Surfski - what to wear?

Since I have Surfski on the way, I have been doing some research on what to wear while paddling it.

Of course, as I am learning, I will be wearing PFD, wetsuit, and all the other immersion gear I own.

But, I have noticed surf ski race pictures showing participants wearing “only” long or short sleeved tops and shorts or pants. Very little in the way of immersion clothing and mostly without PFDs.

I am guessing this is a calculated risk, given that a PFD might interfere with an optimum stroke. Also, immersion gear may be unnecessary for experts who are unlikely to swim or who are in warmer waters.

So, once I have learned to use my ski, what is the recommendation on PFDs and immersion gear while doing so? What do you wear to balance getting a maximum paddling stroke and not overheating, with taking the right safety precautions.

I am guessing this is a similar discussion to sea kayaking, but wanted to see if there is a unique perspective for surf skis gear.


most of the time down here in the south i wear a pair of swimtrunks and that’s about it. pfd on the back deck if i am somewhere where they care about it, otherwise i don’t bother. when it is cooler, perhaps in the 60s or 70s, i will wear some hydroskin shorts and a silkweight capilene shirt, sometimes with a hydroskin vest. when the water is cold in the spring i might use a drysuit for a few weeks.

a pfd interferes with getting back into the seat, which is the main way you avoid hypothermia etc. with a stable ski like the xt you will fall off not all that much and be able to re-enter easily.

one of the great joys of surfskis is keeping it simple- when all the kayakers are wading around in their drysuits and pfd’s and epirbs and everything else, you can be out having fun on the water.

let us know how it goes!!


surfski clothes
alot of pictures you will see of surfskis will be from races were there are others around and support people. I do not have any trouble remounting my mako with pfd. When it’s hot I have paddled shirtless and got rash from swimsuit and also have to use sunscreen on back so I am more comfortable with rashgaurd shirt. If I am already wearing a shirt I have no reason to not wear pfd.

there are two dangers with surfski: falling off and not being able to get back on (this can be reasonably eliminated with practice) and falling off and ski being blown away. If your pfd is on your ski and your ski blows away and you are far away you may be screwed. I have had my life saved by pfd and now of better paddlers who have said the same thing. There are also better paddlers who don’t were them.

only thing I take when paddling is drink pfd and paddle. If wind is 20kts or more I use paddle leash to prevent ski from blowing away. I paddle by myself and were imersion gear based on temp of water. I am in virginia and paddle ski march through october, don’t like thought of possibility of being stranded in frigid temps far from shore.


Did you Surfski in the PNW?
If I remember correctly, you have lived in the PNW. Did you surfski here?

My concern is that especially in the spring with cold water - still at 45-50 degrees even in lake washington - and much warmer air, makes dressing for water temp difficult. Even compared to exercise sea kayaking in the Mariner II, since using a surfski will tend to be even more aerobic. Water temps would dictate a dry suit, but a dry suit would be way to hot to train in, especially since I tend to be warm anyway.

Any thoughts on what to where here in the PNW?

i didn’t
and i was being a bit flip. my apologies. the surfski guys at the sound rower events used to just wear light immersion stuff, like the hydroskin, or a shorty wetsuit. you might try posting this question on the yahoo surfski site, since there is a contingent from bellingham that posts there on occasion.

when i paddle in long island in the summer (water equivalent to pnw, but perhaps warmer air), i just wear shorts, and perhaps a silkweight shirt if it is cool. in the winter, with temps in the 30’s or so, i wear a drysuit. i sometimes use a paddle leash, which is a good idea on windy days. basically, your ski is your pfd, so don’t lose it! if you are happy wearing a pfd, by all means do so, but i have yet to meet a ski paddler who did. maybe just a cultural thing.

you might want to wear more stuff at first, if you think you will be spending more time in the water. once you get used to it, it takes about 2 seconds to get back into the ski. and most of the time when you fall off you don’t even get your hair wet, since you just sort of slide off.

seawave up in ny wears pretty similar gear, although he can post himself with other particulars.


surfski paddling
Just one point, if you are in a cold weather locale, be sure to keep the feet warm. After all, a surf ski IS an SOT, and the feet will be exposed to spray / wind. I am in Rhode Island, and use heavy neoprene divers boots.


One of the joys of surfskis as Andrew inferred, is the lack of stuff. The less I have, the simpler it is. A paddle leash is a good idea on windy days, because a ski can really move away from you, if the wind picks up and you don’t have anything to slow it down (providing you have let go of it). The leash to the paddle and ski helps slow it down. Be careful going out in beach break, maybe then it is best not to have anything attached.

Once you learn how to remount your ski and have, in affect a bombproof remount, then the time in the water is drastically reduced. Also, in a lot of those pictures, it may be during a race, in which the paddler is wearing less for overheating reasons. Many surfski paddlers seem to paddle for aerobic reasons and overheating is an issue concerning what you choose to wear. If you are going out for a Sunday paddle then being overly warm may not be a problem. Hydroskins are good enough at dealing with the initial shock of 50 degree water while you scramble back on, but they would not do much if you spent a lot of time in the water. So much depends on having a good remount even in the break zone. Although if you are in the break zone, it is usually not to hard to just swim in, if all else fails.

I like the mysterios shirt also. It is warm and with a bicycle jacket is good in 50 degree days with wind. A wetsuit bottom of 2-4mm is easy to wear and does not cause much overheating. Booties a must for those cold waters, as your feet getting cold can be a problem. Your lower half may be more in the water than anything, and should be kept warm. Chafing can be an issue, and I’ve had some beauties, so be careful there.

In the beginning you are best set to wear too much and learn what will work best for you by a reduction of layers over time. The Pacific is much colder than the Atlantic and if something goes wrong, it will be less forgiving. On the PFD thing, there are many who feel it should be a law to wear one. I find that remounting a narrow ski is tricky enough as it is without a bulky vest, and the ski is a floating life raft as long as you don’t let go of it. Let go of your paddle before you let go of the ski (remember, your paddle is on a leash).

Have fun paddle safe.


I’m a strong believer that two items out of three–boat, body, paddle–should be connected if the wind is blowing, but I’ve come to strongly prefer an ankle to ski leash over a paddle leash. I found after a while that I really didn’t like dragging the paddle leash back and forth with the wing stroke. But the paddle leash does have the advantage of allowing you to let go of the paddle while you’re learning remounts (just be careful you don’t topple back in and lose your grip on the boat, too), and the ankle leash would be a bad idea in any significant surf, especially shorebreak.

what I wear
Started surfski paddling in July 2003 in Virginia. That gave me plenty of time to learn remounts before it got cold.

I tend to not wear very much as I’m typically paddling at a high aerobic pace. In cold weather I don’t get I stop and smell the roses because I’m not wearing enough to stay warm if stationary. This is dangerous if a prolonged emersion event occurred. I try my hardest to make sure I don’t lose the boat. It is my life raft. I wear just enough to ease the chill if I fall in. Re-entry is very fast once practiced (I fell off twice in my first race in choppy water. Each swim cost me maybe 30seconds).

In VA,the January before I moved to FL, I wore a 3m farmer john, long sleeve IR woolie, a dry top, wool hat, thick booties, and thick pogies when paddling on the York River and Chesapeake Bay. Water temps got as low as the upper 30’s and I paddled once or twice when ice was forming on the deck. I over-heated everytime I wore that set up but it was the bare-minimum I was going to have on with water temps at lethal lows.

Down here I rarely wear more than trunks or a thigh length speedo and a rashie (rashie is very important or the trunks will bunch up and take the skin off your stomach). Tomorrow I might go out with air and water in the 60’s. Long sleeve rashie and warm synthetic pants. Leash and pfd too if the sea state is as nasty as the bouy says it is (actually it may get too big for my usual solo out and back, seas 3-4m, unless somebody will drop me in St. Augustine and pick me up in Daytona. The winds aren’t bad at 20kts but 3-4m is usually nasty trying to lauch from a beach break with no good channels).

Oh, I don’t find that a pfd interferes with re-entry. I had on a bulky work-vest type in the fore-mentioned race. I don’t often wear one because they’re hot and even the good ones rub too much when you really rotate but if conditions are the least bit hairy you’re better off with than without and it shouldn’t make it hard to get back in the boat.

I have a small lightweight leash that is springy. It would not be strong enough to hold the boat to the paddle if I hung on to the paddle only in major surf, but it would be enough to slow the boat down if the paddle was dragging by itself. the advantage of this leash is it does not interfere in any way with my stroke. It is a lightweight option I usually employ on the bay side, not the ocean. On the bay I am rarely in waves bigger than 2feet and I always grab for the boat first. I have experimented with ankle leashes and they are a good alternative, just a little bit more bulky and can sometimes interfere in remounting.