Evaluating Surf

I got started in Kayak surfing during the shooting of our recent video production: In the Surf. I was lucky to have some expert assistance, from folks like Dan Crandall, Doug Schwartz, Rick Starr. These tips are distilled from some of their advice.

– A Beginners Guide to Evaluating Surf

I got started in Kayak surfing during the shooting of our recent video production: In the Surf. I was lucky to have some expert assistance, from folks like Dan Crandall, Doug Schwartz, Rick Starr. These tips are distilled from some of their advice.

Playing in ocean waves in a kayak can be an exhilarating way to paddle. Long dynamic surfs, dramatic cutbacks, flatspins, and vertical moves are all the maneuvers out there in the waves waiting for you. Trying these and excelling at them will first require some understanding of the ocean’s currents, wave shapes and characteristics, types of waves, as well as where are the ‘sweet spots’ on a wave when beginning to surf.

The most common type of surf is a beach break. At first glance it may look uniform down the beach, but changes in swell direction, tide height and bottom configurations can give a variety of surf conditions, from peeling waves with big well formed shoulders to pitching waves that close out and leave a kayaker few surfing options.

A shore break is where the waves end to close out all at once right onto the beach. Unfortunately for a lot of people, they think this is where they need to start learning to kayak surf. Realistically it's probably the toughest and worst place to start because it's very difficult to get out past these breaking waves without already having surfing skills. The surfs tend to be very short and, and violent. Also, the potential for injury is actually a lot greater when you're working in shore break.

A gradual bottom profile will tend to create a mushy wave, which is ideal for beginning surfing. A sharp change in the bottom profile will create a pitching wave, which is more challenging.

Usually the best place to surf is off of a point break. It can give you an opportunity to get out to the line up without having to pound your way through incoming surf. A point break is formed when parallel lines of swells refract around the point, bending into progressively shallower water. Depending on the swell direction and bottom contour, this can create a series of ideal surfing waves.

Many point breaks have waves that reform several times. Each successive reform is smaller, gentler, and friendlier. Point breaks allow for multiple times to surf the whitewater, which is rarely possible on a beach break. Plus it's easier to get out and find the ideal takeoff spot.

A reef break can be a lot of fun to surf because the reef is simply the shallow spot out in the ocean. The waves break over that reef giving you deep water exits on both sides so you can paddle out to the deep water, get into the line up, surf it and get off and never have to deal with the beach break. Not all reef breaks are friendly though, since the reef can have sharp rocks very close to the surface.

Factors for Selecting Waves

There are essentially three factors to look for when evaluating surf. One is swell height and direction – preferable to have a long steady swell. Second is the wind – no wind at all or an offshore wind is preferable. Third is the tide – determining when is the best time (high or low tide) to be at the chosen location.

Each location has different characteristics. So you have to research each spot to know whether they it is best at low tide, high tide, or an incoming tide or an outgoing tide.

When you arrive at the surf, take a few minutes and get tuned into the rhythm of the waves, their size, and their frequency. A few minutes of study will pay off well. Especially if you can get up high, you can get a big picture feel that is difficult once you are on the water. It takes a lot of experience to evaluate swell size, wind direction, and the tide and conclude what sort of waves you will have available to play. Locals and the internet are often the best resource.