surfski stability

Stability before Ability

Over the past few years I’ve written a few different blogs on surfski selection,  trying to put forward my thoughts and recommendations  in an effort to ensure my customers make the right decision with their first surfski purchase.   As I continue to learn more and get the opportunity to watch my customers progress and listen to their feedback,  I like to review what I’ve written in the past and see how and where I can improve my guidance.

There is no doubt that in the past 2-3 years we have seen a significant adoption throughout the surfski community of the mantra  “stability before ability”.   In the early days,  the only surf skis you could get your hands on were very tippy boats that took time to master in flat water and years to master in waves.   Historically the conventional wisdom was always that if it was stable it was slow.    That has definitely changed with the introduction of the Epic V8  and Stellar S18S  surf skis.    These are really stable boats that truly don’t give up much to the advanced boats.

The feedback that I’m getting from my customers, and that has been my experience as well, is that  the entry level surf skis are  only very fractionally slower than the elite skis at speeds below 7.5 mph (aka the range where most average paddlers will be).    If you have the ability to push a surfski up over 7.5 mph for extended periods of time,  then on flat water, it does hold true that the elite boats are quite a bit easier to keep moving at and above that pace.

Waves Make the Difference

While there are certainly speed differences on flat water above 7.5 mph, the real difference comes into play when the waves pick up,  and once the waves get over around 2 feet,  almost all paddlers, except the elite,  will find that they are as fast or faster in a beginner or intermediate boat.    As you learn to excel at downwind paddling you realize that it is often the ability to apply maximum power when the boat is in the most unstable position,  that determines who catches the runs and who doesn’t.   You have to be relaxed and ultra confident with no hesitation.   Once you get the boat on the wave, it will be the speed of the wave that determines your speed more so than the hull of the boat.   And with a stable boat you are more likely to get on more waves.

Surfskis are not like Bikes

Many of my new customers come from racing backgrounds where having the fastest gear is critical and you don’t necessarily need  significantly higher  skill level to operate the fastest gear.   Such is not the case with surf skis.   Many customers will demo a boat on flat water and if they can manage the boat on flat water, they feel they can grow into it.    There is a massive, massive, difference between paddling a boat on flat water and mastering it in on a downwind run in 6 foot confused waves.    While someone may be able to paddle around without tipping over  in flat water,  it may very well take them 6-7 years to master that same boat in waves, and for some paddlers, they may never really master an elite level boat in big open water conditions.

I do understand that for many potential surfski buyers it is the intrigue and challenge of trying to balance a tippy boat that becomes the big draw and presents a new challenge for them to master.   This is fair, but I would caution that although the stable boat doesn’t give you the wobbly challenge on flat water,  it also provides a flat water platform that you can use to really build your forward stroke technique before evolving into a more challenging boat.    In my experience,  many paddlers underestimate the degree to which starting in an unstable boat can lead to poor technique, which then becomes very hard to change after it has been ingrained for a few years.    The reality is that you cannot do real technique work in a boat that you have to consciously work to keep stable.

My Latest Thoughts:

  1. If you fully expect that over 80% of your paddling will be on flat water and you are fit and athletic and really want a challenge,  then you might want to consider an intermediate boat.
  2. If the above applies and you already have very strong technique, you might even consider a semi-elite boat such as the Epic V10.
  3. If you live in an area with access to waves  (all you need is white caps  1 1/2 feet and up is good)   then I strongly recommend starting in a beginner surfski.    This boat will allow you to develop great technique and have tons of fun and be much safer out in the waves.   In addition to being much more stable, these boats are also much easier to remount out in the waves.    With a stable boat you will progress in downwind paddling much faster as you’ll be less tense and more apt to paddle aggressively and learn the art and science of catching waves.  
  4. If you plan to paddle in waves and have paddled a beginner boat for a few years and/or are very athletic,  then I might recommend an intermediate boat like the Epic V10 Sport
  5. Once you’ve been in an intermediate boat for 5-6 years and feel very comfortable in any conditions and aren’t putting in any brace strokes, then you may be ready to paddle an elite boat out in waves.
  6. Another great method to test your skills and/or prepare yourself to upgrade to the next level of boat is to use the Epic Stackable seat pads and see how you can handle your current boat with a stack of four pads underneath you.
  7. If you can possibly afford it, I strongly recommend the lighter boats that weigh less than 30 lbs.   The lighter boats are consistently faster and easier to accelerate onto waves,  but what I really like is how much easier they are to handle in and out of the water and on and off the top of the car.  I am in the process of moving my entire demo fleet to “Ultras” for this reason alone.

Another benefit to starting in a  beginner friendly boat is that the sport is growing and there is very strong demand for used beginner boats.   If you take good care of your boat, you should have no problem selling it for a good price if/when you are ready to upgrade.   And if you can possibly afford it,  the best of both worlds is to hold onto your beginner boat for friends to use, or for you to use on big days or cold days where you still want to get out on the water and be safe.   Additionally in many pure paddle races there will be separate classes for the surf skis (typically unlimited) and the Sea Kayaks  (18 foot or less).   The beginner models typically qualify as a “High Performance Sea Kayak” allowing you to be certain that you are not giving up any gear advantage.

Summary

One thing is for certain,  surfski manufacturers have done a tremendous job over the past 3-4 years developing some super stable surfskis.   There is absolutely a surfski out there for everyone.    The best thing you can do is check your ego at the door and demo a few boats and you are certain to find the right one for you.    At TC Surfski we offer a great lesson program as an opportunity to try a few different surfskis with no obligation to buy.   And if you are committed to buying a surfski,we are happy to offer complimentary demos to help you make the right decision.