Surfing Technique

Rambo posted some comments on the difference between top paddlers and the rest of us, with regards to surf skills, in the thread on Boat Design & Weights.

I wanted to use that post as a jumping off point... I would love to hear tips, training approaches, technical insight, etc., from those of you who have developed your surf skills. Yes, practice and mileage are the base for all improvement...

But, specifically, are there things you look for to help you read the waves? Are there tips you were passed on from others that helped you make your own breakthroughs and apply knowledge? In particular, I find I am so busy trying to get on waves (or recover once on them), that I don't have much vision about where to go next and how to transition effectively. I do link waves sometimes, but it seems more like luck than planning - I think my boat is often smarter than I am!

Big thanks to those who continue to post video of folks racing and surfiing - these are great to watch. It would be killer to get some commentating and even maybe some visual callouts from experienced paddlers overlaid on top of these videos, to help those of us who are learning understand what we're seeing better.

Submitted by valerie on Thu, 01/22/2009 - 9:44am

One of the things that made a huge difference for me was learning to stay "high" in the wave.

When most novice surfers catch a wave, they tend to slide down the face of the wave, putting them in the trough. If the trough is short, they wind up putting the nose of their canoes into the wave in front of them, slowing or stalling the canoe, and then the wave they just caught passes underneath them and they are left "see-sawing" with no hull speed. Try not to shoot down the face of the wave and essentially out-run the wave.

The energy of the wave is in the wave, not in the trough. By keeping your canoe higher in the wave once you catch it, you use the wave's energy more efficiently, can stay with it longer, and buy more time to look for your next link-up.

#1 Thu, 01/22/2009 - 10:15am

I moved the post over here Valerie to make it easier to follow .

What Don is saying about staying "High" is the "Hold" Phase that i refer to below.

Here is a quick observation on the difference between the top surfers and the rest of us.

The top guys all ..... Paddle > Drop in > Hold > Scout > Surf to next wave > Paddle > Drop in > Hold > Scout ..............>>>>>


  • Scout ......... read the ocean/anticipate route
  • Drop in ..... catch runner
  • Hold ...... maximize use of wave energy at surfing position usually top of wave or bowl section
  • Paddle .... maximum thrust to attain next drop in or maintain momentum
  • Observation

    The top paddlers all spend more time in the Hold position, where as the average paddler spends more time in the paddling phase, usually wasting energy paddling into the back of the wave in front and total missing the hold phase

    Watch any race video and you will see this, no wonder i bonk and have no energy left at 3/4 way mark in a race and can't chase bumps anymore . Sound familiar?

    Knowing when to hold 'em and when to chase 'em is the key to surfing runners


    #2 Thu, 01/22/2009 - 10:25am

    i don't know how to surf, but i wonder if you can bottom turn the canoe.

    if can can if no can.... tough shit

    #3 Thu, 01/22/2009 - 10:26am

    I observed that I have less solid contact with the boat when it gets more unstable in downwind conditions; also my reach shortens.

    The loss of contact and 'squatting' of the boat just before take off is a common problem in whitewater paddling where the waves are even more agitated.

    They specifically train to keep solid contact between buttocks and the boat until you have completed the catch and just then translate your weight unto the paddle. This takes away the squatting.

    The advice to achieve that is to keep your lower back straight.
    Yes, I think it curves, or better arches a bit.

    #4 Thu, 01/22/2009 - 4:44pm

    not sure but.....

    when your digging the shovel hard your low back might curve a bit.... no?
    also if you squeeze you ass this might help the core.

    or maybe just remove the training wheel!

    if can can if no can…. tough shit

    #5 Thu, 01/22/2009 - 7:13pm

    One of the things that made a huge difference for me was learning to stay “high” in the wave.

    You might have to slow your canoe a bit, not to run down the face of the wave... use your hands, put'em in the water and get'em out to control the speed.

    A drill : try to paddle 10 strokes (or more) with your eyes closed. thus you can concentrate on feeling the movement of water trough your seat...

    #6 Thu, 01/22/2009 - 1:58pm

    Excellent point, Hiro, and one that I neglected to include in my post. Yes, dragging a hand or paddle will slow the canoe a bit and help avoid out pacing the wave.

    #7 Thu, 01/22/2009 - 2:19pm

    I must be doing something wrong or I am SLOW because I feel like I'm paddling just to keep up with the wave.... ;)

    #8 Thu, 01/22/2009 - 4:18pm

    Awesome post Valerie
    Keep those tips comming folks.

    #9 Fri, 01/23/2009 - 2:07am

    nooceanpaddle - training wheel all right, how about getting around without second-blade-assisting device :) ?

    #10 Fri, 01/23/2009 - 7:58am

    Great post, valerie; thanks, Rambo that's a solid "algorithm" to staying on (not in) the bump.


    when scouting, I try and connect to runners on the left or right. This keeps hull at angle to wave which also helps keep it higher on the wave longer. The end result is a chaotic looking zig-zag surfing from one bump to next. The end result (hopefully) getting there faster than going straight. I'm always trying to get as much speed from one bump in order to carry me through sections to the next bump and never have slowed myself down just after dropping to stay on same runner...although that may be a good idea: slow down and stay in power pocket on one wave as long as possible rather than speeding down the line looking for the next ride.

    Good thread

    #11 Fri, 01/23/2009 - 9:02am

    always learning.......

    eck, single blade on a ski, now that would be talent... priceless

    yup i never slow myself down [scout] and also zig zag [paddle->drop] trying to just jump to the next wave [repeat]

    paddle->drop->hold->scout->repeat..... lyrics during the run!

    if can can if no can…. tough shit

    #12 Fri, 01/23/2009 - 9:23am

    It is very interesting reading all the helpful suggestions, but there is one thing I haven't yet figure out all these years is how the old guys do it? For example, you can be on the same bump with Marshall (talking) and paddling hard, while it looks like he's lilly dipping (pat pat patting or tapping the water with his wing paddle on a ski), when all of a sudden, boom, he rockets 10 skis ahead without any visible effort. Wow? Amazing1 Now if anybody knows his secret for doing this, please let us know.

    #13 Fri, 01/23/2009 - 9:32pm

    Don't know Koacanoe but the same thing has been 'taught' to me by Keith Keillor (69) of Valhalla surfskis ... The guy is just amazing ... I'm right on the edge to keep up and he is just chatting away, next thing I know I am sprinting to catch him ... dang it.

    O.K. we are right next to each other yeah ? Just follow his line ... what happens next is the voodoo.

    #14 Sat, 01/24/2009 - 6:41pm

    A guy I really respect when it comes to surfing told me it's all a matter of patience. It's all about know which swells are the right swells and not chasing the wrong ones.

    Me... I'm like a dog chasing cars out there. Just wearing myself out.

    FWIW - this thread provided the most value to me of anything on OCPaddler. Today I managed to link waves for the longest section I've ever pulled off and the whole time I was thinking "Hold High on the Wave! Hold High on the Wave!"


    #15 Sun, 01/25/2009 - 5:41pm

    "me...i'm like a dog chasing cars out there. just wearing myself out."

    malachi i thought i was the only dog out there. good to know i'm not alone. that statement hits the nail on the head for me.

    i have a question when holding "high" when do you know when to hold 'um and when do you know when to release?

    #16 Sun, 01/25/2009 - 6:07pm

    Same thing here, many thanks to those who shared advice as it is helping!

    I'm still a dog chasing cars, but one with a big grin on her face and slightly less worn out...

    I would love insight on how paddlers determine (whether by feel or look) which waves are the best to push to get on, and when to release - only when you see a better wave you can move onto?

    #17 Sun, 01/25/2009 - 6:22pm

    First goal for me is to keep a continuous flow = reasonable hull speed, rather than to get on a bigger wave and possibly stall.

    All decisions seem to depend on hull speed and wave height, wave direction.

    I figure if I were on a bike rolling down a hill side with lots of different bumps on it, I would avoid the real big bumps unless I had sufficient speed to get over the top of those to drop in.

    #18 Sun, 01/25/2009 - 7:53pm

    great post! easiest way i find to stay high is to paddle for the swell slightly later than normal. some are just too steep to stay high on so it is beneficial to angle or quarter the wave and keep a more consistent speed. too fast straight down and you out run the swell then have to paddle hard to recatch the same swell. i try to not go too hard for the initial swell, it is sometimes easier to catch the second swell in a series and much easier to connect it. then you are at the point where you'd have been by paddling hard for the first swell and you used less energy. practice catching swells as late as possible and try never to paddle too hard when your canoe is pointing uphill. wait till the nose is transitioning from pointing up to pointing downhill to apply the power and rate increase. after the initial catch i find it best for me to ride, rest, and scan. looking left, right, and several bumps ahead. i am looking for the flat section to get me around swell in front of me, not over. by staying high you can use the downslope to increase speed with less effort and make it through the flat section. by scanning several bumps ahead you will ocasionally find the long flat sections that are the difference makers. these can get you 2-3 swells ahead. look for the crossing swells as well. as the swell is crossing your line you can use its crest as a bridge to get over the swell in front of you. if there is no connection visable and you are riding there is no need to paddle. use this riding time to learn quartering. quartering maintains the fastest consistent speed and when you see the flat section it's almost easy to turn into it and push around the swell in front. priority 1 is surfing, priority 2 is line. catch swells to surf to the line you want, dont paddle to the line hoping for swells to come your way.

    #19 Mon, 01/26/2009 - 12:54pm

    Another major thing I learned was to steer around "stall outs." By this, I mean that you need to anticipate when your canoe is in a situation where if you keep going, you are going to stall out (i.e. burry your nose into the wave in front of you, not have enough "umph" to carry you over that next bump, or when you are going to miss a wave and have it pass underneath you). Whenever I feel my boat is about to stall out, I steer around that stall out (usually right to keep the ama down-wave) and keep as much momentum as I can.

    By steering around stall outs, you can change the angle of your canoe relative to the waves and prevent being completely perpendicular to the wave. When you "see-saw" (i.e. your boat is perpendicular to the wave as the wave rolls under you), you lose all your speed as the tail will not release until the nose starts to point down again, lifting the tail. By the time that happens, you have lost all your speed and missed a wave. If you don't do something different, you'll likely miss the next wave too.

    Instead, try to steer right or left so that your canoe is at an angle to the wave. By doing this, your tail won't get "sucked down" as your nose goes up. Your tail will "release" sooner and you'll maintain more speed, allowing you to catch that next runner instead of missing another bump.

    In short, steer around situations where your nose is going to be pointed up instead of down. Avoid going "nose up" any way you can; you'll surf faster and link more rides.

    #20 Mon, 01/26/2009 - 2:55pm

    To see a video of what Don just described watch Karel at the start of the "Doctor" teaser clip.

    Cheers Rambo

    #21 Mon, 01/26/2009 - 3:45pm

    When you lean to the left, the boat will turn to the right, when you lean to the right, the boat will tend to turn left.
    It has to do with generated lift and it helps to realize that.

    This helps steering without using the rudder. Noticeable best when rudderless.

    #22 Mon, 01/26/2009 - 7:00pm

    Hey onnopaddle! You mean Keith Keillor is 69 years old? Wow! He no look that old? I met him in '92 when he came over from Diego with this big tall paddler for paddle the OCC Xmas race, which was cancelled due to "bad" weather conditions. I mean everything was closed out and nobody stay on the beach at San Souci, except us guys from the other side of the island. Yeah! We were all dissapointed that they go cancel the race. So us guys decide we going make our own race. Keith and his big friend no scared, they join us kids and punch out through the big surf with us. We head up to the DH buoy, watching out for the sneaker sets stay breaking way outside, then blast down to the Ala Wai Channel entrance buoy. Later turn around and head back for San Souci for all the action and fun surfing back to the beach that's closed out. Well, I no make it back to the beach without smashing up my canoe in the surf. Keith's friend's canoe got smashed too, but Keith surfed in like the pro he is. Yeah, the buggah can surf in smashing conditions.

    #23 Mon, 01/26/2009 - 11:56pm

    Yeah Chineboy, ya have to wait for the "gate" to open before you pass thru. Some times the "gate" is obvious and other times it's not, but it's always there. Traveling left or right usually finds it as all waves have two shouldered ends at the end of their curves. It's usually there that you find the "gate" to the next lowest spot in the ocean. It then allows you thru to surf back along the train you were in or find a new set if that one has lost momentum.

    Surfski is slightly different, as they have the speed to power thru quartered, Oscar Chalupsky is a wizard at doing that.


    #24 Tue, 01/27/2009 - 12:38am

    koa, yep ... gonna be 70 this year ... his BD is on his website

    I bet he could tell you every stroke of that day too ...

    The big guy was probably Phillip' (sp? ), I believe he was one of his team riders for many years ... The guy always made the boat look too small to me.

    I saw Keith last coming in the Mission Bay Channel on a rare choppy day race .... with a bunch of young guys all around him on Epics Makos and Hukis, Keith on his "new model" glided right past them in one of the most poetic runs I have ever seen. I was kicking myself for not having a camera on him.


    #25 Tue, 01/27/2009 - 12:58am

    There's no name attached to this surfing description so i can't credit it but it's put very well in layman's terms an expands on what is written above.

    I meet Dawid Mocke in Perth at the Doctor Race and he is a very approachable gentleman and a great ocean paddler.

    Here's the Story ...

    Still jet-lagged to hell….so I'm up at 4am and thought I'd expand on
    and share this email I wrote as I boarded my flight home a couple of
    hours after my first and only real Millers Run this past Wednesday in
    a double-ski with Dawid Mocke in Cape Town, South Africa. This was
    part of his "Downwind Clinic", which is an amazing experience…three
    runs with Dawid in a double-ski downwind with him showing and teaching
    you what he does best. I tried to synthesize it into writing, which
    is hard, but hopefully helpful.

    The launch at Miller Point was wild. HUGE swell breaking onto rocks
    outside the surf zone with spray whipping across the parking lot. Up
    and over some massive steep faces as we battled a side wind to stay in
    the channel. The turning point was Bakoven Rock, a massive grey
    boulder outside the channel. As we turned downwind and we crested a
    large swell I could more or less see our goal, Fishoek beach, some 12
    km ahead.

    Weather was warm and sunny, water 65F, Southwest swell was 23ft and 16
    seconds, but fortunately that swell lost most of its size as it
    wrapped around Cape Point and into Millers Point. Biggest waves I've
    been out in for sure though. The wind was pretty normal at around
    50km/h SE according to Dawid. I had wanted to go in singles, but Dawid
    said while we could certainly go in singles if I wanted, he was
    pushing the double saying that he could "teach me more" in the
    double…By the time I saw the launch point I realized he'd been being
    polite. No way that I could have handled that on a single ski. Not a
    chance. Not even on an XT.

    Best run ever for me. No question. I was pretty nervous paddling into
    and over the giant chopped up swell to the start of the run. But was
    soon rewarded with 45minutes of screaming rides sitting behind him.
    Looking at my Garmin data online later I see we actually hit 36.4km/h
    (22.6mph) towards the end of the run in an area where we had more
    exposure and steeper waves. About halfway through the run we dropped
    down a HUGE face and ploughed straight into the wave in front. It
    buried Dawid up to his chest and the boat just about stopped...for a
    few seconds all I could see was his head and part of a paddle. He
    said it was a steering error but the deepest he'd ever gone. After
    that we backed off a few of the bigger ones and steered right to avoid
    a repeat. I still got lifted out of my seat by the water every time
    we pushed over the top into the next one and nearly washed off the
    back several times. Foot straps were indispensable. Dawid actually
    looked back a few times to "check I was still there". Shows you how
    much impact my paddling was having. We had two runs where we didn't
    paddle for what felt like 20 seconds and he was just steering the nose
    around in the trough showing me how to stay on the run in the
    trough…."steer left, left, right, left...". Learnt SO much just
    watching him explaining what he was doing the whole time. Hope I can
    remember that when I next do a downwind. Spent most of the time
    struggling to paddle at his cadence and just actually paddle at that
    boatspeed. Not enough fast twitch muscles.

    Amazing amazing amazing run. The last 10minutes was actually MORE
    intense as the groundswell got steeper and we had to push much harder
    to get into them and link waves more consistently to keep the
    boatspeed up. It was quite incredible watching how Dawid's steering
    kept the boatspeed up between runs (except when he was slowing to
    coach me and explain what he was doing). By the time we hit the beach
    I was on a total high.

    A few observations or things I learned.

    I paddle like a geriatric on a Sunday stroll. Dawid paddles at almost
    twice my cadence, yet still somehow manages to launch the ski forward
    every time his paddle connects.

    While he paddles at a high, but steady cadence, he is constantly
    on/off the pressure…which is highly efficient.

    Between runs he doesn't stall by steering off the side of waves and
    can then rebuild speed from smaller wind waves in between ocean
    swells. Surprisingly he does this without pulling hard and mostly
    through steering. Calls it "consolidating" speed.

    He's rarely steering straight downwind, but puts the nose at a slight
    angle to the wind and swell, looks out about 30-50 yards between 0-45
    degree on the side of the nose that the swell is coming from and
    anticipates the bigger swells that will form in front of him as they
    intercept the ski. Never ever looked back (except to see if I'd fallen

    When he intercepts one he's already started pushing…calling out "push,
    push push" as we nosed into the ocean swell trough while he
    aggressively steered the ski straight down the face to catch the big

    As ski hits Mach 2 down the face, he'll steer a little off to the side
    and let it run…and next was the most eye-opening…at full speed and
    where I would normally sit and enjoy the ride, he picks a line, takes
    that speed, piles ON the pressure and PUSH PUSH PUSH sprints "over the
    top" of the next wave into another run, then another, then
    another….until we'd miss one. "over the top" doesn't mean literally
    over back of the wave in front of you (where you'd bury the nose), but
    actually through a lower entry point to the side. He can read where
    to go over and after 15 minutes or so I started to figure it out a
    little myself and could anticipate where he was going to steer. A
    few times we'd link run to run and then go over into a really big
    face. However, even though we could catch them a lot of the time, we
    were sometimes avoiding going down the really big faces (Dawid said
    we'd swim for sure). We'd steer off the big face after it pushed us
    up to speed, and push into a smaller swell in front that was actually
    like a small reform ON TOP of the big swell in front of us. We'd
    effectively be riding a small reform wave ON TOP of a huge swell, but
    getting the speed of the big swell. This was where Dawid did most of
    his steering as he held the nose in a smaller trough that ran around
    in front of us. This was where we carried most of our speed and I
    actually had time to look down at my GPS. Between waves he starts
    pushing earlier, and stops pushing a LOT sooner than I would have… FAR
    more efficient and effective.

    The best part about this whole experience is realizing just what an
    art form surf skiing really is. I'll probably revise this, but I now
    think being good at this sport is something like 20% technique and
    balance, 20% fitness, and 60% water knowledge and surfing skill. SO
    much to learn.

    #26 Sun, 02/01/2009 - 6:22pm

    Wow Rambo ... I'm jealous .. Thanks for sharing that.


    #27 Sun, 02/01/2009 - 7:07pm

    Hey Rambo, just wondering if there are many people paddling that run on ski's with outriggers and single blades?

    Have never done that run myself but am familiar with running the big swell outside around Cape Point, when running from Cape Aguhas to Cape Town. But actually using the the wind to keep moving downwind.

    #28 Mon, 02/02/2009 - 8:56am

    To my knowledge there are few if any OC in SA, so i doubt anyone would have done a run on one. But i could be wrong.


    #29 Mon, 02/02/2009 - 9:27am

    Thanks!.... yep, that adds up.
    It makes sense to paddle a ski when running in those conditions

    #30 Mon, 02/02/2009 - 10:57am

    It wasn't me that did the Millers Run Pog, I'm only reporting the story for an anonymous person. I did met and chat to Dawid thou at the Doctor race.


    #31 Mon, 02/02/2009 - 11:22am

    Valerie, Rambo, dmehling, eckhart, et al. thanks for a great thread!

    Rambo - I was looking around to see if I missed your promised elaboration on Karel's comments about why he likes to rig his canoe leaning right... did I miss it? Hate to prod, but I am really curious about the logic.

    Thank you to everyone for all the useful info!

    #32 Tue, 02/03/2009 - 2:53pm

    Karel said that he likes his seat very low, foam thickness about 1/4 inch.

    His boat is rigged tilting slightly to the right because he feels that he can fly the ama more effortlessly that way. More than anything he feels that this is a habit; he does not adapt this to conditions.

    #33 Tue, 02/03/2009 - 3:01pm

    Haagan, pretty much what Ecky said. His oc1 seat is almost the same depth and shape as a Surf Ski bucket.


    #34 Tue, 02/03/2009 - 3:30pm

    Rambo, that's right - I didn't think about it that way.

    How about a SS bucket on a OC 1 ? Why are they so different ?

    #35 Tue, 02/03/2009 - 5:18pm

    The best seat I have tried is on my V10 it pushes you forward a bit so you legs are less on the way. I wish I could mix and match with my Hurricane.

    #36 Tue, 02/03/2009 - 5:46pm

    Ecky, it's possible the std Zephyr is higher above the water than other OC1's, so lowering the CG is probably a good thing to do on it. I must say that i haven't actually measured it against other OC1 but i imagine it is so.

    I wonder if forming a bucket shape in the under seat area of other canoes, say like the Peggie and lowering the foam seat into that would improve the handling??

    Where does too low start to effect paddling performance?

    I know with surf ski, as your feet get closer to your butt level, you start to get lower back problems. Keith Keilor from Valhalla Surf Skis was the first to recognize this fault ,and drop the foot well to the bottom of the hull.


    #37 Tue, 02/03/2009 - 6:30pm

    I think it is supposed to be about 5" difference between bottom foot well and seat level. Thus: heels 5" lower than butt, seems about right to me.

    Nice idea to fill this up with foam. Of course you may have to guide the rudder cables along the sides.

    How much is it in a surfski ?

    My Hurricane is about 1.5" deeper than the original - seat area and also foot well - much better for me. I don't feel that it changed the leverage much - overall a definite performance gain.

    #38 Tue, 02/03/2009 - 6:53pm

    I think Jr's seat is 3'' lower than std, sure seems to look that way. That distance would definitely be felt stability wise as it places the top of the seat at hip level.

    If you did this mod you would need to consider weakening the hull, i think that's one of the reasons why the Zephyr has extended wings on each side of the cockpit.

    Not sure in a SS. Ocean racers are almost level i think.


    #39 Tue, 02/03/2009 - 7:12pm

    Modern SS about 1/2" -1" above .... even depends on layup too. This makes the seat depth about 7-9" depending on design.

    Eh Rambo, I think Keith should be credited with a bunch more stuff that is common today ... And he'll tell you so !! LOL


    #40 Wed, 02/04/2009 - 3:46am

    And i ain't arguing with him either pog.


    #41 Wed, 02/04/2009 - 9:50am

    On this months episode of ocean paddler TV, we did a good interview with kai talking about just this kind of stuff..check it out!

    #42 Wed, 02/04/2009 - 10:52pm

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