Boat Wake Surfing for Paddlers

While I love a good coastal surf wave, boat and yacht waves can be just as fun especially if you don’t live near the coast. Boat wakes can be tricky to catch so it’s also great training for balance, learning to surf and for coastal surfing.

Since the waves spread out away from the boat, they push you away as well. I’m always trying to surf back towards the boat. Some put off a fun rolling wave directly behind the boat that requires matching the boat speed to catch and drop into. If you’re lucky, you can get ‘locked’ into a trough of a wave and get a free ride speeding along at the same speed of the boat. I

I’ve been surfing boat wakes in a sea kayak for 15 years now originally on a sea kayak, then sup and now on a surf ski and have found that since boaters in the Seattle area aren’t used to seeing good paddlers, they either stop the boat to watch me, or slow down thinking the wave might capsize me. I try to surf little waves before the boat nears me to show them I’m capable of dealing with rough water.

Tips on Boat Wake Surfing for Paddlers:

Safety –

  • Don’t cut in front of a boat. Not only do we not have right of way, boats don’t have brakes or can stop quickly.
  • Make eye contact, wave, or nod to show you see the boater, and sorta get their ok to surf their wave. If they don’t respond or look stern, I’ll pass that one up. Some will speed up and give you a better wave if you earn their respect or interest
  • Respect local boating rules. Where I surf most often, there’s a boating channel marked by buoys. I stay on the outside of the channel until the boat is parallel to me. If there’s two lanes of boats passing in different directions, I’ll pick one lane and approach from that side.
  • Don’t get right on their stern (or back of boat). Give them a bit of space, for your own safety.
  • Watch your back. Some boaters might not see you when they plan on changing course. Some don’t care and will plough past kayakers or sup’ers rather closely at high speeds. Sometimes I feel like the point in which they plan on turning.
  • Consider wearing bright colors. Maybe a yellow PFD with reflector tape, or a colored paddle blade. At night have a light visible to boaters, often required in many areas.
  • If there’s multiple boats coming in one direction, I’ll pick the last one so in case I fall, I won’t be in the way of the oncoming boats.

How To:

I like to match the speed of the boat and then as it passes me, turn in right behind the boat (10′ or so) catching the whitewater wave, then often the green waves behind. I’ll stay with the green waves dropping in, and surfing in towards the boat so as not to be pushed away in the outwards direction of the waves. For beginners, this is great practice in getting your sea legs in bumpy water.

While underway in kayaking, we ‘edge’ (or drop a rail) to turn the boat without having to use the paddle to turn. I’ve been doing this on a board and find it useful in boat wakes where a paddle is instead used for maintaining speed. So edge to one side pushing a rail in the water, while paddling forward. You should turn in the direct you’re edging.

About Rob Casey – Named a pioneer in the SUP industry by Stand Up Journal, Rob is the author of “Stand Up Paddling Flat Water to Surf and Rivers” and “Kayaking Puget Sound and the San Juans, 60 Trips.” Rob owns SUP and Kayak school Salmon Bay Paddle in Seattle. He also runs several paddling races.

Salmon Bay Paddle SUP Tips

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