How to Kayak in Ocean Surf

ProStaffer Peter Lavigne loves kayaking in the ocean surf near his home in Saint John New Brunswick, Canada. If you’d love to try this, too, keep reading as Pete shares his best tips with us…

aqua-bound prostaffer pete lavigne
Pete Lavigne preparing for a wave

One of the great things about sea kayaking come from the versatility of the craft itself. A sea kayak is the tool for seeking fun and adventure. From day trips to multi-day expeditions, quiet sunset paddles to taking on challenging conditions on exposed pieces of coast, the sea kayak is well suited for all sorts of activities.

If you want to improve your boat-handling skills and push your limits, consider taking on surf conditions! Surfing with a sea kayak is both exciting and rewarding.

Here’s a broad overview of how to sea kayak in ocean surf and enjoy this dynamic environment:

The Basic Skills You Need

To be able to kayak in ocean surf you need to be an enthusiastic paddler with a solid foundation of skills:

  • Be comfortable with wet exits.
  • Know both assisted and self-rescues.
  • Be able to handle your kayak with paddle strokes and body mechanics, like edging and leaning your kayak.

It’s a given that you’ll get very wet and probably be upside down at some point in this environment—so embrace the swims! They’re part of the fun!

Paddling with a group of likeminded paddlers is also very important. This isn’t the place to be out alone. I also strongly advise you to seek formal instruction or advice from more experienced paddlers.

The Basic Gear You Need

My paddle buddy, Adam, and I paddle in water temperatures that range from refreshingly chilly to downright dangerous. So I’ll talk about those types of conditions…

Dress for immersion and possible extended time in the water. A swim of a couple hundred feet is possible, so in cold water thermal protection is a must.

kayak in ocean surf
Dress for the conditions!

We paddle on the Bay of Fundy where water temperatures are in the hypothermic range year-round, so we wear dry suits most of the time.

The surf environment also requires a proper-fitting helmet. Many of the capsizes occur in shallow water where contact with the ocean bottom is a real possibility. Nothing can ruin your day faster than hitting your head during a capsize.

Surf can be a rough environment with a fair bit of power. Gear carried on the deck of your kayak when touring might get washed off in the surf zone. So consider leaving it on shore or stowing it away.

Pumps will get torn from the deck, as will spare paddles. If you decide to use your deck lines to stow gear, make sure they’re in good shape. The stern deck is a good alternative for carrying spare paddles, especially if the bow decklines aren't secure.

A clean deck also keeps excessive spray to a minimum.

Get rid of paddle leashes and tethers altogether. Entanglement hazards are a real concern and should be avoided at all costs. Unlike surfers with leashes, a capsized paddler does not want to risk getting caught up with gear in the surf zone.

Fit your spray deck with a solid and accessible grab loop. Adding a Wiffle Ball isn't a bad idea either—it’ll help you locate your grab loop when you need it.

Safety Considerations

Now that we have our gear ready to go, it's time to have a quick safety chat with the group.

Having a pre-float safety plan is as simple as going through expectations within your group in the event a paddler needs assistance. A group has to share responsibility to look out for each other, unless you’re in a formal setting with instructors and safety boaters watching.

It should be everyone’s responsibility to make sure all members of the group are accounted for. In the event of capsizes, make sure the capsized paddler either rolls back up or is able to exit their boat. The capsized paddler should then signal they’re ok to the rest of the group.

ocean kayaker
Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose! Pete retrieving his kayak after one of his many swims. It's about the fun!

Know the Surf Area

Before hitting the water, the group should take time to familiarize themselves with the surf area itself. We can’t cover everything you need to know in this short space, but here are a few things to keep in mind:

Simply put, surf zones are created when swell travels over more shallow features on the ocean floor, or when the swell comes to the shoreline itself. Waves are created as swell forms into a wave and becomes unstable as its height increases, while water depth decreases.

In a coastal environment, the waves are generated by the power of wind. The more distance wind travels unimpeded across a body of water, the more swell and waves will be created.

(This is called fetch and is worth researching more on your own!)

As kayakers, we’re looking for waves that come onto a beach (shore break) or along prominent features along the coast (point break). Both can create great areas to surf.

Shore breaks tend to have rows of waves rolling into shore. Point breaks tend to create a wave that rolls over that prominent feature, like a rock outcrop. This creates more of a "standing wave" of sorts. That means the wave will form up in the same spot for a while.

What’s important for us as sea kayakers to consider is what hazards are under the surface of the water we plan to play in. Is it a sandy beach or a rocky one? Do we need to avoid some areas altogether?

The group needs to make these decisions by sizing up the area in advance. Safety gear like helmets is important, but avoiding certain areas with hazards is even more important.

Understanding how waves breaks on the shore is important, too. Waves tend to break in two ways:

  • Waves will "spill" into foam piles on beaches that get shallow gradually.
  • Waves will "dump" on beaches that get shallow quickly.
adam uses a low brace
Adam using a low brace and leaning into a wave while catching a ride. His arms are kept close to his body to protect them from injury.

If you’re new to kayak ocean surf, seek out waves that spill—they’re easier to manage.

As always when kayaking, safety is first!

Which Ocean Waves to Start With

Sea kayakers use boats ranging from 14-17 feet. It’s important to understand how waves affect our kayak’s handling characteristics.

The height of the wave is less important than the shape of the wave. Steep waves will force the bow of your kayaks to dive. When this happens, it’ll naturally slow down on the wave and tend to broach and start sliding sideways or pearl. Or depending on the size of the wave, make the kayak pitch-pole or do an endo (two ways of saying: to flip end-over-end).

While this looks cool in photos, kayakers new to ocean surf want to avoid these! Steep, dumping waves are a challenge to play in, so look for waves that spill onto the beach instead. It’ll be easier to develop your boat-handling skills.

In terms of wave height, we like waves in the 2-3 foot range—they’re great to play in! To get an idea of how high a 3-foot wave is: sit on your kitchen floor and look up to your counter top. That might be higher than you expected!

The Best Place to Launch

Ok, now that we're all geared up and ready to hit the water, there are a couple of things to consider.

It's important to figure out the best place to launch. In our little piece of coastline, Adam and I often play in a sheltered beach that offers several launching options, depending on the tide and wind direction.

how to kayak ocean surf
Sizing up the incoming surf before paddling out.

We always watch the surf conditions from a vantage point that gives us a good idea of what the waves are doing. We can see where the waves are spilling along the beach and where they’re dumping. We always choose to launch from the path of least resistance.

Launchings and landings in surf are often the most likely spots for "sense of humour failures”—commonly known as getting dumped along the beach!

It's part of the deal and will happen! It's important to set up and make the launch and landing quickly once you've committed to them.

To launch, get the kayak in very shallow water and seal the spray skirt around the cockpit coaming, taking care to make sure the grab loop is visible. It’s important to keep the bow facing the incoming waves. This can be a challenge, but practice will improve this. A more experienced paddler can also help by keeping you straight into the waves and even giving you a little push.

Once there’s enough water under the hull, it's time to watch for the right time to push through the incoming waves or foam piles. This area, known as the swash, will often be a frothy mess that can be unpredictable. Water from incoming waves combines with the water trying to go back to the ocean from the beach itself. It’s a great place to get a feel for how your boat responds to dynamic water before you commit to move into the surf zone.

Skills to Work on in the Surf Zone

The surf zone is where the waves are breaking, and it can be mild to wild. If the surf isn’t too big, this is a great place to work on keeping your bow faced into the waves while keeping a fixed position—it can be a lot of fun in itself.

kayaker breaking through the surf zone
Pete paddling hard into a crashing wave in the surf zone. Work hard and be aggressive when necessary to get through the surf zone.

Another skill to work on in the surf zone is side surfing. Position your kayak parallel to the incoming waves and side surf back to shore. Side surfing is often the position you’ll finish a ride so you’ll want to get good at it.

Edging and leaning into the wave face while using an appropriate brace are important skills to learn. Also good torso rotation is important to protect your shoulders from over-extending. Even small waves can still pack a lot of power. Exposing your shoulders can result in injury.

Speaking from experience, it's no fun to try to roll back up in waves with a dislocated shoulder! Protect yourself. Maintain good form. Keep your "paddler's box" tight!

Depending on wave height and timing, paddling through the surf zone requires some effort and a fairly aggressive attitude. Paddle hard and lean forward, especially if you encounter a breaking wave. Keep your profile as low as you can when punching through a breaking wave.

There are other ways to get out past the breakers, but for now let's just paddle through with effort. It's a great feeling breaking the surf zone!

Catch the Waves

There are a few things to keep in mind when catching waves:

  • Be aware of where your fellow paddlers are.
  • Keep watching out for each other.
  • Wait until your fellow paddler is clear from the area you’ll be surfing into. It's important to keep this area clear. It's amazing how quickly incoming surfers can travel. Crashes between fellow paddlers should be avoided at all costs.
ocean kayakers
Not so close! Avoid getting too close to your paddling partners while playing in surf. Injuries will ruin the fun!

Watch the waves for a bit before catching a ride. Waves will come in sets. There’ll be patterns to them, and they range in size. Start off with smaller ones.

Work on your timing catching a wave, and on proper control techniques. Your goal is to keep the bow and stern of your kayak from locking into the wave. Locking occurs when the kayak bow starts to bury into the water while the stern locks into the wave face. This makes the kayak very difficult to control.

Keep the kayak moving at the same speed as the wave and stay on the wave face itself. This means you’ll shift your weight back and forward. It takes time, but is a lot of fun to practice.

how to kayak ocean surf
Pete committing to brace into a larger, breaking wave. He fully leans into this wave and keeps his arms close to his body to protect his shoulders.

Finish Your Ride

Most surf rides will end with the paddler coming into a broach and side surf. This is a lot of fun but also when most capsizes occur. Work on leaning into the wave while using an appropriate brace.

If you capsize, tuck forward and into the wave. This will protect your head from potential impact with anything under the water's surface.

If possible, set up for a roll or perform a wet exit. Once you’re out, make every effort to get on the ocean side of your kayak. You don’t want to be between you kayak and the shore—the kayak will likely be full of water, making it both heavy and dangerous.

Maintain contact with your kayak if you can, but remember its likely heading to shore (unless in very windy offshore conditions are present).

Smile! You've just done your first of many swims while playing in the surf!

ocean kayakers
Adam and Pete sharing a laugh between swells while waiting for the next set of waves to roll in. Notice the swell forming behind them.

In Conclusion…

Playing in the surf with a sea kayak is extremely exciting and rewarding. It puts your paddling skills to the test and is highly addictive. Work on building your skills and confidence slowly with like-minded paddlers. Avoid pushing too far beyond your comfort zone to minimize the risk of injuries.

Seek out a qualified instructor and you’ll learn quicker than you can on your own.

The information in this article is based on our personal experiences while seeking out places to play around Saint John New Brunswick, on the Bay of Fundy. It’s far from comprehensive, but should get you on your way to finding that perfect wave with your kayak!

If you happen to be close to Saint John, contact Adam Constantine or Pete Lavigne with River Bay Adventures and we'll get out for some fun!

how to kayak ocean surf
Pete preparing to move from the swash zone into the surf zone. The breaking wave is dumping as it gets closer to shore in more shallow water.

You can see more of their kayak ocean surfing photos on Instagram.

(Thanks to Pete for this in-depth article!)

Call or email our Wisconsin-based customer service team with your paddling questions today: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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