Articles - Surf Kayak Technique - The Making of a Waterman

Waterman - Neil Baxter
Waterman - Neil Baxter
I Sherrington - Glenmore Lodge - Posted on 17 Mar 2009

The Hawaiians recognise a waterman as that person who lives, eats and breathes the sea. As an island nation ourselves, we too have a healthy respect for the sea. As kayak surfers we can aspire to be a modern day waterman or waterwoman. To explore the coast and sea in all it's guises.

What mood will she be in?
Sailors describe the sea as female. Whatever craft we take into the ocean we can learn more about her moods. Spend time with her, and try to understand her. For many of us who play in the surf, our trip to the coast follows a hectic week at work. A mate has told us there will be surf, so we grab our kit and head off. A waterman's approach would be to monitor the surf themselves, to be already best guessing what will be the nature of our weekend. What mood will 'She' be in?

'I don't care who you are,' she said, 'here's to your dreams!'
The sea doesn't care either. Although we talk of her 'moods', the truth is we just need to learn what gives us good conditions. Often at home friends will say, 'Oh, it looks stormy for the weekend. That'll give you surfers some nice waves!' We know that's not true. We need waves to be generated by storms well out to sea. We want these storm waves to travel to our coast, sometimes taking days to get here. Then the, longer, cleaner swells that are powerful enough to make it, give us the classic surf with bigger gaps between waves. It is possible to predict when these swells will hit our coast from Atlantic weather charts alone. To help confirm these swells we can check the latest information from automated swell buoys, which are situated offshore. All we need to do now is translate (best guess) how these swells will form surf at the selection of breaks on our coastline. This will also be affected by the local wind direction and strength. This is both a science and an art, and is made easier with time and local knowledge.
    A modern day waterperson often starts by using the Internet and guidebooks. With so much information available it can be confusing to know where to start and what to trust. The one shown here is a good start. Some sites will give the raw information for you to process; some take the information and make predictions for individual beaches; and some do both. These sites have tutorials to help us interpret their forecasts. To get the most out of the sites, read the tutorials. With time and practice it is useful to be able to understand how a site will draw it's conclusions. For the southwest, local knowledge of the breaks is such that they are often more accurate than for the north of Scotland. However a Scot who regularly surfs the north coast will be able to read between the information of the forecast and make a better one.
Information from for Thurso.

At the venue

'He waits, and he watches. That's what he does!'

The waterman gets to the beach early. If you know the break is going to be working best from an hour after low tide, ideally you'll be there on low tide. In that hour before getting changed and in position on the water you'll spend some time watching. As we watch we'll see our break grow and develop through bigger sets of waves. Theses are the waves we'll be dealing with. Note things like:
. Any take off points where the waves break gently and consistently
. Which direction would it be good to surf in
. Where the water is deep and not breaking
. Any land features that we will be able to use as reference points once on the water
. Any rips where the water is flowing out to sea
. Anything that might be hazardous or we should avoid (rocks, boats, swimmers, areas of dumping waves)

Who rules the waves?

It's more about responsibility than power. The responsibility for ourselves and other water users varies with every break we use. Sometimes we have to generate our own rules to keep us safe, and sometimes they are imposed.
    At most remote venues, it's easy, there are just you and your mates and you look after each other. You work a system ensuring that folk don't get drawn out into the waves by the better surfers, and then abandoned. That's obvious, but who's in charge? If you are imagining your regular surfing team and are asking this question then maybe your team would benefit from a leader who keeps an overview of the group. The BCU Level 3 Coach, or Five Star for surf are very good awards and include leadership. I have surfed in groups with a number of novices where the feeling was that we could have all benefited by having some leadership. I've also surfed as part of a team of mates where during the session folk would get on and off the water, and safety was covered well. Everyone took responsibility for them selves and was additionally practiced at ensuring their team mates were safe. One simple guideline is to 'Buddy Up' in two's or three's. Keep an eye on your buddies. If you want to move along the beach, do it as a little team. If you want to get off the water, let them know first. Having a rest on the beach is often the best position to keep an overview. If the waves get bigger, some folk will sensibly call it a day. They can then use the beach view to keep an eye on their buddies. Sometimes you will need to climb the dunes or walk along a cliff top to get a view into the waves.Buddies
    More popular beaches will have 'Marshal Law', with rules regulations and safety being the responsibility of the lifeguards. Read any info posted, talk to those in charge, and use your buddy group safety to support their rules. Don't be afraid of the lifeguards. They may or may not be kayakers, but they should be watermen! Check out beach safety at
    Group Safety Gear: Where there is a little walk from the car, most groups carry a 'Beach Bag' with them and place it somewhere prominent. It can become a meeting point and a reference point. See pic for reccomended contents: Beach Bag

Rules of the road
Out on the waves, agreed rules of the road will make everyone's session that little easier. Often the rule breakers we see out there are just folk who don't know any different. So once you feel you are savvy then spread the word, gently!

. Adopt 'One Person, One Wave'. It is so much easier to learn with a wave each.
. Look for the easy paddle out zone. This may be a rip or deep water
. Seek out quiet peaks
. Chat to others, so that you all know who's going for which wave
. Learn from those around you. Share knowledge of the break and everyone gets a better surf
. Keep an eye out to sea for bigger waves. Be ready to change plans

. Drop in! This is dangerous and frustrating for others. It sometimes happens where a less able surfer is frustrated with the better surfers taking the wave from deep, or right on the peak. The deal is it's their wave if they're up and riding.
. Paddle back out through the 'in zone'. Imagine how frustrating it is to wait for a great wave only to find some numpty in the way. Paddle back out off to the side. If you are forced out through the in zone, stay alert and stay out of the way.
. Live in your own little world. You wouldn't drive a car ignoring the traffic.

Surviving with style
As the waves get a little bigger it is good to have some survival tactics. They are usually born out of good habits and considering the worst.

The take off zone
For most this is an edgy place. The diagram shows the example of a classic peak, but can be adapted for most breaks. As larger sets come through they will break not only further out, but the broken water will extend sideways, towards the red lines. As surfers it is easy to get caught out. Boardies can duck under the waves. We have to take advantage of our ability to quickly move around, and not get caught. We are particularly vulnerable whilst we paddle for the wave. In big waves we will sometimes paddle like crazy for the wave as if the devil himself were chasing us. If our prediction of how the wave develops is wrong, then paddling with blinkers on can leave us being engulfed by the jaws of hell!
    An alternative is to keep the blinkers off and paddle a 'charc', or to give it its full name a 'charging arc', to the take off. As we begin paddling we may be in first gear, getting the boat moving and watching our wave develop. As we progress through gears 2 and 3, finally sprinting, we will be able to watch the wave develop until the last couple of strokes. With the boat moving it is relatively easy to tighten up the charc or paddle in deeper for our optimum take off. On big waves those last few strokes require commitment. A charc from outside the breaking zone allows us to 'bail' at any time. There will be another, better suited wave along soon! Take off zone

The impact zone
As a sizable wave collapses it can be a scary time. There are those who walk amongst us who seem to have transcended beyond fear. For most of us it's worth serious consideration, so that we can have an escape plan.
    Sometimes the wall you are riding steepens up, and stretches in front of you to such an extent that you just want to press a button and have Scotty beam you up. If climbing off the back is not an option, and a punch out is a couple of years in development then do what we all do and run for the beach. The trick is to turn to the beach early enough. If you are in a surf kayak you should be able to carry enough speed to get out front of the guillotine of the lip before it crashes. Once collapsed the wave looses much of its energy. We now have a huge amount of broken water coming our way. The initial impact of this is the most powerful. Lean back and push into the oncoming wave with your back. With modern surf kayaks you will be spat forward like a bar of soap from under someone's foot. It's a bit exciting, so practice on small waves first, but it works.
    Occasionally you may find yourself dropping with the collapsing wave. Maybe you had hoped to climb off the end and didn't make it? It's hard to imagine that you can survive comfortably, being dropped through a sizable collapsing wave. Often you can. The last moments before you drop are important. Try and get yourself parallel to the wave. Then it's back to basics. As you drop, head for the safe position. That position that we all learnt to do in early bongo slides. Body forward, beach edge raised and a strong low support. Now just wait and don't let your edge drop - you might be pleasantly surprised!

The beach zone
A heavy beach dump is everyone's nightmare end to a great session. Sometimes the surf can be just perfect, but whilst we have been out the tide has changed and now getting off the water is barred by a wave that sucks up sand until there is no water left and spits it back on the beach. Not only will you get 'beach slapped', but in front of your mates too! Time spent finding an alternative landing spot is the simple answer. Sit out beyond this zone and see if timing your assault is going to help. If you are going in your best chance is to wait for a smaller set. Then try and paddle in on the back of a breaking wave. Stay sufficiently far back to avoid being sucked over the falls; and yet be fast enough to get to the beach before the next wave. If you are using fins you may need to wet exit beyond this beach dump to avoid breaking kit. Consider that there is likely to be strong undertow in these conditions. It can be good to go in one at a time, using the survivors to help the rest.

The journey
The journey to becoming a Waterman or woman is not defined by ticked boxes alone. It's true that if we can round up our profile of skills we will be heading in the right directions. Seek out new experiences and try and make sense of them with other surf buddies. Some of our strongest learning experiences are our epics. But that doesn't mean you should go looking for them. Epics are things that should happen to you despite your best efforts!

See you on the water, and remember to say aloha!

Ian Sherrington is a Level 5 Coach and a full time instructor at Glenmore Lodge. Glenmore Lodge regularly run surf kayak courses, for more info call 01470 861256 or visit

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