Monday, April 30, 2018

Learning to paddle a "surfski" kayak

Lately my standup paddleboard racing buddies have been branching out into other forms of paddling. In our local club, the CGT Tribe, we now have about four new outrigger canoers, and three new surfski kayak paddlers. I am one of the new kayakers. These are the reasons I chose to try surfski kayaking:

1. I like to go fast. Racing kayaks are about 30% faster than SUPs, and generally faster than outrigger canoes, as well. Among paddle-powered craft, only rowing shells are faster than kayaks. But rowing shells have more rigging to fuss with, are more restricted to flat water, and force you to sit facing backwards, which seems unappealing. Also, nobody around here rows.

2. I like ocean paddling and "downwinding," which is what surfski kayaks are designed for. Surfskis are basically stretched-out versions of "sit on top" kayaks, which means they float like a surfboard and you don't have to worry about them sinking when you tip over and fall out. They do get some water splashed into the recessed "cockpit" area, but they have a one-way valve under your feet to drain that water out while you're paddling.

3. I had seen some exciting videos of expert surfski paddlers scooting down ocean swells, gliding from one peak to the next faster and with less effort than a SUP paddler would expend in the same conditions.

4. Most of the big SUP races in Florida also offer the option to race surfski or outrigger canoe. For really long races (>10 km) it would be nice to be on the faster craft that gets the race over earlier and easier. Also, being lower to the water makes sit-down paddlecraft easier to paddle upwind than standup paddleboards, and having a foot-pedal operated rudder lets them adjust for side-winds while still paddling symmetrically.

5. I ruled out outrigger canoe because the asymmetry of the outrigger on one side offends my slight OCD tendencies. That and the fact that OCs are supposedly not as fast as surfskis... Although I think that difference depends a lot on conditions and abilities. I.e., I think it's easier to adapt to rough water and downwinding on an OC than a surfski. That point is illustrated by my friends Justin and Matt, who got a surfski and an OC, respectively, around the same time. Justin is now easily faster than Matt in flat water, but Matt is faster and more comfortable in rough water and downwinders.

6. I heard that my buddy Murray, the most experienced kayaker in our group, was selling a very fast, advanced-level surfski for a ridiculously cheap price. Justin said that if I bought Murray's surfski, he'd give me his own older surfski paddle for free so I could get started right away. I suspected I'd never get such a cheap opportunity to try the sport again, since the boats are normally at least $3000. How could I refuse?

My surfski: The boat I bought from Murray is a 2009 model Epic V12. It's 640 cm (21') long by 43 cm (16.9") wide. The version I have is the second cheapest/heaviest construction offered, and it weighs around 15 kgs. The bottom is very rounded, which makes it extremely tippy for anyone not already skilled in paddling racing kayaks. If my boat choice weren't dictated primarily by what I could afford, I would have bought a much wider and more stable one, but I went into this with the full expectation that it would be very difficult.

The paddle I got from Justin was an Epic "wing" paddle, asymmetrically sculpted to effectively grab the water when swept out to the side of the board. Based on some online research I set up the paddle to have zero "offset angle" between the blades. The old wisdom was that the blades should be twisted 60 degrees so that while one was sweeping through the water, the other would knife through the air with minimal wind resistance. The new wisdom is that little is gained from that, and it just makes the stroke more complicated to learn. I've recently switched from the Epic paddle to a new Braca XI 705 paddle, because someone I lent the surfski to lost the Epic paddle and bought me the Braca to replace it. That was actually a boon for me, because the Braca is a fancier paddle. I have it set up with 0 offset, too.

My experience so far: My first surfski session, not counting the once or twice that I sat in Justin's beginner surfski, was 26 March 2018, in a bay with flat, shallow water. I got my butt in the seat of the Epic V12 and immediately capsized. I repeated this several more times until I was able to keep my butt in the seat, but only by straddling the kayak with my feet dangling in the water on each side. With my feet in the water it was just stable enough for me to tentatively begin paddling. For about 20 minutes I worked on getting my feet out of water and into the boat, but never managed more than a few frantic strokes with the feet in before capsizing. Finally my brain accepted the balance task I was asking of it, and I magically found myself able to keep the boat upright long enough to make substantial forward progress. I actually felt quite pleased with myself and ended up covering a lot of distance, even venturing out of the bay into the calm but slightly bumpy Gulf of Mexico. There I fell more often, and started to get tired. By the end of the session I was falling quite a bit again as both brain and body were worn out.

After the breakthrough on that initial session I expected to learn fast, but in fact my subsequent gains in stability have been more gradual. On my second session I was able to put my feet in the footstrap that covers the steering pedal area, as opposed to on top of the footstrap as I'd done initially. But I still fell a lot. Worse, I ended up with terrible bruises and sores in the area of my rear over my coccyx bone. I think it was from pushing with my legs and pressing myself into the back of the hard, bucket seat. After that session I went to a marine biology conference in Texas for three days, and it killed me to have to sit on my poor behind for hours watching presentations each day.

The first thing I did after Texas was duct tape some pieces of foam camping pad into the seat of the surfski to make it softer, copying a surfski seat pad design I'd seen online. I also added a little patch of pad on the under-knee area of the surfski, not to pad my legs but to pad my head because that's where I balance the boat on my head when walk it to the water. With my butt not in pain I was more comfortable in the boat, and started to be able to go faster. On my 6th session in the surfski I was finally able to go faster than my SUP speed. With new confidence I ventured to the Gulf of Mexico again, and was absolutely hopeless at staying in the boat.

Now after more than a month paddling the surfski, alternating with the SUP so I can rest my rear, I feel pretty comfortable in flat water. I'm able to concentrate more on the paddle stroke and its strange mechanics, which seems to be the key to tapping into the speed potential of the surfski. I have a long way to go with that, though. I'm still way behind Justin in speed even though I'm faster than him on SUP. In rough water I am still absolutely terrible, but not quite AS terrible as the first time I tried it. I've been able to get myself upwind enough to turn around and experience some of the exciting, downwind "bump riding" abilities of the surfski. My current efforts are on improving my stroke and speed in flat water, and improving my balance and upwind/downwind abilities in rough water. My goals for the time being are to able to hold a good 11+ kph pace in flat water, and to be able to get comfortable enough in rough water to try a downwinder with the other guys. I'll keep y'all posted.


Doug Endicott said...

V12 is a tough boat for balance! V8 much more forgiving.

Methew Alvin said...

Thank you for sharing this information. I am looking to buy kayak foot. Can you suggest me where can i buy online?

David Gassand said...

Thanks for sharing these valuable tips, I want to buy trolling rods. It would be great, if you will suggest me some trolling rods.