Surf Kayaking Basics

Surf Kayaking Basics

What is surf kayaking?

Surf kayaking at it’s simplest is the pursuit of catching fast moving ocean waves. The idea is to be able to get the kayak planing on the face of the wave and to be able to surf like a board surfer would, but while sitting down in a kayak.

Short History of Surf Kayaking

Surf Kayaking as a sport has been around as long as there have been kayaks. The competitive sport with dedicated craft didn’t get started until the mid 70s. The surf shoe was the first kayak used for surfing ocean waves in the mid 70s. P&H used to make one, the picture below shoes an old surf shoe hull. A more detailed history of surf kayaking in the UK can be found here.

What is a surf kayak?

A surf kayak strictly speaking is a kayak specifically designed for surfing moving ocean waves. That is to say waves that form based on ocean swell meeting the underwater topography. This can happen on the ocean and in our very lucky case the Great Lakes.

A surf kayak is a kayak that is specifically designed to surf ocean waves like a surf board that you sit in.

A surf kayak typically has the following basic components:

  • A flat planing bottom with very little rocker in the tail for planing speed
  • Hard rails around the outside for carving tight turns
  • Significant rocker in the bow to keep the kayak planing when headed directly down wave

Three Basic Types of Surf Kayaks

There are three basic types of surf kayaks:

  • High Performance Surf Kayaks-or HP kayaks are called High Performance because of their short overall length and ability to perform snappy, dynamic moves such as sharp cutbacks, quick rail to rail transitions, and even getting air off the lip of a wave. HP surf kayaks use fins like a surfboard and typically use a tri fin setup. HP Kayaks compete in their own class in surf kayak competitions.
  • International Class-Otherwise know as IC kayaks. They are called international competition because they were required to be a certain length to compete in international surf kayak competitions. These kayaks are longer than HP surf kayaks and typically do not use fins. The required length for an IC surf kayak is 3 meters, or nine feet. These kayaks have amazing hull speed and can catch much sloppier harder to catch waves than a High Performance class surf kayak.
  • Waveski-Waveskis are essentially sit on top surf kayaks that truly are surfboards you sit on. Waveskis typically always have fins and can range anywhere between short high performance kayaks, and longer IC length or longboard shape. These kayaks compete in their own class during surf kayak competitions. Waveski’s are arguably the most high performance dynamic craft to sit down surf.

High Performance Surf Kayaks

Here is an image of a High Performance Surf Kayak explaining the various aspects of the HP style of surf kayak.
High Performance Class Surf Kayak Diagram

Video example of dynamic HP surf kayak paddler Chris Harvey

International Class Surf Kayaks

Here is an image of an International Class Surf Kayak explaining the various aspects of an IC Style surf kayak.
International Class Surf Kayak IC Boat Diagram

Video of IC Surf Kayak in steep waves:

What is a Waveski?

Waveski diagram for surf kayakers

A waveski is a sit on top surfboard you paddle in waves for lack of a better definition. They are shaped exactly like a surfboard on the bottom and the sides. They do however have some modifications on the top side where a slight hump is given at the rear for added volume when catching waves, footwells for your feet to strap in, and a slight depression for your rear end. Paddlers often strap both their feet and the laps in with belts to maintain tight contact with the waveski.

Waveskis are often made of foam and epoxy. Making them light and stiff with very surfboard like performance. Many paddle surfers prefer waveskis to sit inside type surf kayaks for the surf board like performance as well as the ability to simply bail and climb back on in the event of a mishap while in the surf zone.

Great Example of a waveski video, it has some instructional content in French.

Can I use my white water play boat to surf ocean waves?

You can use a white water boat to surf ocean waves, it however does not have the same shape as a surf kayak and will likely not have enough hull speed to catch and start planing on a fast moving wave. Often whitewater kayaks pearl and end up doing an ender, or cannot maintain enough speed to stay in the power pocket. A dedicated surf kayak is really the best option for dynamic surfing.

A note about Tidal Race Surfing

Tidal race surfing is about surfing standing waves, and not moving waves. I say moving because standing waves can form on the ocean in much the same way they do on rivers from tidal races. Tidal race surfing is a sport almost on its own that has been well documented by sea kayakers the world over. Notably Justine Curgenven of Wales, and Brian Smith from British Columbia. These film makers have filmed some of the world’s largest tidal races and some very talented paddlers in sea kayaks surfing them. This is however not the type of surfing to which I am referring.

Surf Kayak Competitions

Within the last 10-15 years surf kayaking has grown in popularity in both Europe and the United States. There are annual competitions every year in the United States and in Europe. The most prominent surf kayak competition is the Santa Cruz Surf Kayak Festival. The World Surf Kayak Championships are held in different locations each year around the world, the US will be fortunate enough to host this competition in the Outer Banks of North Carolina in Autumn of 2011.

Surf Kayak Competitions are judged in much the same way as board surfing competitions. Competitors in different types of craft and age groups gather to compete. Surf kayakers compete in groups or heats to try and grab as many quality rides in a specified amount of time in order to score.

The surfer who catches the best waves in a heat and performs the most dynamic moves that for the judges wins.

This is the first in a series of articles on Surf Kayaking. I have more content coming on competitions and maneuvers in the near future.


  1. hi

    Especially the section on the surfing history. I have a very old surf kayak which I have been learning to surf in coming from using a whitewater boat. It feels great, I can imagine in comparison to a modern boat it is a brick but I will do me. The problem I have is finding a splash deck and there is no floatation in it and finding a floatation bags to fit is very hard. I have been told it is an old Tony Blackwell copy. Any advice on floatation or where I can get a splash deck would be great.


    • Hmm I don't know anything about that particular type of boat, the best thing to do would be to take cockpit measurements and call up a really good spraydeck manufacturer. I would highly recommend IR, or Snapdragon.

      Flotation would be great! I would use an NRS float bag, or perhaps just a ton of minicell foam.

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