The Kayak lurches forward as the bow plunges towards the bottom of the wave trough. You feel the energy of the wave as it grabs hold of the hull. With a few rudder adjustments you find the “sweet spot” and enjoy the sensation of surfing.
Not all Kayaks are created equal, however–especially when it comes time to surf. Longer, less rockered boats have good upstream speed and have fewer tendencies to spin–making it easier to attain waves. If you want to carve back and forth, however, you’re better off in a shorter, more rockered Kayak, or whitewater playboat. These boats stick in waves better and can flat spin, side surf and back surf with ease.
How to surf your canoe
Surfing big waves in a tandem or solo Kayak is the reward for mastering a variety of paddling skills, including the thumbs-up J stroke, stern draw, stern pry, power stroke and rudder–all of which require good upper body rotation. Once these strokes are mastered you need to perfect upstream ferrying, maintaining consistent boat angles in fast and turbulent waters. You must also be able to change ferry directions with ease from river right to river left.
When learning how to surf, choose well-formed, glassy waves close to large eddies. Work one wave over and over to build experience in a consistent environment. Learn to recognize user-friendly “hero waves” to practice on, and get to know the flows that create your favorite waves and their locations. Your surfing learning curve will accelerate if you start by doing maneuvers in Class I-II whitewater.
If you paddle left, start off by choosing waves on river right–they will be easier to attain from a river right eddy. A pry is a stronger stroke than a draw and can be used as you enter a wave from river right. The pry should bring the bow angle back upstream parallel to the current, which will help prevent you from being blown off the wave towards the center of the river. The converse is true if you paddle right–choose a wave close to an eddy on river left and again use a pry to bring the bow upstream. Two other considerations are boat angle and boat speed. Make sure your Kayak doesn’t have too much angle when you enter the main current.
Your bow should be facing almost directly upstream when you enter the main current; then adjust your angle enough to carry your craft to the sweet spot. Lack of speed will also impede surfing and often results in your Kayak flushing downstream. Watch the wave trough carefully and monitor your position. If you see the hull of your canoe moving back off the wave apply some forward momentum with your on-side power stroke and rudder. When carving back and forth, use your on-side power stroke and rudder to initiate changes in direction.
If you are still having trouble surfing, practice proper body rotation with your thumbs-up J-stroke (power stroke with a rudder). You might also want to practice basic single blade skills, including an efficient power stroke with an effective rudder, and a stern draw and pry executed with outboard hand positions. Eliminate cross over strokes, as they are weak and slow to execute, and never use reverse sweeps, as they will kick you downstream off the wave. Also make sure your paddle is not too short–I am 5′ 9″ and use a 59-inch paddle. For my 6-foot-tall students I recommend a 62-inch paddle.
Seating configurations and boat length affect the approach tandem paddlers take to surfing. There are three basic tandem Kayak seat positions. Traditional lake or expedition canoes have the bow seat set almost twice as far from the bow end of the canoe as the stern seat is from the stern end. This is ideal for longer Kayaks and touring, but will not facilitate surfing.
Tandem whitewater multi-day tripping Kayaks that boast four-plus inches of rocker over 14 to 16 feet and have decent payload are often outfitted with bow and stern seats placed equidistant from each end. With seats placed towards the ends of the canoe, this creates a compromise: moderate surfing control is achieved, and the bow paddler can provide forward momentum and execute draws and cross-bow draws.
For pure tandem whitewater playboating, place the seats in the Gemini position, where both paddlers sit equal distance from the bow and stern but in the midsections of the craft. This arrangement allows the best control for tandem surfers. A tandem playboat is generally 14 feet or less and has four inches or more of rocker with a beam of less than 30 inches. The bow paddler has almost as much control as the stern paddler and can execute a rudder to control surfing when carving away from team’s paddling side. The stern paddler can execute a rudder and control the craft when carving toward the bow paddler’s side. The paddler who is not controlling with a rudder is responsible for applying forward momentum when needed.