Surf skis in rough conditions... better or worse handling compared to kayak?

I’m a little nervous about switching this spring to a surf ski; I’m not concerned about my ability to stabilize or transition to the paddling technique, but rather I’m concern about rough conditions including highly confused seas and breaking waves.

I’ve enjoyed braving diverse challenging conditions in sea kayaks over the years, and I’m wondering if the considerably more narrow surf ski layout presents an advantage or disadvantage for these conditions.

I’ve noticed in the past that, contrary to certain lines of thinking, a wider kayak actually ‘rides’ waves and tracks bumps and turbulence more faithfully and therefore results in a more chaotic ride… The more narrow boats (and presumably a surf ski) tend to ‘cut through’ chop, resulting in a more secure ride.


Yes, a more narrow hull will punch through waves than a blunt or higher volume bow. As you say, a flat barge follows the angle of the wave face as it passes underneath. A more round-ish hull like is common on most skinny boats will want to follow the wave face much less forcefully.
A perfectly round hull would be completely unaffected by wave angle, however it would also have no stability either, so a good compromise is the shape of most advanced/elite boats, which is a slightly less than round profile that has a small flat spot somewhere on the bottom typically under or behind the seat to provide primary stability, and some god flare above the waterline to add secondary stability.

So I would say a skinnier boat (Ski or Kayak) is better in rough water up until the point you are stability challenged. And that’s the key - once you’re stability handicapped due to a skinny boat in rough water, you’d likely be better served in a wider boat.
Where that line is depends on your level of stability and physical condition

One other large difference between skis and kayaks is skis are often 19-21.5 feet (but as short as 14’), while sea kayaks are available in almost any length from 12’ to 19’. A longer boat will typically span the waves better, and ride longer period swell better, but if you’re trying to surf downwind having a shorter boat in shorter period waves is actually a big benefit. Epic V5’s at 14’ and V7’s at 17’ do well on lakes.

THat said, my vote is clearly in the surfski category. I like wing paddle mechanics, I like downwind surfking, and I like the ease of remount. I intentionally or unintentionally go for a swim every time im out. Remounting is fast and easy once you get it down. If you develop a confident ski remount, you may find yourself doing crazy stuff like this, or whatever you’re into.

What boat do you paddle now?
Do you currently or want to learn wing paddle?
What ski are you thinking about?
What conditions do you want to paddle in?

There really isn’t a dramatic difference between a ski and a kayak.

there are skinny kayaks and fat surfskis.
there are skis with hatches and bulkheads and kayaks without

Although the standard ski’s are a bit longer and narrower, the bottom side is pretty much the same. Therefore the handling will also be similar.

There are a few differences which you may or may not appreciate:

  1. Bailer–Having a self bailing boat is a great way to not have to worry about getting waterlogged and subsequently unstable and then having to find ways to unload all of that water, likely in rough seas. Sea kayakers sometimes rely on others for assistance when this happens–you wont have to in a ski.

  2. Understern rudder-- This provides two benefits: it keeps your boat locked down on the wave when you are pitched up on the crest, which also allows more control while surfing, and it gives you the ability to paddle without the need for corrective strokes. So you don’t have to concern yourself with using your primary method of propulsion as a way to also steer your boat. I think this helps when you’re tackling bigger conditions because it allows you to stay focused on driving forward and plowing through. The understern rudder is like the best of both worlds between a skeg and an overstern rudder. The overstern isn’t as responsive and doesn’t lock the boat down in rough water. This will of course, also impact weather cocking favorably. With the skeg you can’t turn the boat,

Open cockpit-- Having an open cockpit makes getting back in the boat very easy–Now, if you’ve mastered the roll on both sides and in every condition, you might argue this point, but the operative word being “easier” is that you don’t have to master the skillset of a roll. Climbing back on top of a ski is pretty easy–takes a little practice, but really it’s a skill you can master almost immediately. I find this confidence inspiring.

I personally felt light years more comfortable offshore in a ski than I did in my sea kayak. There are definitely guys that go out in monster conditions in kayaks, but usually they have put A LOT of work in on self rescues and often rely on others for backup.

One side note–aside from the safety issues, I have literally never met anyone who switched to a ski that didn’t appreciate the ease of which you can get on the water, the need for much less gear and a much lighter, easier to carry boat.

I think you’ll really enjoy your experience; what boat are you getting?

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This is such excellent info - really appreciate it.
I had similar intuitions about remounting and bailing water etc. I’ve had several models of high end spray skirts and always end up with significant amounts of water in the cockpit after runs in rough conditions. I actually have begun to wonder why anyone would lock themselves inside a tube immobilizing their legs and push off out into an expanse of water…

To answer your and a couple earlier questions - I paddled a CD Extreme and Necky Arluk last summer.
I’m quite athletic and consider myself partly a ‘fitness paddler’, however I do enjoy snapping iPhone pics and generally touring new locales so I’d really like to not be constantly guarding against capsizing.
The Epic line is naturally in my sights, likely something V10 and above; Stellar is another natural choice, SR, SEL, SEA are of course fine boats. (I’m 6’ 6" 225lbs for those advising)

Again thanks for the attention and insight!

awesome info, makes a lot of sense. I guess I’m just hoping that the considerably more narrow beam won’t become a liability at the ‘limits’ so to say, and that I won’t ever be wishing I was in a wider boat during any particular scenario… Perhaps I want the impossible, but I’m only considering sub-18" beams, and I’d like to believe that this transition can prove to be a improvement in rough water capability. We’ll see I suppose.
About the wing - Looking at it, I’m not inspired about it’s ability to provide solid bracing - of course I’d like to have one at some point seeing as all great surf skiers use them. I’m happy right now with my Werner Corryvreckan, which has a massive paddle face making it highly flexible adapting to water types. I also don’t believe in feathering, but that’s another controversy for another day…

That video is f#*kin sweeet… inspiring…

So a little googling says your boats are 23 and 21" beam. That’s good for a sea kayak but in beginner surfski territory (equivalent to a Epic V7). How skinny to go will depend on your natural (stability) ability, willingness to put in seat hours, and how soon you want to paddle in rough conditions.

I would say if you can paddle the extreme in haystacked waves you could easily move down to a 19" / 48cm ski like a Fenn XT or Vega Flex.
Once you get down to a 45cm ski you’re going to need some decent balance and an instant, intuitive stroke brace to keep upright in rough stuff.

I would highly highly recommend against an elite level boat (43cm / 17.1" or less). In very rough conditions like I show in my video, and even in somewhat less extreme conditions, a 45cm will be a better boat unless you’re truly an elite level paddler with elite balance.

The Mocke brothers are legends of South African surfski and Dawid says if you brace more than once every few minutes you should be in a wider boat. As soon as conditions get bad, very very few people can actually handle an elite boat by that standard. Also, you are likely to develop bad habits, a sloppy stroke, and you wont have much fun sitting on shore when its too big to safely handle an elite boat.

I could step down to a 43cm elite boat and have paddled them a few times in moderate waves (like 2-4 ft) and indeed they are easier to jump and link waves with, but linking waves requires every paddle stroke. as soon as you miss a couple strokes or brace hard, you’ve lost your advantage. I know for sure I would not have gone out Monday in a 43, and I live for days like that.

It sounds like you want a rough water boat, and there is not much speed difference between 48, 45, and 43cm boats the bigger the conditions get. As waves increase, more speed comes from picking a proper line, linking waves, knowing when to go and when to let off, and keeping up the tempo between sets.

Another consideration, only the new epics are worth a damn in rough water (that is the V10 gen 3 and the V12 gen 3). Older generations epics had very little rocker which means they sucked at surfing and given your goals I would not get an older epic. The Gen 3’s have a noticably more rockered hull and nose profile and surf much, much better. Also Fenn’s have been made for 10’ waves from day 1. I would highly recommend a Fenn XT-S (48cm beam) or the Swordfish S (45cm). Actually the Fenn’s are my first recommendation. Also if you have deep pockets, the Kai Bartlett designed Ozone manufactured Vega Flex (49cm?) has been said to be the best surfing surfski ever designed (but they’re $6k new as they are pre-preg monocoque 18lb feathers)

I strongly recommend against stellar boats for rough water surfing. Their designers come from a rowing or sprint kayak background and it shows in their hulls. Their G2 boats are significantly better than the G1’s (which surf like total junk), but I still would not buy a stellar if my goal was rough water paddling.

Another point - a wing paddle is basically required. Get a small one (like an Epic Small-Med wing). Big paddles and surfski dont mix unless you’re an olympian, and even then you’d likely be served better with a smaller blade over any mederate distance. Find a wing around 720cm2 area. 750cm2 max (which is an epic mid-wing). Many new wing padders buy a bigger paddle than they need. Im strong and young and never overpower my 720cm2.

You need a wing to do a proper ‘stroke brace’. That is, 90%+ of your power goes into forward propulsion, but you push, pull, or sweep a little bit to stabilize yourself. This is much different than a ‘hard brace’ or ‘slap brace’ where you slam the back of the blade in the water which provides a lot of righting force, but also nearly stops you.
Developing an instant, unconscious stroke brace is critical for successful rough water paddling. I do not believe this could be done with a euro blade because the ability to apply lateral force during the natural stroke motion comes from the airfoil shape of the wing blade. (maybe im wrong as I havent paddled euro much, but I believe it to be true). Literaly everyone on a ski uses a wing blade, and for good reason. Just make the transition. A Euro blade will handicap your progress.
Ivan Lawler and Oscar Chalupsky both have excellent technique videos on youtube to help you learn.

I see your werner is 720cm surface area which is good, but the wing is still needed. I come from a canoe racing background and a carbon canoe paddle has very good bracing capability probably similar to a Euro. A wing definitely does not have as much Slap Brace potential, but if you’re doing a slap brace frequently on a ski you should be in a wider boat. The Stroke Brace is the key skill to learn for unstable boats and rough water. In elite level boats with very little primary stability, every single stroke is also a balance correction using stroke braces.

Last thought, on even moderate days (as in <15kts wind) the Swordfish is stable enough to kick back, relax and drink a beer on. The same could not be said for 43cm elite boats. They require constant attention to balance. 45cm has enough more stability that balance can slip into the unconscious mind which I enjoy more than constantly maintain focus on a benign (but very important) aspect of the sport.

Edit - If you can, try before you buy in conditions other than flat water. An elite boat (or just generally a boat that is too skinny for your ability) may feel ok on flat water. Find some (haystacks no matter how small) and paddle through them. Find a steep boat wake and paddle at a 45* angle to it. This will tell you much more about your current ability than a flat water paddle.
Same for paddles. If you can try multiples, one will just ‘feel right’ while others dont. Its very personal so you just have to try some out.

Also check out for dedicated surfski nuts on that forum.

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I agree with everything said above. If you jump into an elite boat straight away you will not be enjoying yourself and you will assuredly be slower.

I was fit and athletic and an elite boat was actually a real set back for me initially.
It took years to start seeing any advantage and that was only on flat water–and I was definitely vigilant about regularly trying to improve–
seriously–it’s the most common mistake with ski paddlers–no kidding

If you can, pick up two skis for different conditions.

You can find pretty good deals on a used boat here:

I would look at a fast intermediate boat like a Think EVO and a wider boat for surfing and big water like a V8, S18s a Zen or a Nelo 520.

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Wise words from Atlas at the end of this thread

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I got my Nelo 520 about a year ago, after many years of paddling a sea kayak that is narrower than the ski. However, the numbers are deceptive for several reasons. The SK I owned (I sold it a few months ago) had much more volume in the bow than the ski does. Even though its beam was narrower, the overall width is what I would consider the more important part. I never unintentionally capsized in that SK except in ocean surf, and I almost never had to brace. However–and this is a big however–don’t forget that in a SK the decked thigh braces and ability to edge to an extreme degree allow quickly stabilizing the thing in clapotis and other difficult conditions, assuming you have the skills down.

I’ve not yet had the ski out in conditions as rough as what I’ve sea kayaked in, but to me there is a big advantage with the ski: Working AGAINST a headwind takes less effort than in a SK. I am a small, older, female paddler, and almost every SK I’ve ever tried had a taller deck than I needed. That deck also presents more of a wind obstacle than the side profile of my ski does. I can feel the difference.

My ski is stable enough that I never got tossed off it despite being a beginner with it. Waves smacking straight on-beam made me nervous at first, but even the worst of those only had me stabbing a quick brace on one side, still paddling forward. If your basic seated balance is already good AND you don’t get an “elite” ski AND you avoid rough conditions until you’ve practiced in calm ones, I doubt you’ll have much trouble.

Good judgment is always required, no matter what kind of kayak.

I now actually look forward to windy days…though I am still very limited by ability to CARRY a 17’ fragile weathervane to the water! Short people have almost no margin for end-dipping accidents.

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What a blessing to have all this great information and personal attention! Deeply appreciated. :smiling_face_with_three_hearts: