safest way to land through surf??

Took a surf class (see post about shoulder injury) but less interested in surfing than being able to land in challenging conditions should the need unexpectedly arise. Very generically, as I see it, the theoretical options would include (A) surfing in (but I’m assuming that the waves are of sufficient magnitude that odds of a successful in-your-boat landing are 50-50 or so, (B) back paddling in (I always feel a bit safer pointed into the waves than being lifted by waves from behind) as well as possible, © trying to head in bow-to-the beach but without surfing (i.e., by backpaddling past breaking or near-breaking waves and then racing ahead between the waves), (D) wet exiting and letting the waves take boat and body into beach independently (or possibly hanging on to stern of boat perhaps with a line so that you are not truly separated and you are acting sort of like a sea anchor keeping boat pointed towards beach and probably staying upright, (E) knowing that you are likely going to broach and then just try to side surf in as safely as possible, (F) am I leaving anything out? Of course, knowing what to expect and avoiding surf that seriously challenges your abilities is the safest alternative of all but for the purposes of this post, lets assume that that ship has sailed. If your thoughts are dependent on the specific conditions, so be it. Appreciative for any input. Dave

I’m a Great Lakes paddler, so from what I understand the period between waves is often/typically shorter than in the ocean. I have limited BIG surf landing experience, but I’ve so far relied on back-paddling, pointed toward beach. I don’t like the large waves coming up behind me either, but it beats unintentional back-surfing any day.

I just take it slow and easy unless there’s a noticeably smaller set or lull where I might sprint in for a few seconds until they pick up again. When I’m within sprinting distance to shore before the next wave, I pop the skirt and give 'er. As I ground out I’m already jumping out of the boat and dragging it up to safety.

The above applies more where there’s a soft landing if something goes wrong. In more rocky areas I’ve gone in search of a more sheltered landing spot while staying out of the surf.

You didn’t leave anything out, but if the stuff is big enough to challenge your ability to surf ideally you can get a heck of a lot of mileage out of coming in sideways. In regular waves it is a pretty reliable option. You have it after exiting and coming in swimming - I would have it ahead of that option because you are still in your boat.

A good technique for getting in through a surf zone, especially if the waves are a bit out of your comfort zone or you’re new to surf, is to paddle in on “the backs” of the waves, rather than letting the waves surf you in. This is also a great technique for loaded boats on say a rocky shoreline. It relies on a lot of back paddling but also requires feel and anticipation of where the waves are, or if you’re lucky enough to have someone already on the beach, who can spot the waves behind you and guide you in. Basically you want to paddle in between the waves, with your bow pointed straight to shore, by back paddling anytime you feel a wave start to lift your stern. The back paddling can also act as a bit of a brace, so you can get some support if getting in through larger waves, and obviously acts as a brake to control your speed so the wave doesn’t surf you forward. Once the wave has passed by your body, start paddling forward as quickly as possible, i.e. paddling in on the “back” of the breaking wave. Repeat until you’re close to the beach, and if you time it right can ride up on the back of one of these waves and get up fairly high, hopefully putting you up far enough to be able to hop out. Relies a lot on timing and patience to work your way through a surf zone this way, but you gain control, and hopefully avoid a broach. Or at least might get you far enough inside that a broach happens in the soup zone, rather than where the big stuff is breaking.
A key to getting this to work correctly is to pick a good spot to come in through the surf zone, but most importantly lining up your bow straight to the beach before you start coming in; coming in diagonally and you might get worked. If you’re in a group and have a more experienced paddler who is willing to surf in and spot you through the surf zone, you can agree on a set of paddle signals (preferably before they land) for paddle forward, backward, stop, and maybe a left and right to straighten your boat out if need be. Send the paddlers in one at a time for each spotter, keeping distance from other paddlers in case something goes wrong. Often the trickiest part of this landing is having the group waiting on the outside of the break maintain their position and not drift off.

C, D, or E. Or for someone not that experience, usually try C until you end up with a D or E.

First, you say you took a surf class. Was this a surfing class or a surf zone class? Surfing is riding the waves, where surf zone teaches you how to get in and out of the surf zone.

On A, sea kayaks surf well in that time between when the wave steepens up and when it breaks. You can cover a lot of distance with a ride like that. But then the wave breaks, and this often is not a good position to be in, depending on type of wave break. Highly skilled surfers can read the wave and know whether to be there and how/when to get off the wave, but this isn’t something even they always get right.

On B, most boats don’t go backwards straight well, due to hull designs. So you would get the benefit of seeing the waves, but spend a lot of effort getting the boat to move where you want it. Not efficient. And often better to not really see the waves like that, as you are more likely to scare yourself.

C is generally the way. At the actual spot where the wave breaks, if you can paddle on the back of the wave (right behind the wave) as Johnysmoke said, is the best way. It is only at the break you really have to worry. On the outside of the break, the wave just rolls under you. Inside you get a foam pile that would be easier to side surf in. Where the wave breaks stays at about the same place for a set of waves (as the waves are about the same size), but varies with different size sets.

D could work, but I would not hold the boat. Waves coming through and hitting a boat have a lot o energy, an can really yank on your hands. If you are going to do this, I would paddle in and try C and then wet exit when/if you get flipped. This way you can cover a lot of distance in the boat and only swim when you need to. Try to learn about rip tides - the currents coming from shore. Not uncommon for the safest looking place to paddle in to be a rid tide area, but this would also be the hardest place to swim in. So when you swim, you may need to swim sideways to beach first. the bot usually washes in once it is in past the break.

E is good, and the most common way for beginners to get in. Best if you can get past the break, so you are just riding the foam pile. Side surfing when it actually breaks is hard, as the wave is smashing down on you.

A - We should have some fun with this.

Assuming that you’re increasing your odds with other options is often flawed.

Following a wave in can work well if you can time the sets and break locations and have the forward stroke to pull it off. I would also add that backing over steep waves seems to me to be a higher skilled endeavor than riding them. So if it’s a necessary thing in a situation where you need to avoid running into dangerous things, you should really skill up a lot in less dangerous areas first. The problem with waves being of a significant magnitude, is that unless you happen to be somewhere on a day with significant wave periods, it can be very difficult to outrun the next wave coming behind you. To have the perfect placement and timing, it’s best to back over a wave just before it breaks, and sprint to try to clear the dump zone before the next one dumps on top of you. If the following wave happens to be smaller, and dumps a little further in, this can really become difficult. In any case, you’re probably working hard in this scenario, and it’s easy to find yourself out of breath.
For me, I find A the safest and easiest. I think one of the main questions is the degree of directional control you personally have in your kayak in the waves of the day. Are you actively preventing your kayak from broaching before the wave gets steep? A good way to answer this would be to answer these questions. Do you ever come to a point where you decide to make yourself turn while riding a wave? When you’re at that point, are you ever making a decision whether to turn left or right? Are you successfully executing that turn, left or right, at your whim? Or, are you finding yourself turning one direction or the other at the whim of the wave and kayak, and mostly just along for the ride?
A thing to remember is that if left to it’s own, with no input from the paddler, a sea kayak typically broaches in surf. The wave will typically give the stern a little push to either the right or left, and a sea kayak will curve diagonally down the face, and continue to broach. From what I’ve seen, and in my own experience, the more skilled a paddler is, the longer they can keep their sea kayak riding in front of a wave. You can practice this on small waves. But the idea is, as you move up in wave size, or break intensity, how good are you at keeping your kayak perpendicular to the wave - how good are you at preventing the broach?
This all has lead me to finding A the safest. Why do I find A safest? Experience and observation. I’ve used all, and have practiced all. If I can start my surf on the green wave prior to the dump zone, I have time to be traveling at the same speed as the wave, in control, before I arrive there. You’ll have a stern rudder in the water, and you’ll be paying close attention to the most subtle of shifts in direction. There’s no fiddling around with directional control at this point. If you detect a need for even a subtle amount of change in direction, you dig - hard - going for abrupt change, with a stern rudder to accomplish it. You will feel your angle steepen as the wave starts to go vertical towards the dump zone. What I’m doing here is paying attention to my angle, and at what point my bow may dive.
A side note here. A stern rudder serves 2 purposes. Imagine the way you present your paddle for a stern rudder pry turn vs. a low brace turn. Both of these are stern rudders if you turn and place the blade behind you, but in a low brace turn, you get more support to lean into the turn, at the expense of slowing your forward speed. When you’re riding a wave, presenting the back face of the paddle vs presenting the paddle vertically provides that one more important function beyond extra support. It acts as a brake. You can use this brake action to keep yourself positioned on the wave, so you don’t ride down and shoot out in front of it.
So back to paying attention to the angle of your kayak on the wave, and paying attention to at what point your bow may dive under. As the wave gets to the dump zone and goes vertical, there is the danger of your kayak riding down and shooting out in front of the wave too early. What happens is that after you ride down and shoot out front, you will feel your kayak slow down, and then the wave will catch up to you, and now you’re no longer at the same speed, so you have to deal with a push again. The push is where you’re most apt to broach, as it’s when the wave initially catches and lifts the end of your kayak that it exerts the most turning force on you. In addition, you may have just slowed in front of the wave right at the dump point, and that’s just not what you want to do. On the other side of things, if you hold yourself too far up on the wave, it could go verticle, lift your stern too far, cause your bow to dive under and stall, and you pitchpole.
So you’re using your blade to keep yourself perpendicular, and to hold yourself in position on the wave. When you’ve reached the dump zone, the wave will go vertical, typically very quickly if waves are dumping hard. This is where I take off the brakes, and let my kayak surge forward. Then you hear the boom of the dumping wave behind you. Congratulations! You’re still moving forward and not under it! You did it! Take some fast strokes to not allow your kayak to slow too much before the whitewater overtakes you. If you’re still perpendicular, you continue your ride. If you now broach, you can usually side-surf it. But the magic is, you didn’t get clobbered in the dump zone. And that was the point.
Now you might be thinking that there are no guarantees here. Therefore, it’s a bad idea. My response is that there are no guarantees in any of these scenarios. The other scenarios just leave more opportunity for mismanagement, and take a lot more energy. And they all have the very same worst possible scenario. You get Maytagged in the dump.
So this is what I perceive as the major advantage. From outside of the dump zone, I am picking my wave, and my intent is to ride it to shore. That means I can wait for a small set, and I watched, picked, and grabbed the wave that might dump on me. That’s the one. I’m not going to back over a couple, only to be surprised by a big wave sneaking in on me when I’ve already wandered too close to the dump zone. I’m going all the way with my wave that I - not contend with - but make peace with. That’s it. Control the ride to the best of your ability. Dig in hard and forceful and immediate for any directional control. And enjoy the ride. Even if you end up caught, you tuck in as described above, ride it out, and since you rode in on a small set, you’re now well inside that initial break zone. Lowest stress. Lowest energy. Easiest skill set. Lowest fuss.
Along with experience, I brought up observation above. I think you have to have a lot of developed skill to successfully pull off any of the above. I’ve observed a lot of wreckage watching people trying to pull off backing over waves, but not having the ability to sprint in following that wave. I’ve observed a lot of unsuccessful attempts to back over a wave after it’s too late to pull it off. When folks are nervous, they tend to appear to be floundering around out there, and I’ll see them start in after a small wave, brace about after backing over smaller waves, transition into a tentative forward stroke after they’ve regained their sense of stability, and end up in the dump zone with waves still overtaking them.
I don’t think there’s a definite right or wrong answer as a whole. I only know that learning to actually control your kayak on a wave, instead of going along for the ride, is an important skill in terms of putting the percentages much more in your favor.

@CapeFear said:
Are you actively preventing your kayak from broaching before the wave gets steep? A good way to answer this would be to answer these questions. Do you ever come to a point where you decide to make yourself turn while riding a wave? When you’re at that point, are you ever making a decision whether to turn left or right? Are you successfully executing that turn, left or right, at your whim? Or, are you finding yourself turning one direction or the other at the whim of the wave and kayak, and mostly just along for the ride?

Um, the last one! Actually, I have tried to stay perpendicular with a fair amount of success on modest waves, but this last week, in the surf class I was taking, the waves were bigger and dumpier than what I had experienced before. Before I hurt my shoulder, I got a couple of ‘good’ rides in but I think I felt like I was going so fast that it sort of scared me and I may have acceded a little too readily to getting broached because that felt more comfortable to me than flying down the face of the wave, full speed ahead, with the wind in my hair [actually, I’m mostly bald and was wearing a helmet] (of course, that also led to a likely shoulder subluxation as discussed elsewhere, when my paddle twisted around faster than I did).

Anyway, very informative post. I am torn between wanting to have more experience in the surf, practicing and paying attention to the forces and outcomes you describe…and wanting to avoid anything over my current skill level as I have successfully done, without any injuries, for the last few decades.

I tend to favor the ride in on the back of the waves method, but this works well for me because I am very used to the surf in the places where I paddle and have a sense of where the waves will break with size. The best way to learn how to do surf landings is to do them. Learn to surf the waves in and learn how to judge where the waves will break and whether they will dump or spill or barrel. You want mushy spilling surf. Usually you can find a spot like that even in chaotic beach break in large waves, but it takes experience.

This thread is gold - as is the one about surf and protecting shoulders.

My thanks to OP Monkeyhead and all the mentors.