Downwind Surfski Technique - in depth...

Saturday, 22 April 2006 02:10 | Written by  Erik Borgnes
Rate this item
(10 votes)

ImageThe purpose of this article is simply to help those struggling with the often frustrating art of downwind paddling. Some of the techniques utilized are counter-intuitive, particularly for those like me who grow up with very little experience on large bodies of water. The principles contained below were gathered from and discussed with veteran paddling instructors Rick Nu’u and Mike Giblin from Maui, and Dawid Mocke from South Africa.

Wave Types

Waves are of two basic types:

Parallel waves (I'll call them type 1) are relatively straight and stretch for 50-100 yds wide. They are fairly uniform in size, shape, speed. These are created by boat wake and from wind waves that come around a point or through some geographic filter. They tend to be smaller, slower, and are easier to catch and surf downwind.

The scallop or semi-circle shape waves (type 2) need more wind and open water to form. They are roughly 10-30 yds wide, and they give the illusion of being irregular or confused, particularly if you’re sitting still. They can be very frustrating for beginners to surf, but they are predictable and if you know how to use them, can give you lots of speed.


Erik at 2005 US Champs (Photo:

 Riding Type 1 Waves

The type 1 wind waves that you find in big bays and lakes march along at a regular speed and intermittently rise up and then flatten out. These waves are easy to surf because they don't take much skill to catch and ride.

Speed in these is primarily dependent on a paddler's flat-water speed and far less dependent on surfing skill. There is rarely a shoulder to maneuver around to get to the next trough in front of you. Generally, you just point straight downwind and wait for the waves in front of you to flatten a little, and then sprint to gain whatever forward distance you can.

You can paddle over a very small wave with momentum or brute force, but not a mid size wave. Understand this, and you'll save energy and learn when and when not to paddle hard. The better downwind paddlers simply let fewer waves pass underneath them (they miss fewer waves) and they manage to jump ahead over more waves. These waves won't separate out the paddlers much because everyone is kind of stuck behind the long wave in front of them.

Riding Type 2 Waves

Tackling the type 2 waves can be daunting, but this is how it is done:

Picture the semi-circle shape of the wave and you starting in the middle. You want to build your speed down the face there and then maneuver over to one of the shoulders so that you are now going diagonally.

Here (and this is the crucial part that separates the top guys from the others) you will need to choose a course that best keeps your momentum. Of course, and at any time, if you can make it immediately over the next wave in front of you with your momentum, then do so.

When you can't, and you usually can't, run diagonally off the shoulder and look for the lowest trough that you can get your bow into in the next 2-3 seconds, with the idea that the trough will deepen and a wave will rise under your butt, and you'll find yourself on a wave again and be able to repeat the whole process.

Usually, though, the first trough you put your bow into will only be small and won't deepen much, but it will keep your momentum and allow you to change course a bit, to get to the next little trough and so on, until one of them really deepens and you then find yourself on a good rising wave.

Next, look for the middle of that wave, maneuver that direction, and turn down the face to gain speed.

When I say aim for the 'trough', you're likely going to have your bow sticking into a wave, and the trough will be somewhere between your bow and your foot pedals. So, depending on how you look at it, you're either following the wave or in the trough right behind it.

The important part is that your boat is flat or bow-down. Keep in mind that the shoulders of these scallop waves run off at up to 45 degrees to the direction of the faces, and continue at that 45 degree angle, overlapping other wave scallops. These are the underlying or secondary waves that are vital to keeping your momentum. You must look for them and use them and they can sometimes be difficult to see. Also, don't outrun them as you'll be wasting energy.

Get used to the two separate speeds: recover at 5-7 mph on the diagonal shoulder waves, and 8+ on the direct downwind wave faces.

You'll know that you are not going very well if waves come over you from behind and swamp your cockpit. That's called a stall and it will happen over and over again if you aim straight downwind in big waves. It is not a fast way to get downwind. A stall happens because you keep surfing directly into the wave ahead of you.

The way to get out of a stall is to turn up to 45 degrees off downwind and look for the little shoulder waves and troughs to build up speed. Again, don't get overly anxious and waste your energy trying to outrun these, stay with them until your course reveals new ever deeper troughs to turn downwind into.

The bigger the type 2 waves are, the harder they are to catch because they are usually traveling faster. These big waves also have a longer top so they take a harder sprint to get over and drop into. You will soon discover that it is very tiring to sprint for these over and over again and it will be obvious how important maintaining your speed is.

But, when you do catch these larger, faster waves, you have more opportunity to navigate over to the next promising area and you are then more likely to catch another big one. The same technique still applies – build some speed on the shoulder waves, and look for an opportunity to sprint and drop into a larger wave. Look left and right and move quickly to the center of the wave as that's where it will be biggest. Again, stay on the wave as long as it is big, and as long as you cannot use your potential energy to get over the next wave in front of you.

Turn off the big wave too soon and you lose momentum, too late and you'll stall in the backside of the wave ahead of you. 

General Points 

  1. When on a wave of either type, resist the immediate urge to accelerate straight ahead into the trough in front of you. Rather, pause until either the wave in front of you starts to flatten out a little, or maneuver off the shoulder into a trough that looks promising.
  2. Focus on what's in front of you, not on the waves behind you. You are looking for troughs to be in or waves to follow - however you look at it. Bigger waves will have deeper troughs in front of and behind them.
  3. Speed begets more speed on the type 2 waves. In other words, the faster you get going, the more easily you can navigate the waves and keep your speed. It's why good downwind paddlers can be so much faster than novices even when there may not be much difference between the two in flat-water speed.
  4. Look for a secondary wave direction and this may be tough to see. These may be reflected waves from shore moving somewhat in your direction, a second entirely different swell, or the small shoulder waves moving at up to 45 degrees to directly downwind. Use these when your speed drops and/or as your default turning direction, choosing left or right based on where your ultimate goal is in relation to the direct downwind direction.
  5. Downwind paddling is a series of short sprints with short rests. It's all timing and route finding. But, the continual goal is to be able to surf downwind with less effort in your sprints because your route finding ability has preserved more of your momentum.
  6. Look for the bigger waves that are "out there" follow them as far as you can. If they get ahead of you, look for an opportunity to get back in front of them when they are in their "trough" or flat phase, or look for an opportunity to get around their shoulder. Use more energy to catch and stay with these bigger waves and it will pay off.
  7. Don't paddle hard uphill (up a wave).
  8. Be aggressive. Be committal. Paddling tentatively will increase your odds of swimming. Relax. Enjoy the rides.

Latest Forum Topics

Nelo 550 Rudder (1 Posts)

6 hours 38 minutes ago

Epic V8 Double, V10 Double or Fenn XTS Double? (16 Posts)

10 hours 39 minutes ago