Surf Kayaking mid '60's

by Ron Reilly

British Champion - 1968

Everyone has a mental image of people riding a surfboard in large waves ; not so many are familiar with the fact that kayak paddlers also ride those waves, but compared to their board-riding comrades, are, in a fashion, trapped in their kayaks. A Board rider can always take a dive from the board if the necessity arises, or they lose their balance, whereas the kayak paddler cannot exit the kayak anywhere near as easily. Craft, techniques, and the ability of the performers have improved greatly, from those days of years ago.

In the 60's the main type of kayak used was based upon the 4 metre long Slalom models. Nowadays the longer Sea kayaks, Surf Skis and the short 'Play Craft' are often used, enabling larger waves to be tackled with a far greater degree of safety than was possible 'back-then' It goes without saying that to take a kayak into large waves on the open sea or oceans, the paddler has to be the complete master of his craft, with the ability to Eskimo Roll the kayak whenever it capsized. One of my early instructors used to say that one should automatically perform a roll if someone threw a bucket of water over you ! NB: (The surf skis have an open cockpit where the paddler actually sits on the deck of the kayak, rather than inside it, as per the slalom models).

For the non-kayak informed readers of this, a few words about the various skills possible might be in order. Nowhere are these skills seen to better affect than when used by The Corps of Canoe Lifeguards; be they British, Australasian, American or from any other ocean-bordered land where the water is used to the full, for it's sporting value. Each member has to be of an Advanced level of ability, capable of performing all techniques related to perfect control of the craft. (The Corps of Canoe Lifeguards work in groups of three).

Normal use of kayaks entail paddling over moderately calm water, which can be without any current - as per a lake - or water such as rivers, where the speed of the water can vary from slow, to quite rapid. For river grading, Six Grades are used to indicate the degree of difficulty. Paddling on the open Sea, can again be calm or anything but! Currents within the tidal range can be as fast as 9 knots or more, and when near to the shore-line, there is the proximity of the land with it's special problems caused by the shallowing of the depth of the water, often with the additional hazard of rocks. The shallowing aspect is mainly what produces Surf, and decrees what type of surf it will be.

A small wave that has a white top when it breaks, is surf; so is the same wave that crashes down onto the Hawaiian and Australian beaches, except the latter are often many metres in height, and the weight of the water in one wave, many tons. Dependant upon many considerations, surf kayaking is performed on/in, these waves.

Throw a small box into any surf and it will be moved about by the power and direction of the waves: One moment it will be on the surface of the water, the next, forced under by the action of the water and air, that is moving at greater or lesser speed through the motion of the water dependent upon the gradient of the sea bed, wind direction, and power. Now imagine that box being a kayak with a human sitting in it, with a double-bladed paddle to propel and control it. As the surf gets larger and more violent, the kayak will at times be propelled down the face of a wave so as to be almost submerged in the trough at the base of the wave upon which, a few seconds previously, it had been running with a fair degree of stability. Throw a wooden staff into deep water at a certain angle, and it will pop back up and out with varying force; so will a kayak. A skilled kayaker will anticipate this manoeuvre and can just sit waiting for the kayak to pop back out of it's submersion and land back flat upon the water; or has the options to initiate twisting or somersaulting, by movements of his legs, hips, shoulders, paddle, rather like the twisting/pirouetting used by Ballet Dancers or Gymnasts.

Some years ago a non-kayaking-journalist asked me what it was like to paddle a kayak in big surf waves. Explanatory words cannot begin to describe the sensations experienced by so doing, and one should at least have paddled a kayak to be able to appreciate the written words of explanation, but in an attempt to give him an answer, I penned the following, describing one of the more foolhardy actions of my younger years as a kayak paddler. (I was 40 years of age at the time)! One of the penalties of being a champion is that one cannot help but feel you have an above-average, modicum of ability in the activity you are champion in.

The time was almost 12 months since the last British Surf Championship, and a group of military kayakers had arrived in Bude, which is the town in Cornwall, SW England, where the surf championships had been held since it's inauguration some years earlier. We were in about the middle of a two weeks training course prior to the coming championships, and this day was a 'free day' (as long as you paddled)! The water that flows onto the Cornish coast is supplied by the Atlantic Ocean, and in power and size, could approach that, pounding the coasts of Australia, South Africa, and such-like surfing nations - but was seldom quite as big.

For our 'free day', about 10 military paddlers arrived at Widemouth Bay, to be greeted by the biggest surf any had ever seen. I, who had spent a year in Australia, had never seen larger waves! Suffice to say the single coffee cafeteria did a roaring trade as the time crept towards high tide, - we were told by the 'locals' that the waves always became smaller as the tide turned. We decided to wait.

There had to have been about 15 or more waves rolling towards the beach, one after the other - that meant that for at least 500 metres there was nothing but breaking surf waves, of a height approaching 5 metres in vertical height.. That meant they had a 'face' that was more than 7 metres, and when considering a 4 metre kayak superimposed on the face of such a wave, one can imagine the trepidation we paddlers felt about going out into such surf.

Having been waiting for more than an hour for the hoped-for easing-off of the size of the waves I finally; as the 'Champion' felt it my honour and duty to 'make the effort'. How stupid can man be! Five of my better students - all ace paddlers - decided to accompany me - more to show the civilians who were also drinking coffee in the cafeteria - that we military personnel were of a different breed. Having viewed the surf waves for the past 2 hours from the height of the cafeteria windows atop some low cliffs, we were rather intimidated when sitting in our kayaks down on the beach at the level of the finally collapsed waves. Those 5 metre waves now looked to be at least double the size!

It all came down to that damned emotion called ego; where one feels it is almost a duty to perform some act, be it sensible or utterly stupid. That emotion struck this mortal that day, and without realising why or how, I had pushed my kayak out into that portion of the Atlantic that bordered Widemouth beach. There are various methods of making progress out through large waves such as were crashing onto those beaches that day. One can attempt to paddle forward and up the face of the incoming wave, but if the timing is off, you stood the chance of being tipped backwards in a 'Reverse loop', ending back on the beach from which you were trying to escape. Another method - and the one I utilised - is to capsize under the approaching wave, wait till it has passed, then Eskimo Roll back up - this has to be attempted till you reach the calmer water out beyond the first breaking wave - 500 metres out!

A long time later I reached the beginning of the surf line, and was more.than impressed that my 5 students all made it out - not one civilian made the attempt. Now we were in an area of seemingly gentle but large waves - they were not breaking, so were not surf waves, and were perfect for just 'running' with the force of the waves being the power we needed to ride them at quite some speed. One is always surprised at the speed that waves travel, and can get frustrated when the wave you hoped to 'catch' for a ride, passed and leaves you seemingly, 'standing still '. After a certain period of time, the feeling of frustration hit me, and I realised that to catch the waves that would carry the kayak on an exhilarating run, one had to move closer to the actual 'breaking line' where the waves were at a much steeper angler - surf waves.

Park a car on a hill without the brakes on, and it will run down the hill. A kayak on the face of a steep wave, will do the same, but as the wave is also moving at a great speed towards the beach, the kayak will accelerate very rapidly and has to be controlled by turning it to the left and right, so as not to run into the breaking portion of the wave. There comes a time when the paddler has to decide to turn the kayak back over the wave, and paddle back out towards the open sea - maybe utilising the same techniques used in getting away from the beach after launching. You try to keep an eye on your comrades, and hope they are doing the same for you, but the number one thought has to be for the control of your kayak, and your own safety. I could have been alone on the planet for all the appreciation I had of other mortals anywhere near me that day, at that particular time.

I had without doubt chosen the perfect area of surf in which to paddle, and was in my element and at the top of my form, performing moves that I had previously only dreamed about. Suddenly, the nice green face of the wave towards which the kayak was running, broke into a roaring mass of foaming white surf - no way out that way, back to the open sea and safety, so a rapid turn in the other direction, with the intention of trying to gain the safety of the open sea just a hundred metres behind me.

Adrenalin is a great booster for we humans. In moments of fear or/and danger, it gives us a boost which can enable the performance of actions we could never have performed without it.

Mathematicians have postulated that the weight of a 2 metre wave breaking over a kayak deposits about 2 tons of force upon the kayak - imagine what the weight would be for a wave of 5 metres. This was my thought when the wave I was riding, broke both in front of, and behind me. The adrenalin took over and I aimed the kayak directly down the face of the wave. For a moment there was over a metre of water below the bows of the craft, with the same amount of wave above the stern. As the wave steepened just prior to toppling over in changing from a 'Comber' to a 'Breaker' - there was a split second where it was vertical . At this moment the kayak dives directly down the face of the wave and submerges to a greater or lesser extent - in waves of the magnitude my kayak was on, the kayak was completely buried from tip to tail, with the paddler about 2 metres under water.

An experienced surf kayaker knows the sensation of being in a kayak that gets spat out from a dive under a wave; but nothing could have prepared me for the power exerted by that wave upon my body, and that slim, light craft. Both craft and paddler were cast over the 4 metre length of the kayak, high into the air, with the following gyrations of both being totally under the control of the water and elements, with only the ability of the human to hold his breath for as long as possible in the hope there would come a time when his nose was not under water, to ensure his survival. Suffice to say, that for the many minutes it took to be finally washed onto the beach, that kayak had performed every motion possible. Amazingly rapid rides forward and backward down to the trough at the bottom of the wave; Sommersaults of the kayak and paddler, with pirouettes when the kayak was in the vertical position - one should realise that the kayak can be vertical no-matter whether the bows are directly above the paddler, or below him, with the kayak seeming to be standing on it's nose in the water.

By skilful use of one's balance, and also the paddle, many techniques can be linked together . It is this linking of moves, among other considerations, that wins most points in the championships . It is also what keeps one alive in such an element.

Now, at double the age I was in those distant days, I can dream of the sensations experienced, and consider the bravado - stupidity, whatever; of my actions, but overall, have to admit to being glad I made the decisions that I did.

"Mens Sana in Corpore Sano"

steen bondo