynamic activity than paddling a sea kayak in waves.

      You’re right there are competitions, Nigel Law has a surf kayak contest each year that includes sea kayaks, his is the only one that I know of though. do you know of others?

      I wanted to include a few more technical slides on wave selection, based on how it is breaking, lip shape, speed etc, but I was concerned about time because Ken Fink was presenting ahead of me. I definitely wanted to be able to cover the rules of the road in terms of right of way, and understanding how we need to be aware of how surfers perceive us. I may add those for Grand Marais, great points.

      FYI I still “surf” my sea kayak from time to time when there are waves, but not big enough to drop in on with a sea kayak, or when travelling and I don’t have access to a surf kayak. It is great fun, and a great way to get introduced to the dynamics of the surf zone. I am not suggesting that anyone should give up those pursuits, but that they open up to the possibility of another way of thinking about what they could do. If it seems like a shameless plug for Surf Kayaking, you’re right, it is…

      I just want to share the thrill and the feeling of planing along the face of a 14 foot pacific wave in a surf kayak with all of my Great Lakes sea kayaking friends, or any of my friends for that matter, and that’s what this web site is about, and what paddling is about for me. I still love sea kayaking, but it I just don’t think about sea kayaking and surfing in the same way anymore. I would encourage you to come out some day this fall and take the Rush for a spin!

  5. It’s a nice presentation. I really love slide 26, because it helps people estimate the real size of waves. The use of video is great. My suggestion would be to slim down the section from 12-24 to about 1/2 the slides and maybe less. Add more about surfing spots on the Great Lakes. Slide 45 should be broken into several slides, because, in my opinion, your students really want to know this stuff.

    Good stuff.