any tips for solo launching in surf

I’ve mostly found that waiting on beach for the surf to float your boat ends up with boat turning sideways (parallel to beach) and a failure to launch scenario. In modest surf, I try to get boat out in a couple of feet of water and then, in between waves, quickly plop my butt into seat and paddle out, waiting until I’m no longer at risk of being back surfed onto beach to fasten spray squirt. Do others have different strategies?

Think about how you’ll get back.

Has been a while, but for me the best approach was to go out backwards. My body in the boat had the affect of blocking a fair amount of water from coming in if I hadn’t gotten the skirt secured yet, and it was easier to stop the boat from going sideways than facing forward. We had a lunch stop one day with a group where the only ones of us that got out w/o it being a PITA were those of us who went out backwards. (And w/o assistance.)

This was not in huge stuff. Just in stuff that was rational for me to get back in thru. I always go out backwards on the little beaches in Maine in minor waves because of the rocks. It is a lot easier to avoid finding one with the boat going out backwards than forward.

I’ve done it both ways successfully and it depends on the nature of the surf and the beach. One additional advantage of going out stern first is that it’s less likely that your skeg box will get jammed with sand and gravel, since you can stick the stern in the water where it gets lifted off the beach before you start moving.

There are day long and multi day long classes on surf zone, so keep in mind that what people say here will just be scraping the edge.

I second what bnysttom says about it varies by nature of surf.

In surf where you have a large soup zone (the breaks are a bit off shore, and closer to shore are just small waves of foam), getting in and skirted up inside the break zone often makes sense, as you can use the soup zone to do your preparations. Does take a bit of practice and experience to get it right and keep the boat aimed as you want.

Where the breaks are close to shore, floating boat out past the break, jumping in and paddling like hell and only skirting up outside the break often makes sense.

Either way, you will have failures from time to time. Sometimes it is just the indignity of some water getting in cockpit and you having to pump out, sometimes it is the swim of shame of being flushed back to the beach separate from your boat. Very likely you will get wet one way or another, so wear appropriate clothes.

Will have to try the backing out Celia talks about. Interesting idea.

A key safety point - when you are separate from your boat, never get between the boat and the beach (especially when flooded and/or sideways to the wave). A wave grabbing your boat has a huge amount of power and will mow you down if you are in its way. it is headed to shore with a wave, hence the never get between boat and shore rule.

@Peter-CA said:

Will have to try the backing out Celia talks about. Interesting idea.

Yeah, that one is new to me too. I can’t see that working with a loaded boat in big swell, where timing and visibility are key to successful sprinting between sets. The only back paddling I do is when landing to avoid be surfed.

Apparently the BC first nations would land their big canoes backward in surf to avoid wiping out.

A few tips (launch, land)

going out

  • I watch for where the waves reach on shore, generally put in just a little below this
  • use available rip, if there is one, to get you out quickly, easily.
    where I am now (Jax, FL), I haven’t found a reliable one. When living in the Seattle area, when surfing at Westport, there was a great rip by the jetty. (maybe, too good, it would get you out through a surf you might not belong in)
  • if your skeg jams easily:
    • for ‘surf sessions’:
      • (grey) tape skeg shut (and maybe skeg control)
    • for trips
      • use a line tied to skeg. Once out, pull on string. (I think I got this tip from a Freya blog when she was going around New Zealand)
        when going up the Oz coast in an NDK Explorer, I used this technique, worked well
  • check out water - go into the water a bit, get a feel for direction of currents; also, while there, if using a tight fitting neoprene sprayskirt, crouch down to fully immerse sprayskirt, it goes on much more easily when wet
  • probably obvious: make sure foot pegs are set for a bit tighter fit, have water shoes that will not come off, nothing under bungies you don’t care about losing (Note: I do use bungies to secure my spare paddle, but they are secured with Olive cleats)

coming in

  • a ‘tip’ mentioned previously for going out: come in backwards. Make sure there is no one on shore you will run over, back paddle, if a big wave is coming in on you, forward paddle to let it pass. You can ‘see’ the bad stuff coming at you.
    (note: this is for easy to moderate surf, not the big stuff)
  • practice ‘broaching’ (side-surf) - if there is no one (or thing) in your way, once you get broached, just ride it in
  • if in a group, the most experienced goes in 1st (maybe the 2nd goes in last). Then flags in others when conditions warrant - helps them land

I just go with and do what ever Raisins says for me to do.

My experience at Qajaq TC MI with the group was everyone would do assisted launches. I used to decline the offer on the grounds (seas) if I can’t launch solo I don’t belong out there. Solo trips, I have tried both directions as well, with and without skirt fastened. I have jammed the skeg 80% of the time. I have broached and got kicked over and twisted around. I’m here so I guess I made it. Landing really rough on Lake Superior once I found backing in worked well, easier to time hauling my lumpy ass out of the boat when I could see the breakers.

Small 1-2’ dumpers on the beach in Boston: I say get the skirt on, repeated flushed cockpits is the Worst. Paddle that boat down the beach, straighten it out, paddle some more across the sand. Get it headed into the waves and dig, dig, dig.

I’ve done this quite a few times and it works well. Usually, not my first choice, but it is a useful tool to have in your skills. I have not often launched backward intentionally, but when conditions are forced upon me, it has kept me dry a lot of times.

Usually, this happened to me around beaches where there is swirling water at the entry point, or water approaching from two directions. This has happened on beaches where a larger than expected wave pushes water upon the beach around an inter-tidal rock.

Advantages of the backward launch:

  • the boat rides up well and tracks well (since most of the weight is on the face of the wave if you have a fish form hull)
  • in dumping surf, you are out of the surf zone really quickly
  • in soup, keeping a straight line is simple and effective because there is little power lost to the paddle
  • if there are other paddlers on shore waiting to launch, you can give directions/advice easily (I do rear launches occasionally for just this reason)


  • you cannot easily see where you are going
  • the paddle often presents a power face to oncoming waves
  • you cannot easily communicate with paddlers that have already launched
  • while keeping a straight line is (or it seems that way to me) easy, maneuvering is more difficult (again, this is how it seems to me)

Good technique for the toolkit, though.


A lot depends on the nature of the beach and the size of the waves and if they are dumping close to shore. Also depends a lot on your boat , is it an 8’ surf boat or a 17’ seakayak. The key is to practice this a lot so you get the idea of timing and learn to move quickly and take calculated guesses. Sometimes it’s better to not do up the skirt and just paddle like crazy over small waves before a set comes in. I’ve tried going out backwards a couple of times and I don’t think it’s realistic to do when you have larger waves and dumping surf. Much more useful to learn to use the waves to launch your bow, or spear the waves, or turtle roll. If your boat is small enough you can Mermaid launch it go for it. I’ve done launches in Baja on steep beaches where we slid down the kelp or pebbles like a sled into on coming breakers. Those were the most memorable succesful launches I’ve done. Dropping direct off a pier or breakwater is fun too, not for novices though. The worst is getting hammered in dumping surf in a tight ocean style cockpit or a very old school “surf shoe.” Launching a surf boat with fins means you have to commit to being deeper in the water or being very good at timeing the waves and water depth.

Just to clarify on going out backwards - I can easily name kinds of surf and beaches etc where I would say going out facing forward is the better choice.

But I have found it works well enough in some breaking stuff or messy conditions that it is the option I consider first. Especially paddling solo. Being able to hitch the skirt halfway on and get off the beach without getting any serious water in beats the heck out of being swirled around in shallow stuff by myself. It does require a decent backwards stroke and some trust in your own balance. But if you are in conditions where it requires a lot of thought to get off the beach, you’d better have those.

I think the number one skill for launching in surf is the skill of reading the waves and timing where you want to be when the smallest set comes in and where you don’t want to be when bigger sets are coming in. I know I like to show off by shooting out through a lull and finding a nice channel in the biggest dumpers. I don’t think I could ever do this starting backwards.

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