Getting out through Surf: Advice from the Pros

Saturday, 18 August 2012 02:00 | Written by 
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Punching through - but is this the right way? Punching through - but is this the right way?

We first published this story in 2009, but it's no less relevant today.  Ten of the best surfski paddlers in the world give advice and tell their stories about getting out through big surf...

That Sequence

...was taken at Amanzimtoti Beach, Durban, South Africa.  Although the surf was relatively small, it could punish inattentive paddlers and there were several broken skis by the end of the race.


Pics by Anthony Grote - for more, go to www.anthonygrote.com


The sequence is interesting because it illustrates several points about going out through surf. 

The right way to do it

The paddler in the foreground is the extremely experienced Mark Lewin.  He has just popped over the shorebreak, and has seen the next wave coming in.  Rather than charge the wave, he's stuck his legs over the side of the ski to slow himself down.  He's waiting the wave to break, then he'll charge the foamie, pop over it and be on his way.

The wrong way to do it!

The paddler in front has charged the wave.   His technique for punching through is good - note how he ducks low and holds his paddle to one side of the boat. But...

Arguably he shouldn't have got himself into that position in the first place.  By patiently waiting, he'd have been able to let the wave break in front of him and then pop over the foamie.  As it is...

...he punches through the wave without falling off but he gets sucked backwards and loses a lot of distance.

"He must have been sucked back 100m!" said Mark Lewin.  "And I was passed him without any effort."


Here's another sequence...

The paddler in this case didn't get his paddle angled into the wave and took the full force of it.  He also ends up getting sucked backwards.

 Pics by Anthony Grote - for more, go to www.anthonygrote.com


So what do the pros say about getting out through the waves?  We asked a selection of experienced paddlers, both male and female, and this is what they had to say:

Matt Bouman

Matt Bouman

What's the best way to get out through the waves?  What's the key thing to do or watch out for?

Don't overcomplicate things. Be decisive. The actual break zone (where you can get hammered) is probably only 10m wide. Before and after this may be intimidating but nothing can harm you. Don't slow down unless it's obvious that you are going to get caught at the absolute worst place at the wrong time. So if you think it's 50/50 ... go for it. It's always easier to punch through at speed. If you can help it, you never want to be in the wave zone without forward momentum.

What's your most memorable moment/catastrophe going out through surf?

I was doing a little downwind from Umhlanga to Marine, back in the day when we used lifesaving spec skis. There was a torrent of a North to South current tearing through the inshore water and a 6 foot, consistent and messy wave. We thought we would be clever and walked all the way down to Black Rock (far north of Umhlanga main beach) to give ourselves some time to handle the wash and surf before being washed over Grannies pool and Cemetery (the rocks in front of the Umhlanga surf Club).

We horribly underestimated the speed of the current and within a minute we were up against the Cemetery. My two companions decided to head back to the beach and walk it back up to Black Rock for another try. I thought I'd make the half chance in front of me.

This was a really dumb idea and after punching a few big foamies I realised I wasn't going to make it. The problem now was that I no longer had an exit. I was in front of the rocks below where the Pearls and pier are now. I had no option but to keep trying. With new incentive to keep me and ski off the rocks I pushed into the sets again. It wasn't looking good. I had already devised my exit strategy, which was to bail from my ski and try swim through the sets. I was then going to have to swim around the rocks and the lighthouse and onto the beach south of them. I was about two meters away from a big full-stop rock and about to launch my escape strategy when the seas suddenly parted and the perfect little gap opened up in front of me. I took the gap and snuck under the lip of one before getting airborne on two more. There was more luck than class involved but still a lovely opportunity to fill my body with adrenaline.

About 20 minutes later, my paddling partners made it out to join me and declared that they had been watching from the beach and thought I was going to die.

 Barry Lewin

Barry Lewin

I know the paddler in question [in the second sequence of pics], he is Sean Austin and he is my coach at the Varsity College Surfskischool in Durban. Young talent, if I could get him to train harder he would be really good. Watch this space.

To the question.

Never fear, as soon as you hesitate you have no chance, have a plan, always attack, speed is everything, use angles (if the wind is blowing)

We paddle through the surf ever day, I live in Umhlanga and paddle out in front of my house so I get plenty practice. The more you practice the better your confidence will get and think this is key. Think my advantage is I really am not scared.

Ps, Toti was tiny at S-B!!!!!! The wave Sean shot was like 2-3 foot! That is tame.

Second question. Never had too many bad experiences going out. Maybe had to wait a bit here and there but that's about it.

Have had more coming in. Had one or two really dodgy swims at the river mouth at like 10foot. Note why I use a blow up PFD.

Most scary is still surfing the mound at 25foot on my spec ski, don't want to dwell on this cause don't think anyone else should be out there if they don't know how it breaks. Have to scout on a jet-ski first. Have got a 25footer for 2,5km at 30-35km/h.

Oscar Chalupsky 

Oscar Chalupsky

What's the best way to get out through the waves?  What's the key thing to do or watch out for?

The question can be answered in many ways because of going through the wave at different points of the wave. If there is small foamy then best way is to lean back just before the foam hits the nose to lift the nose slightly. Then dig your paddle in behind the foam. If the foam is over head high then you have to do the same as going through a steep face: that is to put your paddle parallel to the side of your ski and duck into a small ball keeping you head down.

Make sure you never have your paddle in from of your face as this is a sure way to have the paddle ding your head, or to break your shaft on your head.

Once you have punched through you must get your paddle blade in as fast as possible to avoid getting sucked back. Sometimes you just hold your paddle in the water to stop you going over the falls.

What's your most memorable moment/catastrophe going out through surf?

I have been in some huge breaking waves and have broken many skis in my time. The worst waves are the big foamies which take your nose and lift it over your head, so you are doing a Glicker.  

I have done this once on practice - I hit the wave and did a re-entry and caught the foamy back in. My biggest hits have been in the front of the double where I have been blown out of the front seat to land up on the lap of the back paddler.

Natalie Veckranges 

Natalie Veckranges

Best thing when the surf is big is to look for the wash before you go out.

If you don't think you're going to make it over the wave before it breaks then wait, and make sure you have some acceleration to push you through the foamie and don't stop paddling because otherwise you'll be pushed backwards.

Most terrifying moment: Arriving at Durban View late after a downwind in the dark and the sea was a little bigger than expected at 10foot, not being able to see much in the dark was very scary and never again will I leave for a down wind so late.

Dawid Mocke

Dawid Mocke

What's the best way to get out through the waves?

You have to "attack" the waves and not hesitate when you decide that you are going for it.

What's the key thing to do or watch out for?

You must know where the impact zone is and then time your charge for the back during a lull in the waves.  Know that the impact zone is generally a small area that only requires 20-30 strokes to get through.

What's your most memorable moment/catastrophe going out through surf?

2 occasions - made it out fine both times:

1st - Paddling out at Sedgefield at dusk in 18ft surf with Matthew Bouman.  We just sneaked out.

2nd - starting a race in 8-10ft onshore waves at Dolphin Coast 3 years ago with my brother Jasper.

 Michele Eray

Michele Eray

What's the best way to get out through the waves? 

The best plan is to have patience. If you have the time, watch the waves breaking, look for how many waves are in a set, look for a rip current or something that could help you get out easier. Then time it well, using what you have noticed. Be patient, if you have to wait in the mid-break and pop a few foamies, then do it. The main trick to remember when punching a wave, or popping a foamie, is that you have to keep paddling through it. If you stop the wave will drag you backwards. So paddle hard into it, and keep paddling through it!

What's your most memorable moment/catastrophe going out through surf?

When I had just started paddling, Daniel Conradie made us do a session from the shore to backline at Lookout Beach in Plett. The surf was massive, and we had to race out, take a 30 second break, then race back in. By the end of the session the surf was just getting bigger, and it started getting dark. I was next to Daniel on the last one, and he was coaching me through it, he was saying "pop this one" and "just keep paddling", next thing this monster set came through. I looked at him and asked what I should do, he looked back with this worried expression, and said "Bail!". Once we surfaced after the wave had passed, he said to me: "Mich, sometimes it's just too big!" At least I had company for the swim back to the beach!

Jeremy Cotter

Jeremy Cotter

The best way to get through the waves, especially on the long skis is to take your time and always be aware of what is out the back never just focus on the wave coming at you or it will be the one you never saw that will be your undoing. I am probably the wrong one to ask at the moment as I did a session with Caine Eckstein the other week and he got out straight away and it took me 20mins to get out - very embarrassing, I even considered going in, that is how much I was getting worked over. But eventually a break opens up and you think what was all of the fuss about, that was easy.

My biggest hammering was last year before the Durban world cup, we were doing a session out the front of my place and the surf was not that big, the occasional one breaking out the back. When we got out I decided that I would adjust my watch in my ski and before I knew it i was looking up at a 6 footer coming right at me.

I was in two minds: should I punch it or should I just roll it, I went with the punch and my God did it backfire.

I went up the face of the wave and then went back on the back shoot I kept falling back into the water and my ski catapulted back into the sky, turning so the fin caught my arm on the way up. The pain was so bad I thought I had broken my arm, I could barely swim and was swearing at the top of my voice and calling to the boys at the same time but they thought I was just angry because I had lost my ski. They kept paddling out to sea and left me to wallow in the gutter trying to swim to my ski.

By the time I got to my ski I noticed it was only together because of a few strands of glass on the deck. By the time I got to the shore my ski was at water level and I could not carry it as the pain was way too much in my arm and the ski too heavy because it was full of water, so I had to drag it up the beach and path.

I left it at one of my mate's cars and ran home, nearly in tears cause I thought I had broken my arm and would not be able to go to Durban. Anyway my wife drove me to the hospital and I got all the treatment, it came up that it was extremely bruised and extremely lucky not to have sliced my tricep muscle on my left arm which it was held together by my long sleeve thermal. I still have a scar today on that arm and a big indent in the muscle as well.

I could come up with quite a few more but that is the one that has left a permanent mark on my body so it had to be told.

Hank McGregor

Hank McGregor

The best way to get out through surf break is to take some time to scan the wave zone before even getting wet.  If the wind is blowing then use it and go in the same direction as to give you some assistance.  Look for a rip or current and use that.  All of these elements might just help when you really need it. 

When going through the foamies or broken waves always reach over them with your paddle and try pull yourself through them - this is where most paddlers seem to try brace before impact rather keep on paddling.  I think the main key is to be 100 per cent committed and when you in the impact zone don't hesitate ever.

Try and look beyond the wave in front of you and see what the next one is doing so you know which direction to head in.  Pick up the stroke rate rather than trying to pull harder as you have so much resistance against you at this point.

Good luck.....!

My most memorable ins and outs have got to be from my younger years with my dad when we tried to get out at Toti in a huge west .

All I remember is looking at these huge sets coming in and praying he was not going to take us out in our foam double ski.  (We were training for the Cape Point that we won.  I was 14.)  Then we bumped into some life guards and my dad couldn't turn back - matter of pride I guess.  We made it out through mid break which was bigger than any back line i had been in back then. I remember just popping foamie after foamie after foamie and I could see my dad starting to get tense and impatient. Then he shouted NOW! and I knew that was the call. I tried not to look but when I saw what was coming I just prayed we would find some turbo boost. We made it over the 1st wave of the set and the 2nd but the 3rd was just huge and the lip was so thick. We ducked through it and came out the back of it but then I felt us getting sucked back and over the falls we went.  Before I knew it I was under and searching for the surface.  I was sort of glad to have lost the ski strangely.

When I surfaced my dad was laughing his head off and I was pale and out of breath.  All he said was "that was fun hey?  Looks like you just seen a ghost.  Relax it's only water. Can't hurt you."  Good memories for me. Ski was in half so we started shaping one the next day.

Mark Lewin

Mark Lewin

What's the best way to get out through the waves?  What's the key thing to do or watch out for?

 The most common mistake I see paddlers making, is creeping forward or trying to punch through oncoming broken waves way too close to the break zone.

It generally means they are going backwards or have been washed sideways by the force of the last wave that has hit them, and they then miss the opportunity of paddling through a break in the sets without having to get caught in the break zone. By waiting and holding your position in the surf further back, you are always in control of your ski and going forward, and can get up to full speed very quickly when there is a break.

The dilemma for an experienced paddler is that if you are in a batch of other paddlers at the start of a race, it creates the risk that you wait further back in the correct position, but the so called, "hotshots" speed off attacking the break zone. They invariably they get washed and knocked all over the place, and 1) come flying back into you, 2) when the good break comes, there are other boats and paddlers in the way all over the place trying to correct their line or recover their ski's etc.

I tend to forfeit the shortest line out in favour of more open space on the side of a start to ensure that I have clear water in front of me.

The second mistake I see a lot that leads to damaged skis, is that when caught in the break zone and having a wave break right on you, particularly on a shallow bank, that paddlers try and stay in the seat of their skis. With the paddler's weight in the centre of a 6.4 long craft that weighs under 20kgs, plus the force of the water breaking on top of the ski, it is likely that the ski getting pushed back will now hit the sand bank or wash back into oncoming skis. This results in damaged boats. It is quite often better to roll out of the seat just before impact with the wave, grab one footstrap with the spare hand not holding the paddle. Get the hand holding the paddle out of the way, duck under the water and in a punching motion punch the ski into the wave. With your body under the water the force of the wave washes right over the ski. You do not get washed back very far in this position and are less likely to lose or damage the ski.

What's your most memorable moment/catastrophe going out through surf?

 There are plenty. Taking twenty minute to get out at Woody Cape on the PE - EL race when it is breaking so big and so far out that you cannot see to the backline. By the time you eventually get out you could be one or two km from the start.

 But I think a catastrophe that sticks out was at a race from Umhlanga rocks to Durban, when doing exactly what I described in the first paragraph, holding in the surf zone where I knew I should wait, a relative novice on a heavy spec ski came flying past and attacked the break, only to lose it under the lip of a wave.

Umhlanga Rocks as in the name has rocks all over the place and an extremely shallow sand bank. It also has the most notoriously strong cross current you can imagine. You do not want to swim there if you can help it. The force of the wave broke right over the ski and paddler. There was no way of telling where the ski would go. Unfortunately it came out of the broken wave like a missile sideways and without even seeing it, it hit me in the face, loosening a good few teeth and giving me 1) whiplash 2) mild concussion 3) a bloodied mouth. I did not recover my own ski before it hit the rip and it took off on its own towards Durban and the rocks at Grannies pool. Swimming back to the beach was not an option. Slightly concussed but recovering slowly I swam after the ski, over all the rocks near the Umhlanga lighthouse nearly 1km from the start.

I recovered the ski, luckily not too badly damaged and checked that all my teeth were still there. My pride would not let me return to the beach, so I worked my way out through the surf and paddled the downwind run to Durban at the back of the field, vowing myself never to start in the middle of a batch ever again. I was the butt of all the jokes at the finish and the prize giving for getting it wrong in the surf at Umhlanga rocks. With a badly cut mouth and loose teeth, it was best to just shut up not even try and explain.

 On reflection, there are more and more less-experienced paddlers on the water at the starts of races, but luckily very few accidents. I think we can be thankful for this because the thrills and spills are all part of surfski racing. I also think that the current work being done at the Cape Town and Durban surfski school is a great help for novices in learning the correct surf skills.

Nikki Mocke

Nikki Mocke

The best way to get through waves is to be committed.  Take your time, decide when the best time is to go (because there is a good time and a bad time) and when you decide that the time is right, commit.  He who hesitates, is pounded!

My most memorable experience of catching a massive wave and getting pounded was in 2004, Tri Nations, NZ, Mount Monganui.  Felt a shadow from behind, looked back saw a monstrous wave, paddled backwards, forwards, backwards again... was too big to think straight... Then decided well nothing to lose now, just go!  SO I put my head down and went.... When I was standing in my ski... looking down to see more of the face of the wave... I knew I was in for trouble.  The wave broke and I flew through the air with my paddle in my hands... Was held under for 2 waves and finally came up... slightly stressed. Was racing for country, so now my ski race had ended in a swimming gala.  Needless to say all the other girls were at the gala too!

Going out through the surf, was my first race in Plett...  I was about 17 and it was some MTN race.  Started at (what s the beach to the right of Beacon Isle) Anyway, it was massive.  Was SO AMPED to get out, made it out 2nd in the whole race, cos I was so scared.  Didn't even get my hair wet.  BEGINNERS LUCK! Just paddled as hard as I could... had to take a minute to rest once I made it out to backline... I was blown!

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