The volume and quality of downwind video is growing exponentially, but it seems that the amount of detailed writing about the subject remains limited. Sitting down to write this blog, I can see why. It is really hard to articulate the blend of art and science that is downwind paddling. I’ve been blogging for the past 8 years, and every year it gets harder to come up with new and original material.
In this blog I’ve done a brain dump of thoughts and theories, organized it by skill level, and provided links to more detailed blogs where relevant. My hope is that everyone who reads this will pick up at least one or two new concepts they hadn’t previously considered, and it might not be revolutionary, but downwind paddling is a long game, and just like catching runs, every little bit builds momentum.
Background and Context on the Author
For those of you who may be new to my blog, just a few quick notes to help give the background and context from which I have developed my thoughts and theories.
- I started paddling a surfski in my early 30s, with no prior paddling experience
- I now have about 15 years of paddling experience
- I live one minute from Lake Michigan, and 99% of my paddling experience is from there. Where I am located we experience a very wide range of wind waves, but negligible swell
- My downwind splits have been a slow progression, but thankfully in the right direction. I now regularly see 4 minute kilometers (average around 9 mph), in a wide variety of conditions, and on any level surfski.
- In solid wind of 15 kts or better, I regularly record kilometer splits around 3:40 (10 mph average) paddling the Epic V8 Pro (my winter boat).
- Just this past summer, I started cracking the 3:30 kilometer splits mark paddling advanced level skis
Applicable to all levels
- There is simply no substitute for spending time in waves. Paddling in any condition that isn’t flat, will ultimately improve your feel, timing, and pattern recognition for the waves.
- The wave patterns in a given spot with a given wind direction are generally the same. Use the less intense days to study the patterns and think about what it will take to surf them on a bigger day. (i.e. are the waves changing direction, are there gaps, are they canceling each other out, or combining with each other)
- If and when you have an opportunity to safely experience bigger conditions, don’t pass it up, it will pay dividends. This is true even if you don’t catch a lot of runs in the moment.
- The further up the learning curve you go, the more imperceptible the improvements are, but they are always happening both consciously and subconsciously
- Improvement may come in the form of more consistency across a broader range of conditions, as opposed to being significantly faster in a specific condition
- There will be days that look good on paper, but for whatever nuanced reasons, the waves just refuse to make it easy. While these days can be frustrating, the harder you have to work, the more you will improve.
- Don’t discount the mental aspect of downwind paddling, and at least on occasion try to be hyper aware of your self talk. Chances are, on the difficult days, you are beating yourself up, or prematurely concluding the runs aren’t catchable. Check out this blog for a deeper look at the mental aspects.
- Find Favorable Conditions if you Can
- High wind and small waves are ideal. Check out this blog for a simple formula to assess conditions
- Building wind is better than fading wind
- A run that starts flat and gradually builds is ideal. You’ll notice a sweet spot a couple of kilometers after you first start getting surfable runs, where it is fun and easy. As the waves build it will become more intense and require more effort and skill
- Wind driven waves running parallel to the shoreline are generally cleaner than waves coming direct onshore
- Wind waves wrapping around a point are the best
- Both length and width of the fetch will impact wave patterns. The longer the bigger, the wider, the more complex. Check out this blog for more details
- Power and timing are critical
- Timing can only be developed with time in the waves
- Power can be developed in many ways. A good catch and rotation are key
- Practice accelerating your surfski and gradually improving the top speed you can achieve and the time to achieve it
- Weight training can’t hurt
- With enough power you can overcome imperfect timing
- Most beginners don’t sense when they are on the run and continue paddling too long. This results in a shortened run, followed by the need to rest, at exactly the moment they should be paddling to build speed for the next wave.
- There are lots of different waves out there, focus on the easy ones
- Stability Cannot be Underestimated
- It has been said many times, I’ll say it again, you have to be super stable to progress in downwind
- Developing a bullet proof brace, equally strong on both sides, is paramount!
- On flat days, pad up your seat to challenge your stability
- A shorter paddle and higher cadence will generally provide more stability
- Practice your remount often and always dress for immersion. If you are at all timid about going for a swim, you won’t have the confidence to power your way onto the runs
- Angles – Get comfortable pushing the angles and see how far you can go without broaching. As long as you keep your speed up, you’ll be surprised.
- Conditions are always changing and few downwind paddles provide a perfect line. Being able to catch runs and surf at an angle becomes critical to racing well and more importantly being safe and having the ability to not get blown off course.
- Practice paddling into waves from the side, then squaring up and riding them
- Try hard not to bury the nose. Every time you do, you lose speed. Of course conditions and the boat play a big role, and there will be times when it is preferred and/or unavoidable, but know that you won’t see the very best downwind paddlers do it often
- Avoid No Man’s Land. In many cases, when you put in a big effort to catch a wave, you end up catching it late. You’ll get a breather when you pull over the top but if you then need to rest, you will risk losing flow and rhythm.
- If you’re doing out and backs, make sure to switch up the direction of your turn around. You might be surprised how this small difference sets you up on a different line with the waves
- Play with your rudder and body movements to go as long and far as possible without taking a paddle stroke. You’ll often be surprised at how long you can make the run last, and it will put you in better sync with the waves
- Only chase waves you can catch. Chasing a big wave and missing it, will burn excessive energy and may cause you to stall and swamp the cockpit. Check out this blog for a better understanding of wave catchability
- Advanced paddlers need to be constantly linking waves. If you’re going to achieve 3:30 per k splits and better, there isn’t much tolerance for missing runs
- In messy conditions, speed is critical to catching runs. There are times when you’ve crushed yourself catching a couple runs, you don’t see anything to catch and you want to stop paddling and rest. Try to avoid this at all cost, rather keep paddling and look for a small run to “hide behind” while you gain your composure and catch your breath. Check out this blog for more details on the concept of “Musical Waves”
- Paddle hard to stay on top of/behind big waves, but don’t go immediately over them. Wait just long enough, and you can go down the front without burying the bow. This will often catapult your speed and you’ll inevitably link another run
- Attack the gaps. When there is flat water in front of you, attack it.
- When getting started from a dead stop (turning around in out and backs, etc..) start with small runs and gradually build speed as opposed to chasing a big wave right away. This will put you into a better flow which will pay off over the course of your split.