Swimming in Big Surf???

Quick question. I have seen a lot about how to launch and land in big surf, but have not seen much about how to swim through big/dangerous surf in the event that you need to (in the unlikely event that you wet exit and for some reason have to swim through the surf zone with or without your boat).

I am talking about swimming through a dangerous surf zone with large dumping waves and perhaps rocks.

I have not had to this but imagine that dumping waves present a danger to swimmers just as much as to boaters.

Any tips?


Not an expert but experienced

– Last Updated: Dec-30-05 12:36 PM EST –

I'm not sure I have a lot of good advice. Lot's of board surfers claim that a PFD is too much of a hindrance for swimming but I have never seen anyone getting really worked decide to take it off.

Before getting in the ocean ......
Always wear a good PFD that you know will not ride up in heavy waves. Always test your immersion clothing by going out and letting the waves pound you a few times before you paddle out.

Go to a pool and practice swimming underwater as far and as long as you can. Start out with say .. four strokes and work up until you can swim 25 yds without taking a breath.

In the surf ....

Hang onto your boat , get on the ocean side and try to ride it in. Don't put your hands through any loops or let your arm get ripped out of socket.

I use a side stroke with a lot of the effort coming from the legs, not sure this is optimun. We had a huge swell here the last week or so. Interesting to watch some of the best surfers in the world swimming for their lives. Not sure there is a universal best way to do it.

Practice swimming with your paddle.

Practice swimming in some good sized waves with and without your boat

Don't panic, size up the best direction to swim from what information you know.

It's very hard to tell if you are making progress in big waves, you may find that you are swimming and swimming and going with a rip. This is really scary when you are getting worked. I try to watch my boat if it is heading out to sea I will sometimes try to swim to it instead of swimming in, or else angle to the beach and swim into breaking waves and let them carry me in.

Save your strength. If you get water down your pipes, try to relax and float and get your breath back before swimming more.

Watch the waves coming behind you so you can catch your breath and hold it for the beat down and the hold down.

Body surf when you can if it will get you out of the impact zone faster.

Signal to other kayakers, surfers or people on the beach that you need help.

Wear a helmet, wear foot protection that you can swim in.

When you get close to the rocks, get your feet out in front of you so you can push off with your feet , keep your paddle so it can be used to push off of rocks too.
Rocks in the ocean can be treacherous with mussels etc sharp and very jagged, if you are going to get pounded let your feet, PFD or paddle take the impact.
Look for a spot where you can scramble up the rocks. Cover your face and head with your arms if the wave pitches you up on the rocks .

Keep a good first aid kit in your car, I also keep 150 ft of floating line with a float that can be thrown in my car, and an extra PFD and helmet. If you are helping a swimmer remember the order Reach, Throw, Row, Go.

Boogie Board
A little Boogie Boarding goes a long way to getting you used to swimming in big surf

Keep fins @ the ready …
If I were paddling some remote coast where it was pretty scary. I would never be without my trusty Vipers. Takes all of 5 seconds to slip them on. H U G E difference in power, control and stamina if you have to get out of the boat for some reason.

If you have to hang onto boat, always try to be ‘upswell’ and hopefully not have those unfunctional, finger cracking, wrist twisting, shoulder dislocating “U” shape handles. Toggles with line enough to keep your knuckles away from the twisting boat work nice. Even these should have the line only coming out of the center.

lots of good advise seadart…
thanks… I am going out this weekend for some “surf kayaking” and have wonderred about this subject. Where we go a river empties in the surf so the push of the river current is also there to carry one out to sea.

I like pogies and have wonderred too about cold water on the hands and feet. One piece of advise given to me was to only paddle out as far as you want to swim back in. Thanks…

Matt, are you thinking of
paddling new year’s weekend:) I hear we have 14-20ft swells predicted with 20 knot winds, with some 45knot gusts.

Big And Nasty!
Big waves, but no shape. Closed out.

Seadart offers a comprehensive set of guidelines and I have not much to add except: 1) You mention dumping waves. If I would swim and would be still be in a zone of large dumping waves, I am going to want to be some distance from my boat. Positioned at the rear of my boat (especially a long boat, but also my Cyclone)as a dumper overtakes me, I am going into the white room mixer with an out of control several hundred pound lethal object. Very bad things could happen. In spilling stuff I am otherwise at the aft end launching the boat ahead of me in the best direction for a safe recovery. 2) Try to warn surfers to shoreward of you. 3) At some point try a reenter and roll. If you practice this, it can be executed very quickly.


Make Sure You Get Your Priorities Right.
Kayaks, paddles and the like can be replaced…your life can not. Trying to save your equipment at the risk of exposing yourself to serious injury…or worse…makes no sense. Getting yourself safely to shore…with or without your gear…is absolutely priority one.

One sufer was killed last week
Seadart post is very good. In fact that set of conditions he mentions was the death of one experience surfer.

Their are pluses and minuses with staying with ones boat. It is a potential source of safety and floatation. That said, it is a projectile and may crush or spear you.

If one reviews the Harodowich DVD on being in surf his take on this, is to be in such conditions have a surf boat not our long boats. His whole approach is how to avoid most of these conditions and if not how to survive by getting in and out asap.

Conservative yes, but imo it is how I mostly view it.


Very good info

One question I have still is in dealing with the dumping waves. You can’t really body surf a dumping wave right?

I know that in swimming OUT through surf you are supposed to duck your head and let the wave pass over you.

Are there any sort of general rules like this for swimming in toward shore when in dumping surf?

I would not really want one to break over me. So should you duck under water, try to body surf, swim back out under it and resume swimming to shore once it passes, etc?



Many dumps
My years off the East coast is that one’s best salvation is to

going out, while swimming to dive through the face so it does not dump on you, other wise you will be smacked onto and into the bottom, one cubic yard of water is about a ton I hear although not sure, plus sand, rock and stones thrown up will bombard you.

headed in stay on the back of the wave back paddling and ride it in then get the heck out of there asap.

Best choice is don’t be swimming in dumping waves. Many times knowledge of the beach, cove, points, etc allows you to find more gradual shoreline. Supposedly over 50% of the beaches in the world have dumping waves, and tide and conditions change this too. So stay wise and stay out imo.

Not much choice
The best advice is to time your swimming so you are not at the spot where the dumping wave is going to go off when it closes out. That’s part of watching and timing while swimming. Not something you can always do. My son had some surf instruction from lifeguards that if you are caught in the dump or going over the falls and they recommend rolling up in a ball and protecting your head and neck with your arms. Sometimes it seems like it is best try to dive under the wave as much as possible if it is a big dumper, that does mean turning around and facing the wave, and trying to duck dive as much as is possible. In reality things happen so fast in rough surf you don’t have much time to plan or think just hold your breath and hope for the best.

Just to clarify…
I am not planning on swimming in these conditions ever…if I can help it. It’s just that the thought has ocurred to me. I sometimes paddle on coasts where the waves are big and dumping. I have often wondered how best to negotiate them if I ever had to. They are so big that they look like they could really mess you up if you had to swim through them.

I think the idea of curling up in a ball sound smart.

Check out expert books on this
Derek Huchinson’s Kayak Book imo is a bit less than great but the section on how and where to avoid dumpig waves by learning about water movement, shoreline formations, navigation maps, size of gravel marked on the map, etc. totally increased my ability to lead groups away from this stuff.

I was at Bar Harbor Maine and a 6 foot SE swell and 20k SW wind was kicking up a nasty cross sea and POUNDING the bay we wanted to land on. By going in 7/8 of the way at the far end where it looked bad far out but then we saw features of the bottom where once a smaller set occured the rest of the way to shore was a smooth region where the outflow of water cancelled out the swells and was more gradual bottom, no sweat. Another group in a rush said go for it and although no one was got seriously hurt they all got bruised and a few had their boats blasted scattering their gear everywhere.

So yeah get into a ball. I have had it happen. Another good thing about that is you have more chance to not have your O2 in your lungs stay there. Otherwise the water pressure can force air out and then you have less time to get up and more panic too.

Don’t Do It.
It’s just plain nasty the few times I had to do swims in big winter surf. If you not a surfer, find a beach you can launch from without big waves. Dumpers will definitely give the biggest and baddest trashins. Watch your six, take a deep breath, ball up, relax and enjoy the bottom scenery as you take the beat down. Swim in between.