Travel Adventure: Rough ride on a wall of water

It's the ultimate balancing act. Eric Kendall feels the force of the ocean waves on a surf kayak

Pitting a dodgy little kayak against the might of an ocean's surf seems like asking for trouble. But to white-water aficionados, it is one way of guaranteeing a rough ride, which is exactly what they want: just check out the surf and then launch if it looks big and foamy enough.

You might be in a boat of sorts, but this is more like swimming - or drowning - considering how much sea water you swallow, and the length of time you spend beneath the waves. Even if you are doing it right, surf kayaking is a wetsuit-wearing activity. Each successive breaker seems larger as you fight your way towards the horizon. Either bob over the crests of smaller waves or plough through walls of water that momentarily bury you, before you turn towards the shore to catch a wave to ride to the beach.

This is the moment of truth, where technique must overcome the shortcomings of your craft: the kayak bobs around like a cork on the water's surface, but stability is not one of its obvious attributes. Staying upright revolves around the paddle, which when not propelling you forwards, performs a similar function to a tightrope walker's balancing pole. But waving it in the air is of little use; instead you exploit the power of those waves which threaten to overturn you, by using the paddle as a lever, digging one end into the water to keep the kayak upright.

This is the key to success, but some of the specific actions involved are counter-intuitive, even after the 20th dunking. For a beginner, this aspect alone is a strong motivator - the less you roll over, fill up the kayak and have to wade ashore to start again, the better. Starting with the small, broken waves near the shore, a gentle surf involves catching a wave by paddling hard as it comes up behind you. As you surge forward under its power, the kayak will almost certainly twist one way or the other and then capsize, unless you do something about it. The answer lies in the "bongo slide". As you start to twist, lift up one of your knees so that it rests against the inside of the kayak: this gives you support while you lean in the opposite direction, into the oncoming wave. But leaning alone is not enough. As you tilt over, you need to reach out with the paddle to bring you side-on to the wave and stay upright.

The effect is a counterbalance - the more the wave bears down on the kayak, threatening to flip it over towards the shore, the more force it applies to the blade, holding everything in equilibrium. It is a balancing act between the right amount of knee lift and paddle extension. The angle at which the paddle is held makes a difference too, of course, as does the size and power of the wave and what you had for breakfast that morning: surf kayaking is not an activity you learn in a couple of hours.

Contrary to expectation, the ability to Eskimo roll is not essential from the start, as most of the capsizing takes place in just a couple of feet of water. This means your head is jammed against the sand, preventing you from spinning right around, making your helmet the second most useful accessory after gills. Though it is sensational in its way, an impromptu flushing through with sea water is not the only reason for surf kayaking; nor is just riding the surf. It is a crash course in lots of kayak skills.

There is plenty of good paddling to be had, while the launch procedure itself is a technique to be mastered - learning to climb aboard, fix your spray-deck and not lose your paddle in the surf; then how to heave yourself into water deep enough to float in by "hopping" with your hands on the sand, much as you would get around if you had neither legs nor wheels at your disposal. If you were cold beforehand, you are not by the time you are water-borne, but of course, you have yet to fall in.

The ultimate, distant, aim is to head for the "green room" or "power pocket" - surfer speak for the area beyond the breakers. The biggest swells can be caught there, where the initial thrill of being fired up the beach by that first, tiny wave will be magnified tenfold. It is a question of power and control. The sea has the former, and you had better have the latter.

In the spray

Surf kayaking has developed as a sea-going equivalent of white-water kayaking with the advantage that the same white water can be ridden again and again as long as the waves keep crashing in. It is quite distinct from sea kayaking which is a long-distance form of canoe travel using boats which can be loaded with supplies. Short, agile kayaks are used for surf kayaking; spray-decks (which seal the hole in which the paddler sits) are essential to prevent the boat filling with water. Wetsuits and dry tops make surf kayaking feasible for most of the year in the UK. Buoyancy aids and helmets should also be worn.

Proper coaching is vital, not just to ensure you are using the correct techniques, but for safety too. Currents and tides as well as the power of the surf can pose a real risk. Contact the British Canoe Union (by sending an sae to British Canoe Union, Adbolton Lane, West Bridgford, Notts NG2 5AS) for details of approved centres. TYF No Limits in St Davids, Wales (01437 721611, www.tyf.com) provides tuition, with easy access to beaches exposed to the Atlantic for some of Britain's best surf. The Plas Menai National Water Sports Centre (01248 670964) and Plas y Brenin (01690 720214, www.pyb.co.uk) run kayak courses, in North Wales

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