Ready for Open Water?
The essence of surfskis is the exhilaration felt while paddling on open water, propelled by the unobstructed winds and an infinite maze of waves that make a nice downwind run unlike any other form of kayaking.
Not all of us are lucky enough to grow up paddling in South Africa, however, and while the lure of paddling out into big downwind conditions is appealing to many new surfski paddlers, they can also be downright intimidating. Staying upright on flat water is a skill easily learned; heading offshore in big waves can feel like you’re starting from square one, made all the more humbling when the realization sets in that, once again, staying upright can be the easy part!
Becoming a confident and efficient downwind paddler takes more than keeping your boat right-side-up. It requires an understanding and utilization of the waves; a skill so vital as to trump the benefits of even the most intense fitness regimen, while being even harder to obtain.
So how does a newbie become a Chalupsky? The short answer: time in the boat. Sounds simple, but it’s not always as easy as one might think. For the aspiring open water paddler it means truly leaving your comfort zone, paddling out past protected waters into a much less forgiving environment. Not only are you more likely to swim on these initial pushes out into the waves, you have the added stress of being able to remount your ski. It can be exhausting, both physically and mentally.
It’s not just one more tier on the learning scale either; moving from 3-4 foot waves to 6-8 foot waves (and the 15-20 foot seas that can be encountered on a serious Molokai channel crossing), requires the same fortitude and stick-to-itiveness as moving out of the harbor for the first time. But this is the art of surfski paddling, and the more you put into it, the greater the rewards!
Just as your balance tuned into the initial stability of the surfski on flat water, so it will out in the waves as well. Despite the narrower width and lower stability of a surfski, they are a very safe and comfortable boat to paddle offshore. There is no enclosed cockpit requiring a bomb proof roll, just hop back on top and keep going. Head out there willing to take your licks, start small, practice safely and practice often – before you know it you’ll be scouring your coastline for the best downwind opportunities!
Tips for new open water paddlers:
Bring your safety gear. Wear a pfd and a leg leash attached to your surfski. There are many available safety items for the open water paddler, but consider the pfd and leash as extensions of the boat/paddle. Always carry water or a sports drink. If you are heading for a big downwind paddle, it is also a good idea to carry a waterproofed mobile phone/radio and a signaling device, such as a flare. Also, dress for the conditions/water temperature you're paddling in.
Paddle with a friend or in a group. Paddling with others is an added safety measure, inspires more comfort and confidence, helps the learning process and is more fun!
Practice your remounts!!! Arguably the fastest way to build confidence in rough water is to know you’ll be able to get back on if you fall off. This essential skill is too often overlooked – take the time to practice in flat and rough water.
Look for opportunities close to shore. You don’t have to head offshore for a channel crossing to gain experience and proficiency in waves. When starting out, doing “out and backs” from your beach is a great approach. When the wind is blowing onshore, paddle out from the beach 200 meters, turn around and surf back. Turn around and repeat. You’ll be exposing yourself to all sorts of bump and chop, while getting a better feel for catching runs. Safe and effective.
Set aside rough water time as practice. For some paddlers it is hard not to train all out when they get in their boat, as they don’t want to lose fitness. But if you want to become a better surfski paddler, practice sessions focused on rough water are essential. When heading out for some “out and backs” or surfing on a sand bar, leave the heart rate monitor in the car and keep your focus on the water. You’ll still be getting plenty of exercise, while developing vital skills for a ski paddler. Check Windguru.com often to stay familiar with the wind forecasts, which will help you plan practice sessions.
Surf your ski! Take any opportunity you can to surf waves with your surfski. Sandbars or shoals slightly offshore offer great practice areas, as you can ride the wave repeatedly in a comfortable setting without worrying about being dumped on the beach! You can also look for boat wakes from bigger boats, which can give nice long rides. Surfski paddling is about acquiring a feel for the ocean as much as it is stroke technique and fitness. Get out there and ride some waves.
When ready, leave your comfort zone. The only way to become an open water paddler is to paddle in open water. At some point this will mean heading out into water conditions that you haven’t paddled in before. It will likely be intimidating and feel like work at first, but stick with it and you’ll be hooked – the thrill of paddling a surfski on open water is truly addicting.