understanding surf skis

i’ve learned a lot about boats on this forum; especially boats i don’t paddle, so someone please explain surfskis to me.

they are sit on tops, right? they are for flat water, rough water, surf boats?.. they look like sprint kayaks to me- how do they differ? why are they called surf skis? where do they and their name originate? do they manuever well or track like the race boats they seem to be?

thanks, jbv

Open-water race boats

– Last Updated: Jan-15-05 6:32 PM EST –

Ideally suited for downwind runs, but fast across a range of conditions. Not very maneuverable. Good at catching waves before they break, but not good at all if you get caught by the broken wave (once broached, the wave tends to pull the boat out from under you). I think the origins of the name are in Australia, where they were used for surf rescues (since then, the design of offshore racing skis have diverged from "spec" skis designed for Aussie lifeguard competitions).

Not trying to contradict… just one
of my favorite Ski Pictures… http://eteamz.active.com/valhallasurfskis/index.cfm?

Look at Keiths face… that says it all.

Surfskis are simply long skinny sit-on-top kayaks with pedal steering. They typically have understearn rudders which makes the rudder less prone to popping out in waves. Their use is pretty diverse but generally geared toward rough water use.

IIRC surfskis were developed in AU for surf rescue. The original boats had big bow foils to get over the foam pile of broken waves and a flat aft deck to haul victims. There are still racing divisions for “life guard” spec skis. Spec skis are limited to a max length of 19’ and a min beam of 19" and a minimum weight of 39lbs. They still have the bow foils to get over broken waves on the outbound trip through surf. They typically have more rocker and are friendlier in broken surf. They range from relatively stable to just about as tippy as unlimited off-shore racers when the maker has done everything possible to sqeak out speed within spec (high seat and round bottom).

Other skis are generally the unlimited downwind racers of verying stability and length depending on paddler needs. Mine is 21’8" X 18" with a round bottom and a huge understearn rudder. The best offshore boats still have a fair amount of rocker to help deal with waves but most have nearly 21’ of waterline length. Unlimited boats can be pretty light. Mine isn’t though since the light boats are expensive and just as apt to crack up as a heavier glass lay-up. They don’t handle broken waves terribly well if you catch it the least bit late. The bow will dig and you will turn sideways. You can run out on the shoulder of breakers which is fun but they aren’t nearly as good on actual breakers as a hard chined planing dedicated surf boat. Open water skis shine with a following sea of wind waves.

Skis are nothing like sprint boats. Sprint boats are sit inside only and may be no longer than 17’2". Sprint/Flatwater boats (many sprint boats are fine for flatwater marathon as well) are very low volume and do not handle waves well. I was out today on a lake that is only 3km long and 2/3km wide in a 15-20mph wind and had to use a spay skirt on my sprint boat because the waves were coming over the combing. Most sprint boats have a footboard and tiller instead of peddles like a surfski. Sprint/Flatwater boats are generally lighter as well. (min: 12kg for sprint and 8kg for marathon. The top carbon boats are usually built below regulation weight and must have added balast to qualify for events.).

Definitely good fun
as long as you stay in the blue-green part and out of the white part!

There is one way in
which a surfski is like a sprint boat–on flat water, they go about the same speed. Sprint boats are too tippy to use in the ocean however (although there are some interesting sprint-like hybrids that can, e.g. the Nelo Razor and Nelo FW2000).

Another way they’re similar is that they’re not made for touring–like sprint boats, most surfskis don’t have usable hatches or access to the interior. Many lack deck-lines and other basic safety items that touring boats have. But surfskis do float if capsized, while sprint boats founder.

A final way they’re similar (even though they look so unalike) is that, along with ultra-skinny Greenland boats (such as 15" wide historical replicas), they’re the tippiest boats there are.


Can these boats be rolled back up?
When I read about sprint or hybrid boats, they all have such large open cockpits, that instead of rolling, you have to swim them back to shore. That doesn’t sound appealing or practical. I don’t understand why you can’t have a cockpit with enough room for leg pumping with knees up, but enough deck to grab with your knees apart. My QCC 600 without thighbraces is exactly that way. Are there any such designs on faster boats?

I assume a surfski could be rolled with some sort of thigh straps, but I never hear of it.

One other surf ski question – why don’t any have tiller bar steering instead of peddles that require bracing off the heels of your feet?

multisport kayaks …
… from New Zealand, like Sisson or Ruahine, have a high font deck. See my Sisson Nucleus:


Yeah, the sprint boats can’t generally be rolled, another reason why they are for protected water only. My slimline is so narrow I can’t concieve of a way to design the cockpit so as to have a grab-able surface for the legs. I too have a Q600 without thigh braces that I used to race. For that I bring my legs to the center to pump and pop them under the deck to roll. This would be impossible on an ICF K1 because they are so narrow forward of the seat. Any decking on the side of the cockpit would interfere with the knee space. The multisport boats are the best compromise with the raised decks.

You generally wouldn’t need to roll a surfski since remounting is generally just about as fast as rolling.

rolling a surfsk and a K1
I have installed crisscrossing thigh straps on my surfski and my Nelo Razor. the Razor has a typical K1 racing cockpit, so using the rim of the cockpit is not recommended. with the thigh straps however, I have been able to roll both boat effectively. I tried the thigh straps initially with the surfski in the hope of getting a better feel for controlling the tippiness. It did give me more control and helped. But last year when I started practicing for the San Francisco race, I knew I would be borrowing a ski and would not have the luxury of the thigh straps. so I stopped using them, and did get comfortable in the Mako over time. My next attempt will be to put thigh straps on a racing K1 and take it out into the bay to see what it would be like to paddle it in conditions. With a good sprayskirt, there is no reason why it will not roll easily and come right back up with minimum water coming in.

one thing to add
although a lot of skis are super tippy, there are a few quite fast, stable skis, which are a lot of fun to paddle, and which almost any competent kayaker can get going on right away with almost no learning curve. my first ski was an old futura 2, which i still keep up at my family’s place in new york. it’s about 19’x 20" and feels super stable. lots of fun in the ocean- i don’t think i have ever fallen off it except in breaking surf. the newer models have more volume in the front, which they need. it’s not the speed machine of all times, but i can paddle it fast enough to keep up with very good ski paddlers on faster boats.

another excellent (probably better) choice is the new mako xt, 19’x 19". i haven’t paddled it, but it gets rave reviews and is supposed to be actually quite fast and very stable. there are also a lot of older lifeguard spec skis, some of which are quite stable.

the bottom line is that skis are a blast, arguably a lot more fun a lot of the time than kayaks. you want to swim, swim. you want to go out in rough water but don’t have a great roll, go out and have fun. even the “slowest” ski is at least as fast if not faster than any kayak. so don’t be put off by the idea that skis are only for super high end paddlers with phenomenal skills. arguably, they might be better boats for most intermediates, to be perfectly honest.


forgot about your razor
I forgot about the straps on your razor. You had pictures of those posted somewhere right?

I have only tried the Mako XT and that turns very quickly. Look at this picture http://www.arnstrom.org/images/surfski.jpg

The turning radius is about 3 meters in a speed of about 6 knots. That is great for a kayak with that speed potential. No other kayak I have tried turns that quickly in such speed.

The surf skis are very easy to enter from the water. I can sit with both legs in the water on one side of the kayak. With other words it is as simple as to sit on the edge of a swimming pool.

All water coming into the cockpit goes out through the foot drains.

photos of straps
for any of you interested go to


rolling k1
there is a video of someone rolling a k1 at www.kayaksport.net it is under technique under movies. i have rolled my eagle with a lap belt and foot straps but it was unreliable and drew the attention/amusement of neighbors. I could only roll if I squeezed real hard against the sides of the boat with my knees, lap belt alone was insufficent. On waveskis they only use waist belt and foot strap but there is no deck to stop the roll. The crossing straps should workon the k1. I am a real dunce when it comes to boat repair (took me an hour to move the foot board last week and two weeks to replace a bolt holding the tiller bar in place) so I think adding thigh straps are out of my leaugue.

old rule boats
Old rule boats look really hard to roll with the big flat aft deck. The new slimlines would probably be like rolling a greenland boat once strapped in. Still, I don’t know that I’d want to try to use a sprint boat where a roll would be needed anyway. So far my short experience is that they are ill behaved in waves even when balance isn’t compromised.

go here
Tons of photos showing showing all different types/brands of surfskis in action: http://www.incognitophotos.com/

thanks all, good thread.
enjoyed the schoolin’

i get the impression that anything involving racing paddlesports always precludes wearing pfds…

hey postalgbv. is that postal blowfish GBV???


nice catch! I started using this name about '96 when I used to be active on Postal Blowfish, the mailing list. You’re only the second person to ever make the connection! rock on!