Launching Your Kayak in Light Surf

launching your kayak in light surf

One of the challenges for new kayakers is launching your kayak in light surf, especially if you haven’t had any instruction and haven’t developed a sense of balance or gotten your sea legs. A light shore break can feel mighty challenging if you’ve never paddled out before, especially one with a slight dumping wave. The viral video making the rounds on the Internet right now shows a man trying to get through the surf break on a sit-on-top kayak. He fails big time, ends up mowed over by his kayak several times and eventually ends up on the rocks. While the video is suppose to be humorous, it shows the potential dangers that you can encounter during a launch into even light surf. The man in the video is lucky that he didn’t end up injured. I’m sure he had some serious bruises.

You can find the video here:

The key on getting out through the surf is threefold: position, timing and power.

  • Position: You can break down the position aspect of launching into two components: where to launch from and how to position you kayak and self during the launch.
    • You want to select a position that has minimal hazards, where the waves are smaller and try to avoid locations where the surf is dumping on the shore. You also want to think about what would happen to you and your kayak if you swam and avoid locations that could wash you into danger.
    • When positioning your kayak, position it 90 degrees to the surf in an area that balances being floated out on waves before you enter your kayak and are ready and having to push yourself across the beach to even get into the water.
    • In addition to positioning your kayak, you should also position yourself. Once on the water as you encounter larger foam piles or waves, you may need to change your body position to spear the wave with your paddle and lean into the wave or even get low enough that it looks like you’re hugging your deck to offer the least resistance to the wave.
    • Watch the position of your shoulders; try to maintain the paddlers box so that your hands remain out in front of your shoulders and never go behind them. And watch that your hands don’t go avoid your shoulders as the force of the wave could easily push your arm backwards and injury your shoulder.
  • Timing: Is knowing when to launch and once you are in the break when to wait and when to go.
    • When getting away from the shore, you want to watch the waves and pick a time when the waves aren’t breaking on the shore, at a lull in the sets or after a set as passed. You may get pushed around waiting, but you can often hold your position in the sand with your paddle.
    • If you get turned sideways, you might just be able to fall over on your shoulder and swing the kayak back to 90 degrees into the waves or you might need to get out and reposition.
    • After you’re away from the shore hold your position in the whitewater/foam piles/soup and wait for the right set of waves or lull to appear before heading out through the break. Timing your jaunt over the break during a lull or through a small set is much easier on your body than tackling the break over the largest waves.
  • Power: Getting out through surf isn’t easy. You need to have a powerful stroke to make it through.
    • That powerful stroke is particularly important when getting of the beach, through foam piles and over the break. When getting off the shore, you may find that you have to push your kayak if the stern is gripping the beach. Don’t be timid with your pushing, because if your kayak gets turned slightly, which is likely, your anchored stern acts like a pivot point and causes the kayak to turn. A kayak is much easier to control when it’s completely on the water.
    • When in the soup, you’ll need to power through any oncoming piles and sometimes just as important to have a powerful reverse stroke to slow down your momentum once over the piles to hold your position.
    • When going for the break, commit to your timing and power through. If you end up on a steep wave keep on paddling hard, launch off the backside and keep going until you know you’re outside the break.
    • It’s a good idea to have good braces as well.

If you fail at getting through the zone and end up swimming, make sure that you’re behind your boat as it’s coming in, and never get between your kayak and the shore. A kayak in the surf zone can easily run you over and a kayak full of water is heavy enough to break bones or worse. It’s also a good idea to wear a helmet.

So where did the man in the video go wrong? In lots of places, but I sure don’t like the location that he’s launching from. With that much sand to his left, carrying his kayak away from the rocks seems to be a pretty easy choice to make to minimize the risks from the rocks and the confused waves there. A unzipped lifevest does no good. It would be easy to go on. One thing that might not be apparent is, if you end up having a yard sale like this guy, pull your kayak high up on the beach and out of the shore break and then go back and get the rest of the gear. Take a rest and try again after you recover.

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