Tensions in the Surf

A conversation with big wave board surfer Richard Schmidt

I have been there… surfing my boat in the ocean, only to get the wrath of local boardsurfer. Their anger seems to out of nowhere, and I don’t know what I have done wrong. It is a common experience of kayakers…

In shooting our latest video, I had opportunity to address the problem with famed big wave surfer, Richard Schmidt. As a frequent headliner and big money winner at Maverics surf competition, Richard also operates a surfing school in Santa Cruz, California.- Kent

Kent: It seems it is a fact of life-anywhere there's an accessible surf zone there are going to be other people out there enjoying it. Why do we kayakers often seem to get in trouble?

Richard: I think it is often inadvertent. Sometimes it is not knowing the rules of surfing, and sometimes it is not recognizing the surfers point of view.

Kent: Lets start with the rules…

Richard: Two factors determine who has the right of way. Which surfer catches the wave first, and which surfer is closest to the break. If it's close who caught the wave first, it's generally the person that's the closest to the curl, the surfer that has the inside. That's the most defining rule of right-of-way in surfing.

Also, surfers or kayakers paddling out through the surf should make sure and paddle well around the surf. You don't want to see a group and head for them. When someone catches a wave you're going to be an obstacle for them. It's a real bummer having to steer, and run an obstacle course on this wave because of people paddling out.

Kent: You run a surf school. What do beginner board surfers do to learn without pissing people off?

Richard: I tell my beginning surfing students that they should learn on a soft surfboard so they don't present a hazard to themselves or anybody out there. Kayakers don't have that luxury, you don't have those soft spongy kayaks like surfers.

So I guess you want to make sure you get yourself in a situation that's not real crowded and really learn basic skills away from everybody else.

I have seen kayakers who see a crowd of surfers and plow into the middle of them. Be creative. Look at the ocean and try to find a niche where maybe you can get away from the crowd and really learn your skills, get really confident before you get yourself around any other surfers.

Kent: Can you generalize about how surfers view kayakers?

Richard: I think a lot of boardsurfers are frustrated by kayaks because you have such an advantage. You can catch swells well before they break. You can paddle out very easily. So I think you have to realize the advantage you have and try not to take too much advantage of it.

Also, when a kayak gets knocked sideways in the white water it looks like it really hard to break out of that sideways thing. As a surfer, when I'm paddling out the only thing I can do to save myself and is to dive under. And a lot of surfers see the potential for that and they're very intimidated by kayakers out in the same surf alongside them.

Kent: Kayakers paddle out faster, and catch waves more easily. So it doesn’t take long until kayakers have gotten more rides than board surfer. Does that frustrate surfers?

Richard: You kind of have to take turns to an extent. Sometimes we go out, and if it's crowded, it's a lot more courteous if you sit off to the side and you kind of wait your turn. Watch a couple people get a wave and kind of see how the waves are.

Kent: How much is territoriality an issue?

Richard: Some surfers feel that if they've surfed there longer, that they kind of have more right to the wave than anybody else. I'm not saying that's right, but there is kind of an unwritten rule that people that have been surfing a long time you kind of have to respect.

When I travel to Hawaii and I paddle out to a new spot I'm not going to be openly aggressive. I respect the people that live there, that have been surfing there a really long time. I want to tread lightly and just get a few waves and not really wear out my welcome.

Kent: So you will pass up waves just to let a local get it? I know I rarely think that way when out in a kayak.

Richard: Its something to think about.

Kent: What else can kayakers do to ease tensions at the surf?

Richard: Kayakers can expand the sport by finding surf that requires a little bit of a paddle to get to. These areas rarely have a crowd of surfers.

I think what's really important is respecting the other people out in the water. Have a smile, you know, say "Good day."-whatever. Don't go out there and just try to get a lot of waves. If you catch less waves and you're a little bit nicer with your approach-you're going to get respect in return and have a lot more fun.