Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Gear: What's That Thing Called? (it's a waveski)

TB on the Water Waveski Surfing
The author surfing his trusty Walden "Milo" waveski 

Several years ago my paddling buddy, Tim, picked up a used "rodeo" boat (a river kayak about 7-8 feet long with a flat planing hull on the bottom) with the idea of surfing it on ocean waves. Tim and I had run into some wave action on sandbars a few times while paddling our touring kayaks, and had made attempts to "surf" some small waves, but quickly realized the length and rounded hull shape did not work well on wave faces. It's not that you can't surf a touring kayak. I've seen it done - but you need expert paddle bracing technique and total control of your boat to be competent on any sizable waves. Not to mention, if you screw up and go nose first into the sandy bottom with a touring boat, you could drive your legs forward, into the hull, and severely injure yourself - or, you know, drown.
Shortly after Tim got his rodeo boat, I found a smaller "squirt" boat - another flat bottomed river kayak, but shorter, with more defined rails (the sharper edges you find on surfboards and SUPs). Mine even came with three fin boxes underneath, and a tri-fin (thruster) set-up designed for surfing waves. We thought we were all set to expand our paddling adventures onto breaking wave faces. Boy, did we have a lot to learn.

Our first attempt to surf waves was with the kooky notion that we could head out in surf pumped up by an offshore hurricane (not very bright on our part). We thought we could just stay on the inside and play in the shore break - not realizing this is the precise section that would hammer us into the sand. I realized pretty quickly that my paddling skills were not up to the task, but Tim faired a little better in punching out past the immediate beach break. As you might imagine, we did not have much success - but fortunately, no one got injured.
I think it was the second time we went out that I managed to paddle past the initial shore break, and tried to surf a wave. I found myself upside down, under water, attempting to learn how to roll my squirt boat to the upright position - in breaking waves. The moment of temporary panic when you realize your access to air will not come without effort and problem solving is not a heartening feeling. I could feel my stomach drop - even as I was upside down with my squirt boat floating like a cork above me. And, I knew I was on my own. Even if Tim saw me (he wouldn't have heard me shout because I could not get my head above water), there probably wouldn't have been enough time for him to get to me. Fortunately, I was able to peel myself out of the tight cockpit, and come up for air. I knew right then and there, though, that I would never attempt to surf a closed hull boat again - at least on purpose.  

So, I started investigating SOT (sit-on-top) options - to see if there was anything designed for surfing. Sure enough, there was. There are two basic types of SOT surf specific kayaks: SOT surf kayaks (like the Cobra Strike, Perception Five-O, Malibu 3.4, etc.) and something called a "waveski". At first I couldn't tell the difference much, but the Youtube videos of waveskis in action sure looked like fun. They seemed to have a larger, almost bulbous rear end (designed for catching wave energy), and the rocker (the curved angle of the planing hull you see on surfboards) looked more pronounced (this helps with turns, and lessens the chance of "pearling", which I describe in my post An Unexpected Adventure ). Here's a video of the incredibly talented Hugues Termeau waveski surfing the famous left at Mundaka near Bilbao in the Basque country of northern Spain.

I turned to my trusty Craigslist search for used equipment, and miraculously found one near me that was an "old school" hollow plastic model that has been my go-to surf boat to this day (you can see it on my post Kayak Repairs That Last ). The first time I took it out, I realized the safety factor had just increased exponentially (this recognition caused me to switch my touring kayak to an SOT model a couple years later). It was still a challenge to learn how to surf it, to control it competently, and to establish myself among the lineup of board surfers - who still sometimes look at me sideways (at least until they see that I can actually surf the thing).  

As surfing all over the world has become more popular, even in New England where I catch what waves I can, the water is full of newbies trying to learn. They tend to be a little friendlier than grizzled surf veterans, so they'll often ask me, "what's that thing called?" when they see me on my "goat boat" (a pejorative term coined by board surfers) . Now that I have been surfing some of the breaks for a number of years, even the competent surfers will strike up a conversation - mostly to ask a similar question or to say "that looks like fun". Either way, when I reply that yes, it can be fun, and that it is called a waveski - I might just as well have arrived from outer space with something they've never seen before (even though mine is like, 15 years old). Waveskis have been surfed in Australia, South Africa, Portugal, Ireland, France, northern Spain (you get the picture) for many years. World championships are held - sometimes even here in the U.S. Island Waveski in Cocoa Beach, Florida manufactures waveskis, and so does Infinity Surfboards in Dana Point, California. The state of the art waveskis these days are shaped and built much like surfboards, with similar materials. They are light, fast, and agile - and take some learning to use properly, as I discovered on a used RTM Slide I picked up on Craigslist. My plastic Walden Milo is heavy and slow to get going, but surfs pretty damn well once it's on the wave.

The perception most often seems to be that a waveski (or SOT surf kayak) is easier than board or SUP surfing. It is, in that the "pop up" to the standing position is not required, but it is not, in that balance is still required (only, at the hips instead of the legs), you cannot fall over the back of a wave to disengage with it (once you're on the face - you're in front for good most often), and you cannot "duck dive" on the way out. Paddle technique, learning how to stay with your boat in the case of a wipe-out, learning how to cut the rail into a wave face by shifting your weight - these can all be challenging.

I have found the experience of waveski surfing to be rewarding. I've had my share of wipeouts, lost my boat a couple of times to see it wash up on shore, gotten tumbled (Charlie Brown missing the football style) a bunch of times, overestimated my capabilities in big surf, gotten caught in rip currents, had gear break - you name it. I've also caught glassy waves, big, powerful waves, waves that seemed to go on forever, waves in spots that nobody else seems to know about, and waves that just made me laugh or shout out loud from the sheer joy of them. I've also sat peacefully, looking to the east as the morning sun rose higher from the horizon, and watched late September ducks fly south in formation. I've said hello to curious seals, and watched striped bass flash beneath me in clear water. I've looked skyward and said to my friend Chris (who tragically passed away at a far too young age, and who's winter 5/4 wetsuit I still wear), "this one's for you, buddy".

So, what's that thing called? It's called a waveski.

- TB on the Water




Tom said...

TB, just found this page with a search for "Craigslist waveski" I've been riding these since the late 70's, mostly in NJ. I came to them the long route, started surfing in the late 60's, then went to whitewater kayaking, then to waveskis. Yes some of the "real" surfers don't welcome me to the beach. Yes it more challenging than regular surfing or kayaking. Every chance I get, I head to the beach regardless of conditions. It's only 20 minutes or so away, and more enjoyable than surfing or kayaking, at least for me. More kayakers need to find the ocean.......

TB on the Water said...

Hi Tom, thanks for your comment. Sounds like you were on the waveski bandwagon a long time ago - great! I bought an old Raider a few years back, but haven't tried it yet (still have to fix a broken fin - can't find a replacement anywhere). Maybe you remember those from the 80's. Let me know what you're surfing these days some time, and check out my archived posts re: surfing New Hampshire waves. Cheers, - TB on the Water

Tom said...

Try a surf board shop. Most boards I remember from the 80s had fin boxes that are still supported today. A pin through at the front of the base and a flat nut with a short bolt or screw at the rear. Most surfboard shops should have a selection that will work. When in doubt, Google. If your fins were glassed in place find a surfboard repair shop. I surfed at a contest in Virginia Beach in the mid 80's, amoug a number of Aussies. There were quite a few raider boards there.

TB on the Water said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Tom. I've tried searches: the problem is this fin is asymmetrical, but I've only found symmetrical. I'm also trying to keep the same size (or find 2 to match). You're right about the fin slot and screw - the screw hole is right where the crack is. I also have a used RTM Slide I need to learn - it's fast but the center of gravity is way higher than I'm used to. That contest sounds like it must have been a blast. Cheers!

Tom said...

You can surf with just a center fin. Most ski's I've seen have 3 boxes, center,left,right. Fins are available online and at most surf shops. If you have one side fin it will be hard to match. I would look for about a 5 to 6 inch center fin for starters. If you're happy with the ski, then add a pair of smaller side fins. There are MANY opinions about find, and many variables. If you start looking on line you may get sticker shock. The last fin I bought was a center fin, and just under $40. with free shipping from of all places,

TB on the Water said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Tom. I'll try the Raider with just the center fin some time and see how squirrelly the tail is with that set up. I was trying to get the original thruster set up working, but might put that on hold - haven't had any luck finding an exact replacement for the cracked thruster. I dropped a few lbs, so I think the Raider should float me pretty good. Cheers!

Megan said...

Thanks for a great read

TB on the Water said...

Thanks for reading, Megan. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I'm not active on this blog so much these days, but I do keep an eye on it. I appreciate your feedback. - TB on the Water