Gear Up For: the Downwinder

What to wear when riding swell

Lee Ishikawa. Maliko Gulch to Kahului Harbor downwind paddle. North Shore Maui. Photo: Darrell Wong

Lee Ishikawa.
Maliko Gulch to Kahului Harbor downwind paddle.
North Shore Maui. Photo: Darrell Wong

By Ryan Stuart

The downwind run is the epitome of ocean-paddling culture, requiring fitness, a speedy boat and, most importantly, knowledge of the ocean. The object is to harness the power of the wind and swell, which doesn’t require much specialized gear. There are, however, a few things you won’t want to come without.

The Essentials

A fast boat: The only way you’ll latch onto fast-moving rides is in a really fast boat like an outrigger canoe or surf ski.
A leash: If you fall off your boat with the wind blowing 20 to 30 knots (and you probably will) by the time you resurface the boat will be out of reach. Stay attached with a boat leash fastened to your foot and the boat, just like a surfboard leash.
An extra paddle: A mile out with a broken paddle is a nightmare you don’t want to live. Bring at least one extra paddle per group lashed to the alma in an OC or the bungees of your surf ski deck.

Other gear that will make your runs comfortable

PatagoniaTee
Patagonia Polarized Tee ($45; patagonia.com): The tropical sun reflecting off the water will fry you and the sand and salt will chaff. Keep the redness at bay with a good quality shirt like the 20-UPF Polarized Tee. I like the long sleeve for full coverage, the soft cotton-like feel to cut the trade wind morning chill and the polyester for in and out of water performance. Tuck it into your shorts to reduce dreaded belly chaff.

BG_Bombination_Shorts_Angle
Bomber Gear Bombination Shorts ($77; bombergear.com): Just about any board short will work, but, especially in a surf ski, a combo of smooth short and neoprene underneath will allow proper leg drive, a little padding in hard seats and a double layer to prevent any chaffing. Plus, let’s be honest, neoprene shorts solo aren’t very Aloha. The Bombination’s high cut and flat-seam neoprene under a long and baggy short does the job, and fits in perfectly.

JulboWAVE
Julbo Wave Sunglasses(from $120; julbousa.com): Designed for abuse, the Waves are like a goggle for water sports. A protective frame skirts the outside of the lens to keep light from sneaking behind the polarized polycarbonate lenses. Dark enough to take mid-day bright, the lenses also have holes in the sides to keep fogging to a minimum. Wide arms keep pressure off the optical nerve. And, best of all, they float!

Pwbacklarge
Think Powerwing Paddle ($375; thinkkayaks.com) Catching waves requires short bursts of power over a long distance. A smaller blade—in this case a wing blade for a surf ski—makes it easy to maintain a steady tempo and then dig deep when it’s time for a ride. The scoop-shaped blade catches firmly and pulls smoothly and consistently through the stroke and release. The two-piece, all-carbon paddle adjusts from 208 to 218 centimeters and to any angle with a lever locking mechanism that holds firm and is dead simple to operate.

MustangBeltPack
Mustang Inflatable Belt Pack PFD ($120; mustangsurvival.com) Even on the biggest of days few Hawaiians ever wear a PFD. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t and, honestly, a mile off shore in 15-foot seas you’ll probably feel pretty naked without one. An incognito option is this self-inflating PFD. Clipped around the waist like a fanny pack when not in use, it blows up like an air bag when you pull the detonation cord. The rest of the time it stays out of the way, won’t constrict or add any warmth, a godsend when the Trade Winds die.
Columbia Women's Coolhead visor
Columbia Coolhead Visor ($25; columbia.com) There’s nothing worse than sunscreen melting into your eyes. Prevent it from happening with a sun hat that wicks sweat. The Coolhead does one better. With Columbia’s Omni-Freeze ZERO in the sweatband, not only does it wick moisture, but it also actively cools. The Omni-Freeze cools down when it contacts water. The wide brim will also help keep the sun off your schnoz.

Contributing Editor Ryan Stuart wrote Wind Riders, our feature story on the art and culture of downwind paddling in Hawaii. It appears in the August, 2013 issue of Canoe & Kayak. He lives on Vancouver Island, B.C. where he paddles his sea kayak, whitewater kayak and, when the wind is right, his surfski.  

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Add a Comment

  • Glenn

    Recall an episode of Magnum when he fell off his surf ski and threaded water for hours before being rescued by his buddy. At one point being circled by a shark. Hey- that could happen!

  • Claudius Denk

    I recall something like that with Chuck Norris. Fortunately, the sharks were able to get away.

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