Hovering the bow

Note:  Below is a guest blog written by Zach Handler.    Zach is a long time midwest SURFSKI paddler from the Minneapolis area.  I had a chance to paddle with Zach several years ago at the Chicago “Un-Race”.   Zach has competed in a couple of US SURFSKI Championships in San Francisco and is  one of the strongest SURFSKI paddlers in Midwest.

A Little Bit About Tarifa and the Surfski Center

I recently spent six days at the Epic Surfski Center in Tarifa, Spain. It was a great trip. Planning was simple because all the details were taken care of by the instructor, Boyan Zlatarev. It was an inexpensive trip as far as paddle vacations go – 130 euros a day included lodging, instruction, equipment, and two downwind sessions a day. And because I did not need to bring PFD or paddle, packing was a breeze.

Tarifa is the the southernmost point in mainland Europe. It is an ancient Moorish town with a walled in city center. In contrast to most places on the Mediterranean coast, it has not been commercially developed. The streets in the center are narrow and cobbled, and the architecture and tile work speak to the area’s Muslim past. There is a relaxed vibe in the day, and at night the tapas bars are excellent. I was in town during the local tuna harvest and I had fresh tuna in some form almost every night. Outside of town there are rugged hills, cork forests, a nationally protected sea shore, extensive beaches, and the best rock climbing in Spain. Morocco is just nine miles away and is visible on a clear day.

The accommodations at the Surfski Center were excellent. I had a large two-bedroom apartment on the beach complete with the usual amenities: washing machine, WiFi, paddle ergometer built into a surfski hull, and a Bidet. I used the first three extensively.

The Wind Blew Relentlessly

The paddling was great. The wind blew relentlessly from the east at 20 – 30 knots, piling sand in the streets and pushing the sea into steep breaking waves. I got in nine downwind runs, which is almost twice what I do in a typical year in the midwest. All paddling was done in V8s. Tippier boats were available, but I had no desire. The V8 took balance out of the equation and allowed me to focus exclusively on surfing. The wide hull also forced me to surf properly, as I no longer had the top end speed to force my way onto waves.

Our downwind runs were either six or ten miles long and always started on calm water at the beach in front of the apartment. We always pulled out on a beach (one of which had Roman ruins), and there was always a driver with a trailer waiting for us. On the water we could stay close to shore and surf small waves, or head further out for bigger seas. Boyan was quite clear though that we were there to learn, not merely to seek thrills. He wanted us to be on the size wave that would best allow us to practice proper surf skills. For me this meant that I was typically in four to six foot wind waves, similar to what I have encountered on lake Mille Lacs in Minnesota or inside San Francisco bay in California.

World Class Coaching

Boyan is an excellent coach. He has a background as one of the top swimmers in Bulgaria and this shows in his exacting and analytical approach to the sport. He is an Oscar Chalupsky protege, so the techniques he teaches are what you would get at a Chalupsky clinic. Perhaps because Boyan has had to work hard to learn the sport as an adult, he can break things down in a way that makes sense to someone learning the sport.

We had didactic sessions on dry land, stroke training on the ergometer, flat water sessions, and surf sessions. I was quite spoiled in that the first 2 days I was the only student at the surfski center. That meant that I had Boyan’s undivided attention on four downwind paddles. He seemed to expend no effort keeping pace with me on the runs. Even as he surfed his own wave off to the side, he could look over and read the wave I was on far better than I could do it myself. He would yell advice: “Lean back…look right…two hard strokes…cut left.” It was both impressive and helpful. There was almost always a go pro on Boyan’s boat capturing the action for later review. He also carried a full size SLR camera in his PFD, and somehow managed to pull it out take pictures while surfing next to us.

I had to relearn some fundamentals of paddling. One example is bracing, which I had always assumed to be a thoughtless reflex. As it turns out, bracing is technique that needs to be practiced, and there are a number of distinct variations of the brace for different situations.

Engage the Glutes for Power, Stay High on the Wave for Long Rides

I made a breakthrough with my forward stroke after Boyan put me through a series of drills that forced me to engage my glutes in a more powerful way. The most important improvement I made was getting better at staying high on the wave. This is a skill that is at the core of successful surfing. I can’t say that just one pointer helped me get better at this; rather it was a whole lot of little tips added together.

One extremely windy afternoon with gusts of 45 knots Boyan asked me to paddle in the back of the double. It was insanely fun as the waves were huge and with Boyan steering we were able to link them, well literally like a pro. The session in the double actually changed my understanding of what it means to pilot a surfski. My role in the back of the boat was to match Boyan’s every move. The thing is that he makes so many moves. Apparently, there is a decision to be made and an action to be taken every second or two in a surfski. Boyan would call out every thing he did in advance but still I became mentally exhausted trying to keep up with it all. And then of course I would periodically become overwhelmed by how amazing it all was – the rush of speed, the dark massive waves, the views of Africa, the amount of water rushing through the Straight of Gibraltar – and next thing I knew I had missed a few strokes.

Another challenge to trying to synch with Boyan, besides the beautiful scenery, was the fact that he does things that are not part of my self-taught and rudimentary surfing skill set. Boyan really controls the boat with dynamic body movements rather than with use of the rudder. He leans forward, backward, and sideways, and uses the paddle and arm as a a huge lever to spin the boat. He had me practice this on my own. It was challenging to do correctly, but the mere act of trying forced me to stay high on the wave, which was very helpful.

Practice, Practice, Practice

One good thing about being in Tarifa was the opportunity to practice. As strange as it sounds, I never practice surfing in Minnesota. Downwinders are simply too rare in the Midwest to piddle one away working on skills. In Tarifa by contrast, I knew that I would get two downwinders today, two the next day, two the next day, etc. So I felt free to slow down and try new things, even if it meant letting plenty of perfectly good waves slide under me.

So did I improve in 6 days of paddling? I have paddled downwind just once since returning; a big Lake Superior downwind with Mike Brumbaugh. He thought I had taken things up a notch in terms of surfing. What I noticed in my own paddling on Lake Superior was that from time to time that wonderful sensation I got in Tarifa of hovering the bow in the air would come back to me. All of the sudden the boat would become light and nimble, the waves would appear to slow down, and I would have the time to look around and plan my next move. It is a nice feeling.

Best Odds for Wind and Waves

If you go, will it blow? Probably. Tarifa is the kite surfing capital of Europe. If you look at the Wind Statistic feature on windfinder.com, you will see that the probability of experiencing surfable wind is higher in Tarifa than in any other surfski hotspot you can name. That said, as with any location, it can be calm for days on end. It was calm for a day and a half while I was there. We used the opportunity to practice the forward stroke and do slow motion video analysis. I also did some trail runs in the mountains and explored the town. There is a reef off shore that creates surfable standing waves on calm days, though i did not get a chance to try that.

If you do go, you should try to be at the Surfski Center with other paddlers of similar ability. There is only one instructor, and that is Boyan. He can cater to any experience level from beginner to expert, but he cannot cater to all levels at the same time. When I coordinated with Boyan online, he advised me of times when other paddlers of similar ability where scheduled. I ended up paddling with Eric Gilland from Sweden. He had very little surfski experience, but was an accomplished sea kayaker, physically strong, and fearless in the water. We ended up being very well matched in terms of speed, and got along great on shore as well.

Don’t Take the Bait, Stay High on the Wave

In summary, I had a great time in Tarifa. I got better at surfing and improved my forward stroke. I had fun on the water and enjoyed cultural experiences off the water. I do plan on returning. In the meantime I will do my best to “stay high on the wave”.