Over the last year, as I’ve spoke with other paddlers and started paying a lot of attention to my own paddles, I’ve started forming a theory for what makes some downwind days harder than others. Ultimately, I’ve found it comes down to a simple formula of: (Wind Speed / Wave Height) + Current.
Let me give an example, in 15kts of wind, 1 foot waves, and 0 current, the formula results in a score of 15. This is an extremely forgiving environment where the wind will push you onto the waves with limited effort. Contrast that to 10kts of wind 3 foot waves and zero current, where the score is 3.3. This is a completely different ball game that requires more power and better timing to catch and link the waves.
Paddling predominately in Lake Michigan I don’t have a lot of experience with currents, but in my limited experience padding in Tarifa (favorable current) and Hood River (opposing current) both conditions make for easier surfing. With the favorable current giving a boost onto the wave, and the opposing current slowing down and steepening the waves such that they are easier to catch and sit on.
Using this formula has huge implications for how I think about teaching downwind paddling skills. With my historical “bigger waves are better” bias, I’ve overlooked a tremendous learning playground in my back yard, which is an inland lake with 4 miles of fetch. With 10+ kts of wind, I’ve found that a 1/2 mile of fetch is enough to generate surfing waves.
I recently had a chance to put theory into practice with a new surfski convert. After first demoing a surfski on flat water, I took Jacob out on a mild day on Lake Michigan (8 kts of wind, 2 foot waves). It was probably too soon, as he hadn’t had enough time in the boat to build a powerful stroke. He ended up swimming several times, and never fully caught a wave. I convinced Jacob to do a 2 hour lesson where we worked on generating power and bracing. Then I took him out for a downwind on a small inland lake, 15 kts of wind, and 1 foot waves. Below is the video where you can see he is catching runs consistently, and most importantly, starting to learn the timing and feel for getting on a run.
While we can’t always find these conditions, I’m sure that like me, there are many of you that may be overlooking some tremendously fun downwind locations. And when introducing new paddlers to the sport, it pays dividends to get them out in these conditions so they can get a true taste of surfing without the frustration of constant wallowing.