TopKayaker.Net: Guide To Kayak Surfing

Steve EisenhauerPaddles & Leashes for Sit-on-top Kayak Surfing by Steve Eisenhauer

"My life just flashed before my eyes", Erik said as he paddled his surfboard up to me, his eyes wide. I smiled back knowingly. On the previous head-high wave I tried to exit a wave to avoid a close-out but could only get my body over the top and left my 13' 6" Cobra Revision on the front-side of the wave. I glimpsed Erik about 30 feet away paddling out to catch a wave but directly in line of my Cobra headed recklessly his way. Gripping the paddle a little shorter than usual I pictured the leash jerking the kayak back just in front of Erik. I just didn't realize it got so close to him. Obviously, I'm not a bombproof-roll, thighaps-on guy: with most crashes I get as far away from my boat as my leash allows and rely on a heavy-duty leash and a firm paddle grip to keep the kayak from plowing down surfers and in-shore bathers.

In my style of SOT kayak surfing a good paddle/leash combination is critically important. Not only does it help protect other surfers and swimmers (who may be at the inside break) but it also gives me the confidence to enjoy myself in the most difficult and fun surf conditions. If the wind is blowing offshore at 30 or 40 MPH I better have confidence the leash won't break - which means my New Jersey kayak would be heading toward Ireland. And many of the best wave days come as winds shift offshore. I'll never forget the day the wind shifted quickly to offshore and increased to 50+ MPH in just one hour. I could barely paddle hard enough to keep from being blown out to sea: with each wipeout the dire consequences of a broken paddle or leash flashed through my mind.

Life is simpler now than years ago when I was regularly breaking leash systems on big wave days. The standard longboard leashes from the surf shop just weren't strong enough. My standard surf boat now is a Wilderness Systems Kaos (now marketed by Dagger) which is lower volume and shorter (10'3") than my Cobra Revision. This volume and size difference greatly reduces leash stress.

swivel snapssurf leashFor the past couple years my standard leash has been a coiled heavy-duty 5/16" thick urethane model from which, upon purchase, I quickly cut the black connecting rope at each end since these ropes don't last long in heavy surf. Replacing the black rope are four strands of 250 lb. test finely-woven Dacron kite string (buy a 100' roll since you'll soon find lots of uses for it). In addition to the brass swivels at both cord ends I add one 500 lb. test Sampo stainless steel ball bearing swivel. Sampo swivels are designed for deep sea fishing but I've used them for years for flying huge kites.

The Sampo swivel now on my leash is more than a decade old, having already spent many hours airborne. It spins much smoother than standard leash brass or stainless swivels, and it greatly extends the life of a coiled leash by consistently maintaining the coil in a relaxed position (and, most importantly, minimizes the likelihood of dangerous tangles that might keep the kayak too close to you after a wipeout).

Almost every kayak-kayaker combination requires a different leash length. My coiled leash is 2' long and stretches out to 9' so, to get the extra foot needed so the leash rests lightly between my feet when paddling, an extra 9" of doubleand Dacron line is added to each end. This works for my 10'2" Kaos but for my 13'6" Cobra Revision an additional 18" of line is a better fit, and more safely keeps this bigger boat further away from me when we're separated in rough surf. After a wipeout the safest feeling is a tug on the paddle leash, which means you're not going to get bopped on the head with a thrashing kayak. Without a tug all you may know is your kayak is somewhere nearby. In my broken paddle collection I have a fiberglass whitewater paddle shaft broken in half; I'm just glad I held it in front of my face and chest when the boat was thrown back at me broadsides, snapping the shaft like a toothpick.

stainless pad eyesThe leash connections to the paddle and boat can be weak points. My Kaos has a strong grab handle at the bow that serves well for the leash connection. But my Revision came equipped with a plastic bow eyelet that soon broke. A single stainless steel eyelet has replaced it but, although it has held up well, I recommend installing double stainless eyelets and tying a Dacron line connection so the stress is distributed equally to both eyelets. Although I don't use thigh straps, there are grab straps in their place and double eyelets greatly strengthen the tie down points.

About a year ago - after breaking 6 blades and 3 shafts in a few years - I purchased my first all-carbon paddle: an AquaBound Shred, 7.75"x18" blades, 30 degree feather, 195cm long with a straight un-indexed shaft. Other than the shaft being a bit too slippery I was happy with my choice. The paddle blade edges are blunt, and therefore less likely to cut me if I get whacked in the face or other body part. Although I rarely get hit by blade edge it can happen at the most unlikely times. And I occasionally find myself gripping the blade with one hand at the shaft connection while the leash and wave-gripped boat are pulling me hard through the water. Sharp-edged blades are harder to hang onto in these situations.

I used to think Polypropylene (and Polypro/fiberglass) blades and single-piece straight-shaft whitewater fiberglass shafts were a good inexpensive choice for kayak surfing. With no rocks or hard surfaces to hit (except for the jetty rocks here in New Jersey that I occasionally get dragged over), and with the reliable record of Carlisle Polypro Day Tripper blades (my local kayak rental representative tells me he's never had one break in more than a decade of use in local rivers), this strong lightweight soft-edged combination seemed to fit my budget-minded personality. I was wrong. A paddle failure, particularly on a cold day a mile out alone in an inlet, is dangerous and, again appealing to my budget concerns, mathematically means a stronger twice-the-cost paddle is a better investment.

My AB Shred carbon paddle lasted about six months. Then, inexplicably on a stroke that didn't seem particularly strong, one blade snapped off and sank to the ocean bottom. It was a long difficult paddle back to shore from the middle of the river inlet where I was riding large waves. With the size of the waves it was hard to keep the boat straight with one blade and, since the leash wouldn't stay on the shaft with only one blade, I was very concerned that any wipeout would result in my kayak being carried out-of-reach. Upon arriving home I contacted the AquaBound representative and, after sending him a picture of the broken paddle, he sent me a free replacement paddle. I requested the same paddle model, but with a smaller blade area (the Splat version) and a shorter length (192cm), in the belief that perhaps I pull too hard on paddles and a smaller blade will reduce the stress enough to keep the paddle blade together. I was impressed how quickly AquaBound replaced the paddle (not even charging shipping ) and heard a similar story from a surf kayaker friend who also uses an AB paddle.

A broken paddle isn't a major problem if you paddle close to shore: just keep a spare nearby. With SOT surf kayaks you can't carry a spare with you. But if you paddle outside inlet breaks or paddle a mile or more exploring different shore breaks then a broken paddle can be dangerous, particularly if you paddle mostly solo year-round. So the broken $180.00 AB carbon paddle prompted me to purchase a $315.00 Werner carbon/Kevlar/fiberglass/foam-core Stikine paddle. I can't imagine ever breaking this war club. The fiberglass shaft has a better feel (no slipping) than the AB Carbon Splat. But the blades are very stiff, and my arms, wrists and hands missed the greater flex of the AB blades. I'd feel a dull ache after a few hour session, and wondered if my "tennis elbow" would soon return. I could purchase the Werner bent shaft version, with its greater flex, but its $440.00 cost is scary (my used Kaos kayak only cost $250.00), it weighs more than the AB and I'm concerned about using a bent shaft for my style of SOT surf kayaking.

So, on all days when a broken paddle won't pose a safety concern, I'm currently using my AB paddle and am particularly pleased with the switch to the shorter 192cm length. Most sizing charts say - at 6'1" tall - a 197cm paddle is right for me. But, after trying different lengths, 192cm works best for my style of paddling. I also feel safer with it, particularly in tight curling wave situations or when gripping the paddle during a wipeout.

WernerSafety dictates how a paddle should be "decorated". I question why most of the best carbon paddles are black in color, and nearly invisible when floating in the water or to nearby boaters (in my case: board surfers and, in the inlets, jetskis and power boats). A kayak paddle in motion can be your most visible part. So, like other experienced paddlers, I decorate my black paddle blades with combinations of red and white reflective tape, and brightly-colored non-reflective yellow, red and white tape. Even inexpensive brightly-colored vinyl (yellow works fine) electricians tape seems to last a long time on most paddle blades. Don't forget to decorate your right paddle different than your left, so you save a split second in turbulent recovery conditions when you need to make this quick distinction. Hopefully soon the high-end paddle manufacturers will color the blades brightly. Massive bright stick-on advertisement emblems would be fine. Just make the right side different from the left.

Any experienced surf kayakers reading this article are probably confused by now: aren't serious SOT surf kayaks wearing thigh straps, waveskiers wearing seat belts and foot straps, and sit-in kayakers are locked-in with spray skirts and thigh pads? Isn't the Eskimo roll the preferred way to right oneself after most capsizes? Well . . . yes. But there are some of us out there who like to slide easily forward and back, flop a leg off one side to get out of a wave, and exit occasionally (voluntarily and involuntarily) to loosen up and get a better workout by swimming a bit and re-entering. SOT surf kayaking without thigh straps, seat belts or foot straps is like bareback horse-riding: no saddle, no stirrups. There aren't a lot of paddlers in my area doing it this way. And for good reason: it can be more dangerous if you're not mentally locked into the safety concerns. Although I don't recommend this style, it is an option. When speaking to sit-in kayakers (and even many SOT users with thigh or foot straps) about how they feel cramped after a couple hours in the saddle, I find myself grinning just a bit. Besides, there are safety concerns with rolling any kayak, particularly at the bottom of a wave or when you're not sure about water depth.

A few safety issues need to be emphasized.  For example, although I frequently paddle alone to get in a workout (and to ride smallish waves along the exercise route) I rarely paddle alone when surfing big waves. I’m usually with a friend (a surfboarder) or near fishermen, lifeguards, jetskiers or other surfers. I am rarely without my lifejacket with 16 pounds of flotation (enough to keep my head up, get me to the surface quicker, but not too much flotation where it’s difficult to dive away from the kayak when necessary or where the added bulk makes it hard to re-enter).  I did purchase (and still have) a lifejacket with more flotation (about 22 lbs.) but find it is more dangerous than one with 16 lbs..  This may be hard to believe but it seems true for me. The ability for aswimer to dive under a wave is a great plus in the surf zone.

Bottom line: you're hearing advice here from an older guy who paddles a cheap old rubber ducky with fins. The Wilderness Systems (now Dagger) Kaos is a plastic, mass-produced, more than 12-year-old design considered a beginner surf kayak by most enthusiasts. My idea of graduating to a new boat is to buy a newer version of the same boat (a 12-year-old Kaos is my backup to a 10-year-old Kaos). But I'm still learning every outing about how to be a better surf kayaker. Most of the lessons are about the need to be in better shape so I can hold my breath longer when pinned down under a big wave, and so I can more easily paddle out during big surf days. But some of the lessons are about refinements in technique and equipment: being adept at re-entering from both sides, checking leash connections and grab ropes/hardware for wear, sliding vs. bending back to adjust trim.

It's an exciting way to stay in shape. And all the wildlife I see quite closely - dolphins, seals, brown pelicans, osprey catching fish, schools of bull nose rays and bunker - are simply the icing on the fun workout sessions.

9-2-11 Update

The replacement AB carbon Splat paddle broke today essentially at the same spot as the last one: where the blade meets the shaft. Again, it failed under less than high stress conditions: chest-high waves during a reasonably hard pull on the blade.  So it looks like I’ll be using the Werner straight shaft war club for next week’s hurricane swell.  I expect to feel the muscle ache due to the stiff shaft and blades.  But it won’t break, and I’ll be saving my dollars for the more flexible megabuck bent-shaft version. 

11-23-11 Update

AT2 Flexi paddle photos (both sides-left).  Vinyl electricians tape seems to work well for a better more-relaxed shaft grip and, according to some literature on the issue, less strain on arms. If you don’t like the high-visibility candy cane look, use black tape.

10-18-2012 Update

The AT2 Flexi paddle shaft broke just above the right blade after 11 months of use. It was replaced free of charge under warranty by Adventure Technologies. But I never expected to break this paddle in ocean surfing.

6-1-14 Update

My replacement AT2 Flexi paddle shaft just broke during a wipeout on a head-high wave.  I’m glad it lasted 18 months, but very disappointed it broke.  No warranty coverage this time.  So, I’ve given up on the AT2 Flexi, even though it was the best paddle I’ve ever used.  I’m now using an AT2 Standard bent-shaft paddle. 

Camp Cedar KnollAbout the author -
In Steve’s position as Regional Director of the Natural Lands Trust, his work focuses on managing 9,000 acres of preserved land and water, preserving addition acreage and running an outreach program that includes many kayak and canoe trips, often involving first-time paddlers.  For information about the Natural Lands Trust’s activities see www.natlands.org
(photo right: Kayakers from Camp Cedar Knoll in Natural Lands Trust’s outreach program)

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