Sharing the Surfing Experience
The title of this blog says it all. Introducing those who have never caught a wave to the feeling of surfing has become my absolute favorite thing in the world. After years of trying to explain what exactly it is we do with these long skinny boats, I now much prefer to just put people in the back seat and show them first hand. While solo paddling and surfing is extremely enjoyable, the opportunity to share the experience with someone else multiplies the feeling exponentially and the science backs this up. Feel good endorphins and dopamine can’t be denied when we share what we love with others! I’ve been paddling tandem surfskis for over 5 years, and this year I finally hit my stride getting comfortable taking out anyone with the confidence that if there are waves to catch, we will surf and have an amazing time. I haven’t always been this confident, and it has taken a committed effort developing better downwind skills, more time paddling a tandem downwind, and most importantly the new breed of stable tandem surfskis, which has made it all possible.
The New Breed of Tandem
The tandem I’ve paddled almost exclusively over the past two years has been the Nelo 600. Mine happens to be black and has earned the nickname “Big Black Cadillac” for the super smooth floaty feel it gives when surfing. Before the Nelo 600 I owned a Stellar S2E Low Volume in Excel and an Epic V10 Double Ultra. Both boats had there respective benefits, but the stability, comfort, and dry back seat ride of the Nelo 600 puts it in a league of its own.
The Nelo 600 and Epic V8 Double have changed the game in tandem paddling. Before their arrival the tandems on the market were built for racing. While this ensured they were fast, it also ensured that in order to take out a complete novice in open water and catch runs, you had to be an elite paddler. Thankfully, Epic and Nelo both realized that there was alot more tandem paddling for fun and enjoyment than for racing. Additionally the 24 foot length of the original boats made them quite cumbersome off the water and not well suited to smaller wave conditions that are becoming more common as surfski paddling grows around the world.
Paddling with Kids and Grandkids
For the first few years, I did most of my tandem paddling with my kids in the back seat. In the beginning I could actually put them both in the back seat at once, but after a couple of near mutiny voyages we put an end to that. Being light and not adding a lot of power with the paddle, they made good back seat passengers as I learned the ropes of tandem paddling. Light kids are able to give the back of the tandem just enough weight to keep the rudder engaged in flat water and small wave conditions without being heavy enough to really challenge the stability of the boat. If you have young kids, owning a tandem is awesome both for introducing them to the sport, but also for allowing you to get in a workout while also managing your young child and giving them an opportunity to be out on the water and in nature. The runners equivalent to a jogging stroller. Of course, you have to be safe and aware of what might happen in the back seat. There are times when they will drag the paddle and slow you down, times when the paddle might catch awkwardly and throw you off balance. In waves, if they are still young and light, you may broach due to limited weight and rudder traction in the back. This might also lead to a wave sweeping in to the back seat and taking your child with it. So if you do venture out with a youngster, please be safe, use common sense, start in flat water, and don’t push it! All that said, I took my 10 year old son out on an epic downwind last weekend. We had super clean 4 foot conditions and surfed like mad for 10 miles. He loved it and I’m certain that just riding in the backseat he is getting the feel and instinct necessary to become a great downwind paddler. An amazing gift to be able to pass on to anyone.
Tandem Technique Tips
When it comes to paddling a tandem successfully downwind, there are four simple words that I am convinced are the key to success. They are as follows: Don’t Be A Hero. Let me elaborate, in my first couple of years taking new paddlers and complete novices out in the tandem, I was determined to give them the ultimate surfing experience. In all cases I was paddling out and backs off the beach, which meant that as soon as I turned to go downwind I was singularly focused on catching the biggest waves, right away. If you’ve ever driven a tandem, you know how this goes. Put in a hard chase, don’t catch the wave, can’t seem to get the steering under control, wobble back and forth, and struggle to demonstrate the rhythmic and effortless downwind surfing you know to be possible. With a beginner paddler in the back seat, the tandem is a different animal. You simply can’t accelerate and maneuver the way you do in a single. It won’t happen. But this is not to say that you can’t catch runs. The absolute key is to get the tandem moving at a steady pace, then take the easiest run you can find. In many cases once you get the momentum going in the tandem you can leverage it for many more runs. But if you don’t end up linking, you must go back the mantra of steady speed and look for the easiest run and take it. For a relative understanding of what I mean by easy, refer to this recent blog I published. The waves you chase in the tandem are 1s and 2s. When I think about tandem surfing I’m often reminded of a blog written by Dale Lippstreu and posted on surfski.info about doing two Miller’s Runs with Oscar in a double. (Strong Recommendation: If you’re interested in padding a tandem downwind read this article, Dale does a tremendous job describing how the best do it) The key point Dale makes is that Oscar is very selective and lets a lot of runs pass by. This is true of all good paddlers in a single ski, but an absolute non-negotiable when driving a tandem. In a single ski a strong paddler can get away with a lot of heroic efforts, in a tandem, and especially with a beginner, the heroic effort not only fails due to not being able to produce the acceleration, but it also sets up a very hard rhythm/pace, or lack thereof, which the backseat passenger simply can’t match and quickly becomes confused and exhausted with. Writing this blog also makes me think back to my first experience in a tandem. It was at the Epic Dealer Conference in Charleston. There were some small waves and Oscar, Greg, and Zsolt were taking the dealers for short out and back rides. I had the chance to ride with Oscar first and then Greg. In the ride with Oscar, we paddled steady and caught nice rides and hit some good top end speeds, and I never felt any crazy heroic efforts. Immediately after paddling with Oscar, I got in a tandem with Greg. On the downwind leg I’ll never forget the feeling of power I experienced as I felt all 160 lbs of a 2 time gold medalist lifting the 24 foot / 50 lb boat with a 215 pound back seat paddler, out of the water. What struck me most was the surreal power to weight ratio that Greg produced. But now as I reflect back, I also see how representative this experience was of the difference in downwind paddling styles of Oscar and Greg. Oscar was obviously taking the calm, gradual approach to building speed, catching the small and/or easy runs first, then putting in the necessary incremental effort to get the bigger runs. Whereas, Greg was seeing a big run and through sheer force of effort, attempting to put us on that run. I clearly remember not being anywhere close to matching the cadence that Greg was putting in as we chased the waves and feeling generally out of sync with his power and efforts.
For best results, set a protocol
I haven’t had a chance to ride in a double with Boyan, but he has described a specific protocol starting with practicing the brace, setting expectations for the standard level of effort, and then going over some vocal commands that inform the back seat passenger on the level of effort required. I’m not this organized with my tandem paddling yet, but I can see where this approach would pay huge dividends and I’m certain it is well worth the time and effort to develop. I can imagine riding with Boyan is similar to a ride with Oscar, calm, cool, and collective.
Guidance For New Tandem Paddlers
With the shorter, stabler, and more accessible tandem surfskis now on the market, I’m certain many more paddlers are starting to consider owning one. Below are some recommendations based on my experience:
- If you are beginner surfski paddler, you probably aren’t quite ready for a tandem. Spend a couple years mastering your single skills and specifically developing a bomb proof brace and remount on both sides of the boat
- If you are a beginner and still determined to own a tandem, then be sure you buy one of the stable models (Nelo 600 or V8 Double) and make sure your first outings are with an experienced paddler or at least a lightweight paddler and on flat water
- Women and kids are 100 times easier to manage in the back seat than a powerful guy. A tall, heavy, and/or strong guy in the back with limited time in a surfski will be the absolute hardest to manage
- Log lots of time on flat water before attempting any open water paddling
- If you are going to head out in open water, be sure to first practice remounts and have a clear plan for how you will remount the tandem. Who gets in first and how you will stabilize each other.
- When starting out with a new back seat passenger, spend at least the first mile paddling using the three strokes and a brace drill, this will ensure you both get in sync and comfortable bracing on both sides of the boat
- Unless you’re planning to race competitively on flat water, don’t even consider the longer/narrower tandems, go with a Nelo 600, Epic V8 Double, or similar.
There is no doubt that tandem paddling has taken my surfski enjoyment to an entirely new level. If given the option of an epic record breaking solo run, or the chance to line up 20 new paddlers on the beach and take them each out for a one mile out and back in 2-3 foot runs, I would, without hesitation, opt for the latter. The gift of giving the surf experience is simply unmatched. Of course I also know in the back of my mind that once someone experiences catching waves, they will never forget it and even if they don’t become downwind paddlers, they will spread the vibe and spark curiosity in others and the sport will continue to grow.