The Surf Zone


The Surf Zone
Mastering rough water launches and landings


When it comes to surfing breaking waves in an 18-foot sea kayak, Sean Morley would rather not. “To be honest, most sea kayaks pretty much suck in the surf,” says Morley, who launched and landed his Valley Nordkapp through beach breaks regularly on his record-shattering, 17-day circumnavigation of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island last October. “Sea kayaks are almost impossible to control once they are running at full speed. On an expedition, I just try to get through the surf zone as quickly as possible.”

Respecting the destructive power of breaking waves is key for touring kayakers. Ideally, Morley prefers to launch and land on sheltered, calm-water beaches. Failing that, recognizing what makes a safe place to launch or land and minimizing the amount of time you spend in the impact zone will keep your boat, body and expedition goals intact.


*Safety first. Use a chart to identify safe places to launch and land when planning a trip. Fully sheltered harbors are the gold standard. Second best are sand beaches with gently sloping bottom depths—telltale signs of a “spilling” break where swells gradually release their energy. Avoid sharp drop-offs and steep, reef-lined beaches where waves dump explosively. The partially sheltered edges of crescent-shaped beaches are usually best for landing, while mid-beach rip currents can assist with launching.

*Clear the decks. Remove or carefully secure spare paddles, chart cases and water bottles before launching and landing. Wearing a helmet is common sense.

*Send a probe. Always launch and land one at a time, being sure to send a skilled paddler first. When launching, this is critical in keeping the group together beyond the break. When landing, the probe’s job is to recon hazards and use predetermined whistle, paddle or arm signals to guide the rest of the group through the surf zone.

*Timing is everything. The idea is to time launching and landing with smaller wave sets. When launching, climb into your boat and seal your skirt on the beach. When you see a lull in the waves, use your hands to slide your boat into the water. “Wait for a gap and then go for it,” advises Morley. “Hesitation in the impact zone is what gets you in trouble.” Sprint through the surf zone, tucking low and slicing your paddle through breaking waves.

The objective when landing is to stay in control and avoid surfing by staying on the backside of the swells. Look over your shoulder and back-paddle to hold your position in breaking waves. When you touch shore, quickly pull your skirt and scramble out on the seaward (surf zone) side of the kayak.

*Stay calm. Should you swim in the surf zone, be sure to stay on the seaward side of your boat (so it isn’t knocked into you). Rescues are nearly impossible and very dangerous in breaking waves, so you’re best to hold onto the swamped kayak by its cockpit or deck lines and let the waves wash you ashore.

– Conor Mihell

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