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

Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?