How to behave after a capsize deep in a surf zone?

I’d like to know what is the best course of action If I capsize and get separated from my boat in the surf zone?
The probable scenario is that I’m wiped out by 4-5 foot breakers while paddling a Scupper Pro, in Mediterranean (70-80°F water), with a PFD on.

Should I actively swim to the shore? Or let the waves take me and conserve the energy?
Should I try to dive when a larger wave breaks over, or try to use it?
If, while landing, I encounter a surf which I feel is too much for me to handle, is it safer to try and land anyway (and swim if capsized) or get out before the breaking zone, push the kayak until it’s taken by the waves and follow it by swimming?

I’ve capsized a few times in a SINK sea kayak, when paddling with a group, but always close to the shore.

It depends a bit on what the conditions are like on the beach. Is it a steep beach with a lot of rip current potential? Is there a long shore current and rip that will pull you out, or rip from some feature like a lagoon or river mouth? You are pretty much always safer to stay with the boat. Try to paddle in and wait just outside where the biggest waves break, then paddle in on the back of the breaking wave, when it dumps paddle into it’s whitewater as hard as you can go until you get to shore. You want to learn how to paddle in so your boat does not broach and capsize that takes practice in smaller waves. If the boat does capsize it’s best to keep a hand on your boat and a hand on your paddle if you don’t have a paddle leash. If the wave is too powerful let go of the boat and stay on the ocean side of all breaking waves. If you are swimming if there is not a rip current, use the breaking waves and body surf in your PFD to get washed in. If there is a rip current and you are wearing a PFD, you may recirculate in the breaking waves, paddle parallel to the shore to where the waves are smallest, you may get sucked out to sea, but eventually if you paddle parallel to the shore you will get out of the rip and be able to swim in. The best thing to do is to go out and practice this with friends in the water who can help if things get out of hand. if you are landing in 4 or 5 foot dumping surf wear a helmet. If you do broach or pitchpole in heavy duty surf, roll up into a ball, protect your head and get out of the way of the boat. It’s best to control the boat so it does not hit someone by hanging on to the handle that is nearest to the breaking waves, but don’t try to control it if a huge wave hits it, you can dislocate fingers and shoulders.

@michael5139 said:
I’d like to know what is the best course of action If I capsize and get separated from my boat in the surf zone?
The probable scenario is that I’m wiped out by 4-5 foot breakers while paddling a Scupper Pro, in Mediterranean (70-80°F water), with a PFD on.

As Seadart said, there is some sizable variations based on conditions, beach shape, wave shape, etc.

If the surf is relatively widely spaces (a longer period), and you are fast at getting back on, it may be possible to do so between waves. This is more possible with your SOT than it would be with a SINK. But if you try to do this and another wave comes in, there is a chance of the boat whacking you.

In general, though, your boat will likely wash toward shore. Often the best option is just swim after boat, and nudge it further in if it isn;t going in as fast as you like, until you are in shallow water and can drag it out.

Much about surf zones is not readily apparent to people who don’t have surf experience, s what may seem logically to the untrained can be the absolute wrong route. I strongly recommend taking a surf zone class, where they teach you to get in and out of the surf zone.

First, never ever get between the boat and the shore. Second, at some point skip the boat and just get into some surf and learn how to swim in it. And land in it. Curl up in a ball if you hit the snarky stuff at the bottom of a wave in the band of shells in the shallow stuff, the shells bits scrape. It is really worth learning to body surf if you want to do surf in a kayak, takes one element of concern away.

How about using the paddle for swimming if you lose the boat?

I have done it 1 meter waves (enough to dislocate a shoulder of another participant who did a high brace), and paddling without a kayak was very efficient compared to swimming. But I wonder if it will become dangerous in higher waves because the force on the blades become too high?

Swimming using the paddle for locomotion works to some extent; this is a good trick to know if you are in a tide rip and the water is fairly smooth and you are trying to get out of the rip. My problem with swimming with the paddle is that if I am swimming the conditions are usually pretty violent and random, confused seas, big waves really breaking hard in irregular timing, for me it’s best to keep the paddle at my side and I do a side stroke, ocaisionally I have thrown the paddle into calmer water and done a full on power crawl stroke to get out of the impact zone. On the old P net there was an instruction page for swimming with your paddle, if I remember correctly it was spot on, however could not find it doing a quick google search. I think its best to keep your paddle with you because you can use it to fend off rocks, for force on the bottom against an undertow ect. Also my paddle is my best friend.

There are several options and, based upon conditions, shore terrain, surf, bottom conditions, currents, you have to make the best assessment at the time.

As someone said, first, learn to swim in the surf. To recognize tidal rips, to assess the waves, patterns, and longshore current before choosing a course of action. As Celia said, never get between the boat (or any heavy object) and shore. Some major injuries are possible when a heavy weight is dumped upon a swimmer.

Condition 1: Surf 4-5 feet, surf is regular and consistent, wind moderate (>5 MPH), water as you describe, separated from boat, still with paddle, shore safely approachable, boat not swamped and windblown:
Probably your best bet is to swim to shore and track the boat, since you will probably not catch up to the boat. Using the paddle to swim is quite possible in these conditions, but as stated, keep your hands below your shoulders to avoid dislocation injuries.
Condition 2: Same as condition 1 with following changes: dumping surf (all the wave energy is dumped in small area because of the steep shore), steep beach ending at a high bluff
Don’t let the boat get away. Very different situation with moderate changes to the variables. This is where I do use a paddle leash from paddle to boat (never to my person - I don’t like being attached to objects for a lot of reasons, especially a boat in the surf zone - so hold the paddle and the boat goes where you do). I’ve done this many times and your options are very limited. The beach offers little to no sanctuary. The dumping surf is dangerous and can break bones (even vertebra). You cannot use a paddle for a swim assist because when you hit the surf zone, you will probably have no control of your body and the paddle becomes a risk in itself. The shoreline is probably rocky and will not provide much buffering when the wave dumps upon your fragile body. This is not a beach where you want to land, even with the boat, so you need to get back in and find another spot to go. I’ve done plenty of entries through 3-4 foot dumping surf and I actually prefer to start in surfing the face of the wave, let the boat broach, and ride the foam into shore. Staying on the face of the wave will often lead to pealing (where the bow hits the bottom, often with catastrophic results (to boat, person, or both). If the boat is intact, you can recover from this event with a well done brace, but you are better off broaching to the wave before this can happen.
Condition 3: Swamp the boat, same as condition #1:
Recover the boat and re-enter. Easy decision as the swamped boat should be very retrievable.

So, just a few examples of what folks are trying to say here. You use your judgement to make the best call based upon your experience with the environment. Some additional points. In high surf, you will probably capsize on the wrong side of the boat (boat further out to sea than you are - you will only capsize when leaning into a brace if the brace fails for some reason which probably will not happen if the paddle remains intact). Move immediately either a) out of the way of the boat or b) underwater so the boat passes overhead. Often, the boat will pivot over you in a capsize (you are effectively a sea anchor when upside down if you are still in the seat and the boat will float right over you), but if you come out of the seat during the capsize (I see this a lot), the boat will move completely independent of you and become a very heavy threat to life and limb. Even swamped boats should float high enough to pass over you, so staying well underwater for a few moments can reduce the threat. Floating objects are often best avoided by diving under them (though, again, each case must be assessed and judgement applied).

So, what to do becomes a complicated question and it changes with even modest variations to conditions. As the saying goes, errors are caused by bad judgment; bad judgement is avoided by experience; experience is obtained from bad judgement.


“How to behave after a capsize deep in a surf zone?”

Be humble.

I had a Scupper Pro for years. Used it mainly winters in east coast Floridian surf, but also on backwater trips. They do not “swamp” all that easy as the “scuppers” do some actual self-bailing(not very fast mind you, but they do bail). I’d usually simply hoist myself back aboard wherever I landed…Wiping-out was part of the fun, but then again, I grew up on the ocean and started life as a teen age board surfer…From the sounds of things, you should take all the advice listed above about not going out alone/take a surf zone class/spend time just body surfing and learning to read salt water.
And as you’re probably a beginner, DO also where a helmet–I once saw two women who wiped-out on a tandem Sit-On-Top, get knocked-out simultaneously when they both came up to the surface, just as a wave hurled their boat toward their heads…Yike! Also, do not even think of playing around on any days when a Beach Patrol posts warnings/flags about savage undertow. Better safe than sorry.

My ol’ yum-yum yellow Scupper Pro( Sorry, no pre-digital age shots of myself in surf–I was just too busy at the time catching some good rides B) )…

Thanks for the detailed advice,

Packing a helmet just in case sounds like a good idea - is a bicycle helmet OK? Won’t its flotation cause problems?

What about the rudder - should I raise it, or actually use it in surf?

I’m not really a beginner and I do paddle out with a group in real sea kayaks (which always launch from an exposed beach). However I’m not ready to give up the degree of freedom and peace you get when paddling alone :smile: . I usually launch and land in semi-protected spots, or from a sand beach if the surf is less than 3ft. However I did want to know what should I do if I find myself swimming in conditions I haven’t encountered yet.

This is the color of my Scupper as well by the way :smiley:

I’ve used a bicycle helmet before, but it is only good for a single hit (the foam collapses and ceases to absorb impact afterward). Since I’ve never hit my head playing in the surf, it wasn’t an issue. So, after hitting your head, the bike helmet should probably be discarded.


Forego the rudder! As you get more use to things, you can opt to use it in wind–That’s what a rudder is really for, NOT relying on it to steer the kayak. There’s no substitute for good paddle strokes to counteract yaw and learning how to steer in waves.

The beautiful thing about ocean water is the salt keeps you afloat a whole lot easier than freshwater does. Use this buoyancy to your advantage at all times. When you find yourself unexpectedly in the briney, don’t struggle/fight by trying to swim hard against the tide–You will only lose. Tread water, compose yourself, assess where things(like your boat)are at, --Then swim patiently and try a side reentry. If you can’t climb aboard where it’s too deep/too much chop, grab a bow handle(install one if you need to)and try swimming the yak sidestroke either into shore, or wherever there’s less commotion beyond the breaks.

–And oh yeah, don’t forget one of these…

Get a proper paddling helmet if you plan to put a boat, surf and your head all in the same place at the same time. Bike helmets are not strong enough nor can they stay in place under that kind of tug and pull. Using the paddle to help you swim in somewhat of a low-pressure solution - at a certain point of water pressure having it out from your body is a good way to get a shoulder or wrist injury. But if you can keep it with you it is always a good idea. It is amazing how easily a $450 paddle can migrate from where you just saw it to some place down the beach where it will never be found again. :slight_smile:

@Overstreet said:

“How to behave after a capsize deep in a surf zone?”

Be humble.

Very good. The wording of the question was just begging for an answer like this one.