surfski technique

Surfski Technique –  Deep and Deliberate Practice Pays Off

I haven’t had the chance to paddle nearly as much this summer as I have in the past,  but by remaining focused on the concepts of deep and deliberate practice, I’m  happy to report that both my downwind and flat water paddling continues to get faster despite only paddling 2 days a week.

Forward Stroke Technique

I have continued to build my forward stroke technique based on the core fundamentals that Oscar teaches.   It was a great opportunity to hear his clinic for a second time and in much more depth this summer in Traverse City.   My big takeaway was the importance of doing the drills.   In both my own paddling and in coaching newcomers this summer,  I am trying to keep it very simple, focusing on the following four fundamentals

  1. The Catch  – The catch can’t be stressed enough.   If you fail here, there is little to no chance of getting a good powerful stroke.   Learning to spear the blade into the water before you apply the power of your stroke is critical.   With all my students and in my own paddling I make a point to do the spear drill first.
  2. Pulling with a Straight Arm  – Once you’ve gotten a good catch, this is the next most important aspect.   The first 8-10 inches of paddle movement must be initiated with a strong pulling motion from the lats combined with opening of the hip and full rotation from the hip through the shoulders.   I always try to do a lot of strait arm pulling drills.  It is amazing how hard this is for most people to grasp.    There is such a strong instinct that wants to bend the elbow and pull the paddle along the side the boat and too far back.   The straight arm/rotation will cause the paddle to track away from the boat and you’ll have to take a shorter stroke,   DO NOT FIGHT THIS LET IT HAPPEN!   Whenever I’m really pushing it on a time trial effort I need to constantly remind myself to shorten the stroke and exit earlier.   When I do this, my speed increases while my HR stays constant.
  3. Leg Drive –  Finally I add in leg drive.   In my experience it is a lot to expect a new paddler to be able to pull all of this together,  and if they are able to get the above two fundamentals down I consider the lesson a success.    When it comes to leg drive I cannot over stress enough the importance of the first two steps (catch and pull).    What I also picked up from Oscar this summer and has personally helped me a lot, is to always think that I am using the leg drive to push the boat forward with my heels.   If your catch is weak or your timing is off, you can have great leg movement, but if the force is pushing your back side into the back of the boat and not pushing the boat forward, it won’t help that much.   This can happen when either your catch and pull isn’t strong enough to oppose your leg drive,  or your leg drive is starting early before you have the blade locked into the water.     Over the years I have developed a particularly bad habit in downwind paddling where I lunge forward reaching and clawing my way onto the wave I want to catch.   This is less than ideal because the more I reach and lean forward the more my legs are becoming disengaged from the effort.   I’m now working hard to mentally imagine my heels pushing the boat onto the wave in front of me.   Much easier said than done,  but I know this is something that all the great paddlers master and you can see it in their form if you watch closely.    So I’m committed
  4. Elbows Down – Keeping your elbows down below the level of your shoulder is another key fundamental.   The efficiency gained here becomes really noticeable when you are pushing at maximum effort and getting very tired.   Focus on keeping your elbows down in combination with a strong spear/catch, short stroke,  and good leg drive and it seems to make everything hurt much less while you are still able to maintain your speed.

Downwind  Paddling

Despite only being home on the weekends this summer, I live in in a phenomenal location surrounded by water and if I’m flexible on timing to paddle, (which thanks to my very understanding Wife and kids, I usually am)   I can almost always find whitecaps to play in.    In fact, all summer long I’ve only been skunked by the wind/waves one weekend.    I’ve done a lot of work in the Grand Traverse Bay and am feeling like I have really found my rhythm in the 2-3 foot waves.   I posted a great blog earlier this season with some of the key concepts I’m working on.    Using these techniques I  am now consistently averaging speeds in the mid 8s (mph)  when I have any kind of whitecaps to work with.    2-3 footers are definitely the sweet spot for me right now where I can link wave to wave very consistently and really feel like I’m in the flow of the waves and getting maximum benefit from them.

I haven’t had a lot of time in the 4-6 foot range this summer, but this past weekend I had a couple out and back sessions and felt like I made some great improvements.    The fundamentals are effectively the same whether your surfing 1-2 foot or 4-6  foot waves, but the bigger the waves the smaller the margin for error and it takes a little longer to recover when you fall out of the flow.    In my experience “parking” on the top of the wave takes more focus, finesse, and restraint as the waves get bigger.   The bigger waves are moving faster so you need to put in a harder/longer effort to get your boat speed up, but on the flip side,  you also need to stop paddling sooner as you glide into the sweet spot and park on the wave.    Upon close observation I realized this weekend that I was not stopping soon enough and was consistently overrunning the wave and going straight down the face.   It is fun dropping down the face and always very tempting to do it, but trust me, the rides are much, much longer if you can park on the waves for as long as possible then when you finally need to leave it, angle off to avoid going straight down the face and burying your bow and losing speed.  There are some situations where you will go straight down the face when you see a run directly in front of you that you are confident you’ll reach.  In this case keep the power on as the bow submerges, and go hard to quickly get to the next wave, but be sure to slow down in time.  Below are some additional tips:

  1. You must be very stable in your boat to paddle well and consistently link bigger waves.   What I am finding is that in the bigger conditions you must be 100% confident at all times to paddle all out regardless of how fast you may already be going and/or how the boat is positioned in the waves.   You have split second windows where you have to apply maximum power and the waves don’t care what kind of odd position your boat is that might be causing you to hesitate.
  2. It takes a lot of finesse to find the “sweet spot” on bigger waves and not prematurely surf down the face of them.   I still get lured into wanting to chase the big ones and drop down them, but in doing this I know I am  fighting against the natural flow of the waves and I’m not matching my overall speed and flow to that of the waves.   The challenge is that the bigger waves are moving fast so you have to be acutely aware if you start to fall of them and put in just enough power to stay up on the wave without crossing the threshold and going down it before you have to
  3. Paddle Length – When I do out and back paddles I’ve been changing up my paddle length from 211/212 going into the waves then out to 214 cm going downwind.   It is amazing how much difference this makes.    I feel like a fish out of water trying to go upwind at 214 and likewise going downwind at 212 feels really strange.    If you haven’t started yet, I definitely recommend experimenting with your paddle length.
  4. Working your Quadrants – As my overall downwind paddling and stability improves, I’m doing a lot more scanning around me looking for the opportunities to my left, right, and ahead of me.   The smaller the conditions, the further you should look out in front of you, because if you see good opportunities, in most cases you can power through to get them.    I am also doing a lot of turning back and forth to milk the longest ride possible out of each waves and really paying close attention to the wave itself as it changes direction.   There is definitely a threshold with turning where you can go too far and get spun off the wave,  but you want to experiment enough to find this place and stay within the threshold.
  5. Precision Power –  When paddling downwind you should be working hard, applying maximum power at very precise moments,  but if you find yourself consistently paddling all out like a mad man,  then it is time to pause and re-evaluate your run.   In this case the best thing to do is turn off the direct line of the waves and just work the smaller shoulder waves paddling easy for a bit and catching small runs, then eventually you should be positioned to turn onto the main wave pattern  (A recent conversation with Rob Hartman really helped me out with this one)


The learning curve to master downwind paddling can be very long and in fact is probably never ending,  but it truly is about the journey.   Even when you are just learning,  it is fun simply catching waves and surfing down them.   As you progress and learn to really match the flow of the waves it becomes hugely meditative and addictive.    You’ll know you are progressing when you learn to “park” on the waves which will give you much longer runs with a lot less effort.   The world class downwind paddlers are able to fully match the flow of the waves always either riding on them or leaping forward to the next best opportunities.   They very rarely have the waves pass underneath them.    The mere mortals among us, spend more time going “back and forth” with the waves.   We leap ahead when we surf down them, but then get stuck in the trough while they roll past us,  this cycle is still fun and a great workout as you power up to get back on the next wave,  but in my experience, it is most definitely worth putting in the time to get beyond this level.