Pat Keller: Side Surfing Technique

David Spiegel practices Pat's side surfing tips in Norway. Photo by Borge Hamso.
David Spiegel practices Pat’s side surfing tips in Norway. Photo by Borge Hamso.

Side Surfing Technique

By Pat Keller

One of the most important things in kayaking that I see commonly overlooked is good side surfing and hole riding skills. Anyone can get into a hole and hang on for dear life, but one of the things that makes a good paddler into a great paddler is skill and calm in violent situations. Good side surfing requires just a few elements to make even the gnarliest holes rideable— and escapable!

First, we have to practice good balance. When you are side surfing, position your rib cage over the downstream edge until you can lock into a good side surf. The goal is to be balanced well enough so that you don’t have to use a brace at all. Until you start dealing with the steepest of ledge holes or waterfall recirculations, this is the goal.

Second, we need solid Paddle Fu. Once you’ve got the right balance point, we need to figure out how to move around. The hard (but common) way to move around in a hole is the panicked high brace combined with frantic sweep strokes. This does us no good. Instead, I recommend that you practice two concepts. The first involves dipping your paddle down deep into the foam pile with the blade perpendicular to the current. Once you feel the flow under the hole catch, BOOM, you have an underwater rudder my friend. Now that this is engaged, you can roll your wrists up (thereby opening the power face of the blade to catch like a sail in the wind) to move forward. You don’t even need a sweep, because the water moving under the hole is doing all the work for you. To move backwards, simply roll your knuckles down a tad from rudder perpendicular and you’ll feel the non power face (front) of the paddle start to catch the ‘wind’ and the current flow will move you back, towards the other potential exit. These tricks alleviate the need for panicked scrambling. The flow under the foam pile is far more consistent than that of the pile itself. You can even find yourself leaning waaay over on that downstream edge while the rudder and wind effect holds you upright, a liberating and enlightening sensation indeed!

The other key to this Paddle Fu comes after you’ve gotten yourself balanced and are using the deep rudder brace. Sometimes the rudder brace isn’t quite enough, and we want out. Increase the power in your exit by adding a little of the scramble on top of what I just stated above. Add forward sweeps onto the locked-in wind rudder with your knuckles rolled slightly up to move forward powerfully. Sweep, setting your blade in so it pulls like the wind, reach for another when balanced, sweep again. Always locking that blade in so you feel the deep water moving you the right way. Repeat for best results. (And keep those elbows down!)

The same rules apply for backing up, but with one little performance change. If my exit is behind me, I will use a backsweep -plus-low-brace combination. This means my elbows are up, my knuckles down and I’m pushing on my non power face of the blade to move. The low brace provides a better leverage point so that you can make your boat move back. Reach back and feather the blade to the low brace, non power face wind catcher, push the sweep through deep in the flow, finishing the sweep by your feet, then bring it back to your neutral low brace, wind rudder. Repeat until you move out of the hole in reverse.

Finally, we need to practice pulling out of the hole. Now that you’ve gotten the hang of the balance point and deep ruddering, you can fiddle with different exits of holes. Some will let you right out when you make it over, some make you work, and some simply won’t let you out that way. So when to use what? Basically, the stronger the curler is that comes into the hole, the harder you have to work to get out. Often, if the first one or two attempts fail—and you know you’re heading out the easier side—you may have to reset and try to use another attempt to complete a 360-degree flat spin (or whatever variation that you can muster up) so that you get up on top of the hole – or at least out of the pit – thereby giving yourself a chance to do an epic “peel out” style exit. Here the goal is to spin around and set up, looking right down into the pit of the hole, with focus on the exit side. Go into kamikaze mode and charge down into the trough, trying to keep your boat pointed as upstream as possible. As your bow starts to climb up the trough, lean hard onto your downstream edge to bite into the turn and pull on a very hard sweep. This effectively makes your exit attempt into a super stout peel out, where the eddy line is your hole fence and guarding curler. Charging into and peeling out of holes like this can literally save your life, so go out and get practicing! Start small with a smooth, small ledge hole and then work your way up.

Pat Keller paddles for Liquid Logic Kayaks

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The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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