Tips For Paddling In and Out Through Surf

Paddle Surf TipsAt some point or another, you might enter a race where you have to enter through the surf to get to the start line. Or maybe you go for a paddle and want to beach along the way, but there is some surf to account for. This can be intimating to some. And others may not understand how a simple extra second can make all the difference. Here are some important tips, dos and don'ts and lessons learned the hard way which may help you safely get to your destination and not have to worry so much about that upcoming race with a beach entry.

This is part of a multi-part series.

  • Part 1: GENERAL tips and guidelines for paddling in and out of surf
  • Part 2-6: CRAFT SPECIFIC tips for various craft

Surf Tips

[ Please note, this is not written in mind for folks racing PPG or other "surf" races where the waves are part of the course. It is intended more for folks looking to simply get through the surf with minimal risk to get to the open ocean or come in after a paddle. That said, there might be overlap on many points that is helpful for those racers too.]

Let's be honest, our craft are not always designed for surf. In fact, some of them can be ridiculously hard to maintain control of. These vessels are designed to go fast; they are long, light, and very expensive. So one wrong move and you can find your self floating upside-down wondering what happened to your shiny new craft.

While we could say there is always a set way to safely go in and out of waves, the beauty of the ocean is it is so dynamic and unpredictable. So it is best to follow some general tips and apply them each time, regardless of where you are.

Going out through the surf...

  1. Should you even go?
    You have hauled your gear, rigged it up, and walked to the water's edge. That said, there are days where it is just not safe to go out. Waves are steep, big and closing-out. No time between waves to paddle safely for the horizon. Ultimately as we get better, we can handle a bigger day. But always good to error on the side of caution
  2. Watch and Look!
    Spend some time watching the surf before you venture out. Look the timing of waves intervals. Look for bigger waves that break farther out, referred to as set waves. These wave groups come every couple of minutes or longer. So best to spend ample time waiting for them and watching for how often they come. You don't want to be caught half-way out when the horizon gets dark and a wave builds in the distance.

    Look for possible rip currents where the waves don't break as big. These troughs of water rushing out to see often look a little muddier, and unlike a swimmer, are a paddler's dream. The waves will be smaller and the current will aid in your quick travel past the waves.
  3. Be Patient and Time your Launch
    It is always better to get there early so you can be pragmatic and time things. Sometimes when others are around, we tend to feel pressure to hurry up and go. Throw in pre-race anxiety or fears of missing the start and we might rush things. Don't! Your race will suck if you break your board or canoe because you rushed it. Your journey won't happen if you drop your paddle and can't find it later.

    Paddle Tips for Surf
  4. Stage your approach
    As you get close to "go time", stand in the water with your craft a little ways out, to minimize how much distance you have to paddle. Remember, your goal here is to get out past the breakers as quick as possible, so shorten the distance. Lift your craft over the waves so as to minimize resistance. ALWAYS have complete assertive control over your vessel and paddle.
  5. Commit when you go
    When you hop on your board, canoe or ski, don't dilly-dally to get seat adjusted, make sure your water bottle is on the correct side, or that your jersey is comfortably tucked in. You have one job once you commit and that is to paddle as hard and fast as you can to get out there. Ideally you get out before a wave comes. Or that you minimize the number of waves you have to deal with.
  6. Go straight into the waves
    If a wave is coming, it is best to point your craft straight into it. Any angle, will increase the chance of you spinning out, and getting knocked off your craft. Worst case is it hits you broadside where the mass of your vessel will catch the wave and send you back to shore. Best to knife into them so you offer the least resistance.
  7. Aim for straight out...unless
    In the case where a slight course change can guarantee you to go over an unbroken swell instead of a broken wave, consider that option. HOWEVER, you run the risk to extending your time in the surf zone, and should that wave end up breaking before you get over it, you will be at risk of being at a dangerous angle, and intersect the wave at its strongest moment, right as it breaks.
  8. Paddle hard
    This is not a lolly-gag time time to paddle. Paddle with purpose to get out through the section as fast as you can muster. If you encounter a wave, your speed will help neutralize its impact on pushing you backwards or affecting your line.
  9. Don't stop early
    Remember how we talked about set waves breaking farther out? Well don't take the chance that stopping after the last wave puts you in safe waters. Always better to go further out and be safe then to stop after you crest what you 'think' is the last wave'. Plus when you stop and gather yourself, the swell direction might nudge you back in a bit towards shore. Don't risk the drift, and instead give yourself extra buffer.

Coming in through the surf...

  1. Stop and watch
    Just like when you headed out, it is time for you to relax a moment and really study where the waves are breaking. See if they break then re-form and break again. Is there a spot that they break biggest first and then peel away. Maybe a channel where it rarely breaks. Study what you are about to enter.
  2. Put yourself in position
    Get your self pointed to shore outside the breaking spot of the waves (keeping in mind any set waves you saw while watching break further out than normal waves).
    Paddle in Surf Tips
  3. Timing and Vision
    Try and see a set and be ready to go right after its last waves (usually 3-5 waves). In some situations, after the last set wave breaks you have a better chance of reprieve to paddle in without encountering another one. Maybe even outrunning any waves behind you. Always be looking on the horizon for waves. Very important.
  4. It is go time!
    If your goal is to paddle in with minimal risk, you can try to get in without catching a wave, but in between the waves. Therefore, when you begin to paddle you have to commit completely and really go all out. If it is not go time and you feel yourself getting pulled, do everything you can early to hold water with your paddle. Skis and OC put your feet in the water. That said, if you don't sense the wave releasing you, get back into go mode.
    Important note. It is not helpful to catch the same wave someone else is on. It is hard enough to come in yourself, but factor in another craft (possibly not in control) and your chances of injury or damage increase. If you see another person, let them go. And if you do have to go, give them tons of space.
    Paddle in Surf Tips
  5. Riding a wave
    In the event that you choose to catch a wave, or it catches you, it is in your best interest to point your craft straight to shore. If it breaks while you are on it, lean back or put your wait on the back of your board to help keep the nose up and help you from nose-diving. After it breaks you might shoot ahead of the wave for a second or two. So be ready for a second push after the initial one when it catches back up.
    Paddle in Surf Tips
  6. Arrival
    Don't think that once you are in shallow water that you are all safe and done. Even a small wave can spin your craft once you are off of it. It can clip you in the shins, knock you off your feet, or drift into another person. Once you get your feet on sand, secure your craft, and lift if up out of the water. Folks might be greeting you with congratulatory hugs or an offer of help. Make sure you are clear of final waves before you let them come into your space. And always be looking over your shoulder at the sea! You never know if a wave, or another paddler is heading your way.

Going out is tough, because of the opposing swell and energy you are combating. But coming in is tough because you lose the vision you have of what waves are doing. It can be exhilarating on a wave should you catch one. And looking on YouTube will show you how some folks can surf their canoe, paddleboard, or surf-ski with ease and style. But unless you have caught a couple in your time on the water, and gotten thrown off a few times for good measure, always best to play it safe. After all, nothing ends a fun day like broken craft and paddlers.

Additional tips

    • Sometimes the best stability is from your paddle. If you stop paddling you might lose speed/inertia and suddenly the wave takes charge. Also use your paddle as a brace to keep you upright. In the case of prone use your hands to hold your line or brace yourself.
      Paddle Surf Tips
    • Small days are dangerous too. Don't let smaller waves than you have conquered before fool you. If you let your guard down you might be victim of those ankle-biters you were mocking minutes before.
    • Once you are done and on the beach, look out for other paddlers who might need a hand. If someone has fallen off they might need assistance or their gear might be floating in. Just don't put everyone at greater risk by getting in the way. Assess their needs, and know if they are in distress. The biggest concern for them might be their craft crashing into them if they are no longer in control of it.

    Have fun out there. I have caught some waves and ridden them for what felt like forever. I have also had them sneak up and catch me, and I am still having water come out my nose when I bend over from those instances of getting rolled, trounced and drilled. Just to re-iterate, the tips above are not meant to be a set-in-stone always-do kind of list because, as mentioned before, the ocean is dynamic and always finding new ways to surprise us.

    So have fun next time you enter or exit in the surf. And if you have any suggestions on what we missed, let us know in the comments!

    Also be sure to check out Part 2-6: CRAFT SPECIFIC tips to each of the various craft,

    • Part 1: GENERAL tips and guidelines for paddling in and out of surf
    • Part 2-6: CRAFT SPECIFIC tips for various craft

    Photo Credit: Thank you to Ron Feliciano for the pictures as well as all the people featured in the photos.

    Cali Paddler Team Writer Clarke Graves

    Team Writer Clarke Graves - If there is water, he will paddle it (regardless of craft). Clarke is a surfer turned paddler who grew up in San Diego but has traveled every corner of California enjoying its beauty and appeal. He has had the privilege of racing SUP, OC6, OC2, OC1, Prone, dragon boat and surf-ski.

    One of Clarke's goals is to paddle as much shoreline in California as he can, with as many paddling friends who are willing to join him. If you have an idea for Clarke to write about or any questions, send it our way and we will pass it along!

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    • Melissa Ulrich - November 10, 2017

      Excellent article!! Thank you so much for sharing this!

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