By Simon Hammond – BCU Level 5 Surf Kayak Coach
Simon, former World Surf Kayak Champion owns Shoreline Extreme Sports in Bude, North Cornwall that specializes in surf kayak coaching and event organization. They run surf coaching courses throughout the year and together with Bude Canoe Club organize the Black Rock Surf Kayak Contest every Spring.
Gone are the days when you only ever surfed in the summer. With current kit there is no need to stop just because the temperature gets a little colder. In fact it’s a good job that clothing and equipment has improved with the wet and wild summers we’ve been having. So with improvements in the quality and range of kit on the market you can comfortably surf all year round.
But why would you want to? Well the simple answer is time and space. In the winter and early spring you’ll avoid the crowds and have the time and space to develop your skills. Sure the locals will still be getting out on the good days but even then maximum numbers are far lower than in the summer months. As there are less surfers in the water and more waves to go around you’ll find everyone is a lot less stressed and much friendlier.
Conditions can be wild so come prepared
A surf trip in the winter needs some planning. Down here in Cornwall we’ve several different coastlines to choose from so selecting the right beach for the optimum swell and wind direction is usually possible even if it takes a bit of investigating and research. Maps, synoptic charts, web sites, tide tables and surfing guides will all help to pinpoint your best option. But keep checking the conditions as your trip approaches, as our weather is notoriously fickle and even with the Met Office’s best computer predictions I wouldn’t be too confident until the night before departure.
Make sure the predicted conditions match your and your paddling friends ability. You’ll usually be able to find a sheltered coast on those days where the north coast is being pounded by 20-foot swell and storm force winds but you’ll also have to be able to admit defeat if the winds are just too much. Where as a 25 mph on-shore wind will keep you from making any progress off the beach the same strength wind off-shore could be lethal in blowing you out to sea. Keep to sensible limits. On shore winds take the sharpness out of a breaking wave and won’t spoil the surf until reaching 10 to 12 mph, off-shore winds are great and can create the very best conditions but beware of anything over 15 mph especially on exposed low tide beaches. As for the swell size I would say the smaller the better; one to two foot of clean peeling surf is fun and safe for novices to experts, three to four foot is great but the novice paddlers will get the best from riding white water waves closer to the shore. Five foot plus gets powerful and depending on the way it breaks and your ability can be quite scary!
OK so the swell and weather look good now what do you need to bring?
Of course there is the ideal kit for surfing but the beauty of this sport is also how normal paddling kit and boats adapt and perform reasonably well, especially when you are just starting off. I’d say to anyone surf kayaking for the first time that the best boat to surf in is the boat you feel most comfortable in.
Once you’ve mastered some basic balance and side surfing techniques then you might want to progress to a boat with a bit of edge, most modern river boats will do. A boat with low volume, nice sharp edges or rails, a flat bottom and not too short will give you the chance to progress to surfing and carving across a clean wave face, just remember that length of boat equals speed so a really short play boat will have some limitations. And then when you’ve got the surfing bug jump into a surf kayak. There is nothing to be lost in starting with a plastic surf kayak as these boats have all the design features that will give you the speed and manoeuvrability to make the most of any wave and then as your skills develop and progress you’ll start to dream of that light weight epoxy composite boat that might get you airborne!
As for what you wear yet again comfort is the key but taking a swim whilst surf kayaking is more likely than in any other kayaking discipline. So even if you are one of those paddlers who hasn’t taken a swim in years, always be mindful that this could happen out in the surf. Big fleeces and semi-dry cags and trousers aren’t brilliant; you need to wear something that you can actively swim in. Wetsuits are a good option, with a tight fitting neoprene deck and a snug fitting buoyancy jacket. Big and baggy is out sleek and stream-lined is in.
Definitely no need for any kit in your boat. Usually all your extras; clothing, tools, repair kit, spare paddles will be in your car in the conveniently placed beach car park with hot drinks being provided by that lovely warm beach cafe that you’ve found is open all year round (many will even serve you in your dripping paddling gear!). If it’s a long walk to the waters edge then there’s nothing to be lost in taking some spares, food, hot drinks and extra layers down to the waters edge in a dry bag.
I’ve never had any problems with leaving a bag on the beach other than maybe a suspicious dog having a quick wee over it! You could even take down a survival shelter if its really cold – I’ve used these to extend a surf session and give friends a chance to warm up, have a warm drink and have a short break. All of this allows you to keep your boat as light as possible, but remember the chance of swimming and so best to fill every inch of your boat with airbags and buoyancy. Finally make sure you’ve tied on some lengths of tape to your boats handles once again just in case you take a swim.
You’ll learn the rest once you get going but if you want a few more tips then:
- Never rush straight into the surf, give yourself some time to read the conditions and watch what others are doing.
- You can learn all the surfing techniques in the white water waves before going out too far.
- Lifeguarded beaches only operate between May and September so you’ll be looking after yourselves off-season.
- Think about your long term health, wear ear plugs to prevent surfers ear developing.
- Avoid the High Brace – its responsible for many a dislocated shoulder in the surf environment.
- Learn your surfing etiquette if you want some respect from other surfers.
- Go to a surf kayak contest or join a course to learn a few more skills and techniques.
- Good luck and have a go. Get a good day off-season and you’re likely to get the best surf session of the year.
Simon Hammond is also the author of Surf Kayaking The Essential Guide. For more information on surf kayaking contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org
Shoreline Extreme Sports Owned by: Simon and Nicola Hammond Operations Manager: Dave Oxnard 11a Crooklets Beach, Bude, Cornwall, EX23 8NE Tel 01288 354039 www.shorelineactivities.co.uk
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