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Launching through the waves

By Mark Crame

Sometimes when you want to launch the waves are larger than you’d like but still within reason, or the shore dump is large but the water behind is calmer. So, deciding that you still want to launch and you are confident that you can get through them what do you need to do to assist yourself in getting out?

Launching by Mark Crame

Well, the first thing to do is look at what is happening and think: On the shore, look at what is happening in front of you. There is an advantage over coming back in here in that it is far easier to see what is happening and place it visually in terms of height and distance. Don’t be in a rush to get on the water as a couple of minutes now can save ten minutes if it goes wrong.

Launching by Mark CrameWhat to look for:

Rip currents
Lots of water is hitting the beach and it has to go somewhere, specifically it has to leave and this route out is what you’re looking for as the rip will lower the height of the incoming waves in that place and also assist you as you will be travelling in the same direction as the water is running. Rips are a cause of problems for swimmers who get caught in them and pulled out to sea but the power of this current is what you are looking to harness. Don’t be too concerned if you can’t see it and don’t use it if you do see it but it takes you close to dangerous areas.

Sheltered areas
Dependant on swell direction you may find that there is some protection afforded by running up the inside of groynes, piers, rocks , etc. If this looks to be the case watch closely for a while to make sure that there are no larger waves coming through that might behave differently, that there is nothing that looks like it is likely to drag you in too close and that there are no partially submerged obstacles and also be aware of rebounding waves.

Breaking zone
Look where the waves get to before they curl over and break. A wave will roll in until it’s too tall for the depth and will then trip over itself. Look where the sets of larger waves are tripping over and look where the smaller ones between them are breaking. Judge things correctly and you can paddle out over the foam of a breaker or the mound before it curls. You are going to have to go out through these and it helps to know what you’re facing and where you’ll face it. Don’t stop, don’t think, Paddle. HARD.

Wave sets
Waves usually roll in as groups. A large set (for example three or four waves) will come in and break before a smaller set follows it in. Following these will be another larger set of waves. Watch them over the course of two or three sets and look for patterns. The object is to be in the water ready to go as the remnants of the last of the larger ones rolls under the hull. Let the big ones come through and then paddle out – quickly – on the smaller ones. Don’t be in a hurry to go but when you commit, COMMIT. He who hesitates is soaked.

Danger zones
Is there somewhere to avoid? An area of rocks, groynes or other obstructions that the kayak may end up thrown into? Are there other beach or water users in the area? Consider what will happen if you don’t get it right first time.


Launching by Mark CrameContingencies
If kayak and paddler become separated what then? Which way is the kayak likely to go, where and how can the paddler get ashore, what assistance is available if difficulties arise?

Before committing it is time to have one last check of things onboard. Where possible break down and stow fishing rods and other longer equipment – aside from snapping they can cause entanglement. If access to the hull isn’t feasible once out then strap them down along the side of the kayak bearing in mind that they need to be as out of the way as possible. Ensure that all equipment on deck is leashed (with the shortest leashes fitted that are practical). Check that radios, rescue knifes and whistles are secure, buoyancy aid is fully fastened, you are not leashed to the kayak and finally, providing that it is safe to do so, unleash the paddle. Bear in mind that if swimmers are in the water it is NOT safe to do so. Paddle leash entanglement can be a danger and can also interfere with paddle use so it is better to come through surf without it.

So, the sea has been studied. Now comes the time to make the decisions. Where are you going to go in, where is the impact zone and how long have you got to get beyond that? Once you are happy then it’s time to go.

Pull the kayak out and go as deep as you can while still being able to get on quickly and smoothly. This is usually somewhere between knee and thigh height. Hold the kayak in your weak hand and the paddle in the other, correctly oriented to go as soon as you are onboard. Keep the kayak straight and upright and as the foam from the last of the larger set comes through jump on, get your feet in and paddle. Don’t stop. Don’t panic. Just dig deep and push through. If a wave is rearing up towards you lean forwards and keep going – just because you think it will get you doesn’t mean it will. When climbing up the face reach forward and use the paddle to ‘pull’ yourself over it if you can, if not, keep it high and dig it in as soon as the wave come through. Above all, keep yourself straight and keep yourself moving. If spray hits your face and blinds you keep paddling.

If things don’t go as planned and you end up going over or off the side grab hold of the kayak. If capsized try and upright it. Slow down, think about what is happening and what you want to do. Look at the waves. You now have two choices – come back in with the waves or get back on and continue. Make sure you have a clear area to get back on if trying to re-enter and wait until the right moment – let the wave come, haul yourself on, if the next one is close stay there, let it pass and then continue with the re-entry. If it takes three waves to get on without coming off so be it. Once on, paddle. Re-entry in the surf zone can be difficult; keep low at all times and try to keep to the side of the kayak with the nose pointing into the waves.


Do not let go of the paddle if you do get separated from your kayak as aside from any additional flotation it gives this is the most effective propulsion you have available. Use it to paddle yourself ashore as it is far more efficient and effective than swimming, especially as there is likely to be an undertow and you may well be in a rip current.

There is no better preparation for dealing with surf than to practice launching, paddling and landing in it. Time spent getting wet through choice is time that benefits when wanting to stay dry.

About thepaddlerezine (654 Articles)
Editor of The Paddler magazine and Publisher of Stand Up Paddle Mag UK.

1 Comment on Launching through the waves

  1. rogermainville2013 // November 16, 2016 at 5:56 pm // Reply

    When the launch fails keep kayak between the shore and yourself as to not get hit by the force that a wave can create on a free rolling kayak

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