TopKayaker.Net: Guide To Kayak Surfing

surf kayaks


Some Photos originally published online by the San Onofre Surf Kayak Association. Edited with permission of Scott Eaton, President of Paddlesurfers International

Essentially any kayak can be surfed, but the hull style will greatly influence performance. The many styles of sit-on-top kayaks now available will fit the many needs of a variety of paddlers.

Touring kayaks

surfing a touring kayakTouring kayaks can be surfed with good results on modest waves. Those paddling touring kayaks should paddle the surf zone and ride waves to increase their knowledge of seamanship and to handle a wider variety of landing conditions.

If you tour in a region that is subject to regular swells and unprotected landings you may want to look for a kayak that has a flatter bottom, blunter bow and a sturdy rudder. Photo: OK Scupper Pro by Athena Holtey

Bear in mind that rudders can be damaged in the surf zone, and you will have no time to raise or lower them while on a wave face. An Ocean Kayak Scupper (Pro) or Necky Dolphin, to name a couple, may be a good choice for some paddlers in these conditions.

At Tom's
TopKayaker Shop:


Paddle Leash
Use a paddle leash in surf & wind (NOT in whitewater) to maintain control of your kayak. Cobra Fin

Surf Kayak Fins/Skegs
The addition of skegs/fins add performance, increases the ability of the Kaos Finkayak to hold position while trimming along the wave face and aids in tracking.

We carry fins for both the Cobra Revision & W.S. / Dagger KaosSurf Helmet

These water sport helmets can be used for all paddling disciplines that can involve risk, such as white water rafting, river boogie, rock gardens and sea caves.

Recreational Kayaks

surf kayakRecreational kayaks come in a staggering array of hull shapes. Many in this category are Surf Kayaks such as the OK Scrambler and the Islander Hula. Generally you will find these craft to be quite stable. If you are looking for a multipurpose kayak for fun, surf and light touring then this may be a good category to search within.

Kayaks, 11' or less, with flatter, California style hulls, upswept bow and a skeg like stern, such as the Cobra Explorer, will be the better performers on the waves.

Those kayaks that are a bit longer, like a Hobie Maui will take off on waves easier, ride small surf well and tour at a faster rate. Those kayaks that are a bit shorter, such as the Wilderness Systems Riot, will be more maneuverable on larger, steeper wave faces, but slower paddling back to the line up.
Photo OK Scrambler by Athena Holtey

Look for strap eyes to attach Knee straps and Backrest. The use of properly fitted knee straps and a low profile backrest will greatly improve your performance by allowing you to "wear your kayak." A paddle leash will be of use as well, particularly for beginners. For information on how to attach these kayak accessories see our Accessories Article on this website.

surf kayakWave Witch

Then there is the Wave Witch that has eluded classification. This kayak type ranges from the smaller version that performs like a wave ski, to the larger version that performs like a touring kayak.

What sets it apart is the skeg like rudder, combined with optional surf fins on a hydroplaning hull. Visit Hunt Johnsen Designs for more info.
Photo courtesy Hunt Johnsen Designs

Wave Skis

surf kayakTraditionally a wave ski is like a surfboard you sit on and paddle with a kayak paddle. Most have skegs or fins like a surfboard. Wave skis, originating from Austraila, have a seat belt (with quick release buckle) and a pair of foot straps, like those used on windsurfers. Wave skis are very short, generally from six to nine feet in length and are often made of fiberglass and other composites.Many are a bit tippy and will take some practice. If you are looking for the highest level of paddle surfing performance then a wave ski is for you. Photo: Greg of SOSKA finessing the waves on his custom Infinity

Those paddlers who wish to surf like the board surfers do should be searching in this category. Brand names such as Wave Master, Island Wave Skis and Raider are relatively common, as well as the Walden Milo. They are somewhat hard to find in "run of the mill" kayak shops, but should be readily available in beach communities that may be a surf destination. Careful consideration needs to be paid to proper sizing and fit for your weight, leg length and ability level. Visit Wave Master's Website for more info.

Hybrid Wave Skis

surf kayakNot all wave skis are "traditional." A new breed of kayak is broadening this category, that we can call Hybrid Wave Skis for our purposes here. This subclass is evolving out of the general kayak manufactures desire to produce quality surf kayaks. In many ways they will perform almost as well as their Aussie progenitors, while possibly being a bit more flexible and forgiving in their use. Some come equipped with skegs and some do not.

If you want to surf with a high degree of performance, (not necessarily the highest) and are looking for a heavy-duty plastic hull then this group will provide you with the boats you should look for. They will sometimes have hatches like their recreational cousins, and they routinely utilize knee straps and backrest.

Look for models like the Cobra Strike, Competition 3.4 & 4.4, Perception's 5-0, Islander's Lipstick and Ocean Kayak's Rapido, and even the Yak Board. - Photo: Cam Holtey, Ocean Kayak Raaapido - Helmet please little brother! Photo courtesy JOI

Surf skis

surf kayakSurf skis are often thought of as ocean racing kayaks. That they are, but "down under" in their homeland of Australia they are surfed on waves as well. Originally used by lifeguards for rapid access to rescue drowning victims. These fast sleek craft are made to punch out through waves and ride them back to shore. They are used in a variety of lifeguard competitions worldwide. If you are looking for maximum speed and some surfing ability in a kayak then a surf ski should be right for you.

Common American brand names are Vahalla, TwoGood, Futura and Wave Master. For best performance in the surf look for a ski with some degree of rocker (more rocker for surf, less for flat water speed) and a bow plane or "surf snitch."

This funny protuberance on the bow, that looks like a pair of wings or the head of a hammerhead shark, will prevent the bow from nose diving or "pearling" at the bottom of a steep wave face. Pay special attention to proper fitting of leg length. Some surf skis come in sizes, others are adjustable to fit many sizes. Oh...I almost forgot...THEY ARE TIPPY! Be prepared for some practice. Photo: Kayak Designer & Pro Surfer, Bob Twogood of Twogood Kayaks, Oahu Hawaii

White Water Kayaks

surf kayakWhite water kayaks, both sit-on and sit-in kayaks are often common in the surf zone. The Sit-on-top category in this branch is slowly growing.

If you are looking for a kayak to use both on rapid rivers and in the ocean then a white water kayak is for you.

You can expect a high degree of maneuverability from such craft, but not much overall performance as other surf craft can provide. You will have a harder time getting back to the line up and paddling across flat water. Look for models such as the Daggar Pegasus, Perception Torrent, OK Yahoo and Prijon Twister. Photo Ocean Kayak Yahoo, courtesy JOI

Inflatables ...and other craft that go splash in the surf

Sevylor surf kayak - photo courtesy REIInnova Safari - Tom's TopKayaker ShopIf you have a need to surf and then roll up your kayak to stuff it in a bag when done, then an inflatable may be for you. They sure travel well! Do not expect performance, but you will get a ride back to shore on most waves. You will have little control of direction so please do not surf near other boaters or swimmers.

For light riders about 150 lbs check out the Wave & Paddle Board by Sevylor. For all other riders take a look at the selection of largely white water kayaks offered by Northwest River Supplies.

Feathercraft has launched a new folding/inflatable line of kayaks. I am not sure how well or not they can negotiate the surf zone. Any one with experience with these kayaks in the surf, we'd love to have your reviews? One can assume the shorter the better on this account. You can read more about Inflatable Kayaks in our section on the subject at that link here at TopKayaker.net.

Walden's NaluOutrigger Canoes

An outrigger canoe is a classic surf rider of Hawaii beaches, and is now available from Walden as the Nalu. It is advertised as the "World's first roto-molded, Polynesian style outrigger canoe"

Little information has been directed to us concerning this craft. Again, reviews are welcome. Most outrigger canoes available today are for racing.

Photo courtesy of Walden Sports

What NOT To Surf

Other craft such as the variety of peddle kayaks, twin hull, and johnboats are best left out of the surf zone depending on your circumstances and goals.

Selecting Proper Accessories

Tom on North Kohala CoastSelecting proper accessories is nothing to be overlooked.

Firstly get a high quality life vest that WILL NOT COME OFF in the ruff and turbulent waters of the surf zone. Just as important is a quality helmet that is fitted to your head. Both surf and white water styles are acceptable. A stronger paddle is advisable; look for paddles that are made for waves and white water rivers. Accessories such as knee straps and backrests should be heavy-duty construction.

Avoid too many plastic components and carry spare buckles as necessary. Knee straps should adjust snugly and not loosen; backrests should not be too tall to allow for leaning back and Eskimo rolling.

The safest paddle leashes are plastic coils like a boogie board leash, they can break and are less likely to entangle and injure you. Use nylon/elastic leashes only if you are confident in your ability to stay seated in your kayak using knee straps in all but the most violent wipe out. This form of leash will not break! Photo by John Enomoto, Tom on the remote, wavebeaten, exposed North Kohala Coast, Hawaii


Follow this link: Watersports Clothing: A Buyer's Guid For Kayakers, to study an illustrated guide on surf kayak wear in all conditions, including footwear and gloves that can protect your skin from abrasions from reef, rocks and loose kayak equipment.

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