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
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
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.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick