Getting Started - Equipment

Friday, 02 December 2005 13:42 | Written by 
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This is the first in a series of articles about Getting Started in Surf Ski; it covers the basic equipment that you'll need and gives suggestions on how and where to find it.

Note that most shops that sell skis offer good advice to beginners; talk to them. Other sources of advice (and equipment) are SurfSkiSchool and newsgroups.


SurfSkiSchool is one way to "try before you buy". The only equipment you need to own is a swimsuit; SurfSkiSchool will supply the rest. Plus they supply highly motivated coaching staff and a regular venue at which you and other aspirant surf skiers can get together and share the learning experience. (Sharing the experience is vital. Proficiency in paddling doesn't come overnight and having a friend to share the ride makes it much easier.)

But whether you start with SurfSkiSchool or not, sooner or later you'll want to invest in your own equipment.

Basic Equipment

The basics are: Ski, paddle and leash, PFD (and roof racks).

The Ski

What ski should you start with? We strongly recommend going for stability and that means a broad, flat ski. In South Africa at any rate, the resale value of entry level skis is high. Buy a Hammerhead and you'll find you can sell it in six months time for almost what you paid for it.

So, what are the choices at the entry level?

  • Brian's Kayaks (Cape Town) sell the Broadbill and Dorado.
  • Custom Kayaks (Durban) offer a new "spec" ski called the Titan Cruiser. ("Spec" skis - so called because they are manufactured to Surf Lifesaving specifications - are usually stable and easy to paddle.)
  • The Fenn XT is a stable ski that has adjustable rudder-pedals.
  • And there are others too: other skis and other vendors. Check out the links page on this site, which is being constantly updated.

But you don't have to buy a new ski. Ask around for used skis; the used ski market is brisk and you shouldn't find it too difficult to source one. (You may have to be patient though; I called Brian's Kayaks every morning for a month before I found my first ski, a Wedge.) Also, check out the classifieds on sites like, if you buy a second hand ski you are almost guaranteed your money back when you sell it - provided you look after it. Folks find, sell and buy skis on newsgroups too.

Things to watch out for: leg length is the single most important attribute of the ski. When you sit in the ski with your feet on the rudder pedals, you should be able to slide your fist between the deck of the ski and your knee. If the ski is slightly too long for you, you may be able to shorten the leg-length by gluing heel pads into the footwells, but it's better just to get the length correct. Try to avoid a ski that's too short; you'll be unstable and your knees will get in the way of your stroke. If you can fit two fists or more between the deck and the back of your knee, the ski is too short.

Some skis have adjustable rudder-pedals. The advantages are obvious - family and friends can use the same ski and resale is easier. The disadvantage is that the added space in front of the pedals can fill with water when you're going through waves, weighing you down just when you don't need it. (The venturis do drain the water eventually.)

The Paddle

You'll want a "wing" paddle; these are the ones whose blades are shaped like an aircraft wing. There are several manufacturers (you'll hear names like Epic, SET, and others) and they come in several styles (Lettman I, Lettman II, Endorphin), but the critical factor is blade size. There are big blades (used for sprint paddling) and small blades (used for long distance paddling). You want a small blade for surf skiing.

Other points are: invest in carbon fibre blades; they cost a little more but fibre glass blades (the other choice) tend to chip and to break easily (I snapped a blade going out through the shore break, not recommended.)

You may be asked if you want a carbon shaft. You don't need a carbon shaft; the difference is minimal and of interest to an elite paddler only (maybe).

The blades of your paddle should be set at an angle (the "feather" angle) to each other. If it's a split paddle (i.e. it comes in two pieces) you'll need to set the angle yourself. Split paddles like the Epic range allow adjustment of both length and feather angle. These features don't come cheap however and a standard pre-set paddle will do just fine until you become an elite paddler when you may want to experiment.

The paddle needs to be the correct length. There are many recommended ways of judging the correct length, but in general the paddle will be about 20 to 30cm longer than you are tall. Surf Ski paddles are usually between 2.00m and 2.15m in length.

In summary: Get yourself a wing paddle with carbon blades and fibre glass shaft.

The Leash

A paddle leash attaches your paddle to your ski. Why is it a good idea? When you start paddling, you're going to be falling off your ski and swimming a great deal. Using a leash means that you don't have to worry about the paddle going one way while your ski drifts off in another. (Later when you're an expert and you're paddling in a 30kt southeaster, you'll also want your leash - but now it's safety measure designed to prevent your ski being blown away from you if you fall off.) You can find leashes at surf shops (Brian's Kayaks have them too if you're in Cape Town) - the coiled surfboard leash works well.


A PFD (Personal Floatation Device) is a must. A recommended model is the Tripper PFD; it's designed specifically for paddling and you can get one with an integral drinking system (a juice bladder fits in a pocket on the back) for when you start doing long distances.

Roof Racks

These are essential pieces of equipment unless you live at the beach! Here in South Africa we have two main choices: Holdfast supply locally manufactured budget roof racks. Thule racks, imported from Sweden are much more robust and are highly recommended - if you can afford them. You'll also need sets of rack cushions and tie-downs.

More Equipment...

One of the advantages (or not!) of paddling is that there are lots and lots of gadgets and add-ons and accessories that you can buy as you become more and more immersed in the sport: hats, caps, tops, paddling shorts, booties, leashes, flares, paddle covers, GPS units, heart rate monitors, you name it. We'll be publishing an article on safety that recommends some of these; most others will be reviewed on the site in the near future.

But if you've got ski, paddle, leash and PFD, you're ready for your first lesson...

On to the second of this series of Getting Started articles... Getting Started - Safety


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