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Becoming a Surf Kayaker

By Ann Beman - July 9th, 2004

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Some people refer to it as butt surfing. Others call it surf kayaking or kayak surfing. In contests, and at your everyday kayak surf spot, there are a variety of craft in which to butt surf. There are sit-on-tops, skirted plastic kayaks, longer than 10 feet International Class fiberglass skirted kayaks, Big Uglies (tandem sit-on-tops), waveskis, and so on. To ensure a good experience for you and those around you, know your terminology and how to play before you jump into the water.

Surf Glossary

From "Kayak Surfer," Canoeing Press 1976

  • Blown out - Non-surfable conditions caused by strong winds.
  • Bottom Turn - A turn made at the bottom, or well below the crest of a wave.
  • Break Line - The line where waves begin to break.
  • Climbing and Dropping - Sliding up and down the face of a wave, as an interesting maneuver and also to slow the kayak down.
  • Close Out - A wave that breaks all along its length at the same time and thus cannot be ridden. Also used when a whole bay is useless for surf as the waves are too big, broken, etc.,
  • Crest - The top of the wave
  • Curl - The top of a wave that is spilling and breaking next to the shoulder.
  • Cut Back - Turning back towards the shoulder
  • Dumper - Waves that are too steep to ride owing to a steeply shelving beach
  • Face - The smooth unbroken front of a wave
  • Humper - Large, unbroken wave.
  • Inside - The area between the break-line and the shore.
  • Left Run - Riding a wave, the surfer moving to his left.
  • Line Up - The place where surfers wait to catch a wave
  • Locked In - Unable to pullout over the top of a wave. Used in two senses: a) When a wave closes out and traps the surfer inside. b) When the surfer is in a good position in a tube. Used as "in the slot."
  • Outside - The area of sea beyond the break-line. When shouted, indicates a large set of waves approaching. A warning, as "fore" in golf.
  • Peak - The highest point of the wave
  • Pearl - The nose of the kayak burying in the water.
  • Pull out - Ending a ride by turning up and over the wave crest to paddle out again. (Also kick-out, cutout, in board surfing.)
  • Rail - The sharp angle between the flat hull and the deck of a surf kayak. Really the gunwale line. A slalom kayak has the softest of rails. Surf kayaks have hard rails.
  • Right Turn - Riding to the surfers right.
  • Rip - Water traveling seaward in a well defined river, usually quite narrow but moving at several knots. Usually quite narrow but moving at several knots. Useful to a surfer, but dangerous to a swimmer.
  • Rocker - Lengthwise curve of a kayak hull.
  • Set - A group of waves usually bigger than normal.
  • Shooting the Tube or Curl - Riding high on the wave, close or in the tube of curl.
  • Shorebreak - Dumpers on a steep beach unsuitable for surfing.
  • Shoulder - The unbroken portion of the wave next to the white water
  • Slot - "In the slot." Surfing in just the right place on the shoulder.
  • Soup - The white water after a wave has broken.
  • Stall - Slowing the kayak either by leaning backwards or pointing up the wave.
  • Take Off - The start of the run.
  • Trim - The balance of a kayak to give maximum speed and stability.
  • Trough - The lowest part between waves.
  • Tube - The hollow formed in the crest of a wave when offshore winds force the break to leap forward without touching the face of the wave, forming a tube. Sometimes big enough to ride in.

Surf Etiquette FAQ

Borrowed from the alt.surfing newsgroup for board surfers, here are further rules that can and should be applied to kayak surfing:
  • Lowest in priority for waves are poor and mediocre surfers who use longboards and leashes to undeserved advantage. They should not have priority for waves regardless of their takeoff position. Beginners and mediocre surfers need to take special precaution not to cause injury to others because of their myopic vision.
  • The person riding waves has priority over those paddling out. Stay out of the way as best you can. The past-time is called surfing, not paddling. Paddle completely around the break if necessary and stay out of the impact zone as much as possible. As long as the surfer riding did not intentionally run the paddler over, it's always the paddler's fault in any collision. An apology is all that's necessary to settle a dispute. Boards get dinged and broken, that's part of surfing. No financial remuneration should ever be asked for and none given.
  • Surfers with no leash have priority over those with leashes, regardless of wave position. This priority increases with the degree of difficulty that riding the break leashless presents.
  • Unquestionably advanced surfers should have priority for the most challenging waves. However, it is the responsibility of the advanced surfers to share and give lesser challenging waves to the lesser ability surfers who observe this rule.
  • The surfer up and riding has priority over everyone else above exceptions noted.
  • If you are visiting, share beer, party favors and food with the locals. Locals must accept and be kind to any visitors who do so. Visitors cannot take advantage of friendliness on the part of the locals to attempt to catch every good wave. Visitors should always give some deference to locals, don't complain or start fights if someone drops in on you. Just paddle back out and stay stoked!! Let the locals see you've got some style and they'll be (or should be) happy to see you have a wave. Never insist on forcibly taking the right of way.
  • Keep the beach clean. Pick up your trash. NO GLASS! NO FIRES UNLESS IN FIRE-RING!
  • Do not show up at any crowd-sensitive beach with your own crowd unless you grew up across the street. Even then, probably not.
  • Do not publish maps, photos, or detailed descriptions of magical getaway destinations.
  • Boycott magazines and movies that publish photos, maps, and detailed descriptions of magical getaway destinations.
  • If you are male, be kind to all female surfers. Surfing is traditionally for dudes. More females and less males are needed. They have a beautiful delicate style if you learn to appreciate it. (Contributor's note: I don't know about beautiful and delicate, but it's true: More females are needed.)
  • Party on and search for cosmic awareness. Improve your mind. Bend but don't break.
  • Be humble but not a wus.

Entering Contests

  • You register weeks in advance. Walk-ins are often out of luck -- but can always just play outside the competition zone with folks who are done with or warming up for their heats.
  • Surf where the judges can see you.
  • Show up for your heat on time and know ahead of time what color T-shirt you're supposed to have on over your life jacket.
  • Most importantly, do not steal waves from fellow competitors.


Good Article!

Thanks for all the information. I love kayaking the waves on the Gulf Coast.

Posted on June 21, 2010 - 12:38pm
by Lindy

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