For years we’ve seen photos and videos of the carnage of dozens of 14′ race paddle boards colliding with each other or wiping out in chest high surf during the former Battle of Paddle (Former Pacific Paddle Games).

In 2017, I was involved with putting on a new 6 mile ocean race in Lincoln City, Oregon which required racers to launch on the beach then fight through waist to head high close-out (dumping) waves, then paddle in swell (with a whale) for a few miles, then entering a river mouth through surf and surging current (and about a dozen seals). Add to the mix heavy fog during the open ocean section.

As a result and from my own experience surfing unlimited length (18′) boards in waves, I learned a few things about paddling big boards in surf.

Here’s a few tips to assist with paddling race boards in surf..

– Learn to SUP surf and surf your 12-6 and/or 14′ race and/or downwind board. When doing so be cautious of other surfers (give yourself more space) as you’ll have slower turns and less control on the longer boards. You’ll find you can catch waves further out, get longer rides but have less control on steep wave races.

– Consider using a rubber flex fin to soften your beach landings and reduce getting slashed in wipe-outs. If a hard fin hits the sand you’ll launch forward. Rubber fins will flex giving you more latitude and allow you to paddle in shallow water. I use the Surfco Superflex fins.  The fins are endorsed by Hawaiian MD’s who have seen a lot of fin lacerations (mostly to upper body).

Paddling Out

Time waves. Just because the race gun has fired that doesn’t mean you should go right then. If a large wave set is coming in, wait a few seconds for the wave to break, then paddle over the whitewater (aerated water). Delaying for better conditions will give you an easier ride out while others around you get pummeled.

Green unbroken waves. If waves are peaking up but not breaking yet charge waves like you’re starting a normal flat water race. A short quick cadence will help you ride over incoming waves. If the waves are steep (chest high +), jump back a bit towards your tail and/or slide one foot back to raise the nose over the wave crest (while paddling).

Breaking waves. If you’re approaching a wave that is breaking or beginning to break you have two choices. Either as mentioned in above, stall, let it break then paddle over the whitewater. Or.. While charging the wave with a quick cadence, step or jump back (and stay really low) to rise the nose over the wave crest – knifing your nose through the thin breaking top (crest) of the wave.  But…

– Big Mistake – Don’t stop or stall while padding over the crest (top) of the wave. I see this a lot. Folks think they’re over the top so they rest (or worse hold the paddle above their head). Problem is, powerful waves can still push back and may send you back to the beach (not standing). Or the next wave is coming fast and you need to keep your speed up to get ready to paddle over the top again. And keeping a paddle in the water will keep you stable while your board is precariously balance on the crest.

Scared of getting pummeled? Last week during our race I saw a racer stop paddling as a large When in doubt – paddle. Get low, step back, paddle hard (short strokes) and try to jam your nose through the wave. It may stop you in place but that’s better than getting pummeled.

2017 Lincoln City 6m Ocean Race Start

ominous wave face jacked up in front of them.  The result was the wave breaking on top of the racer, etc. Instead charge it.

Breaking Waves 2.0 – If a wave is about to break as you approach it, try to drop or push down your rail on one side to reduce the pressure on the nose. In other words, this will angle or pierce your board/nose thus slicing easier through.  This worked great in surf kayaking as our boats were quite wide and we thus tried to minimize the boat size in getting through.

Avoid paddling out directly behind another paddler. If they get pushed back by a wave, they’ll run with all their gear – into you.  Try to paddle out side by side or to the side of another paddler.

Wipe Outs
A few things to avoid..
Don’t hold the board with the deck handle (recessed or loose handle). You can break/sprang your fingers and/or wrist this way when a wave hits.

Don’t hold the leash with your fingers. Or wrap the leash around your fingers. Same result as above. Ouch!  A San Diego surfer lost two finger tips doing this a few years back.

Flip you right side up board over as soon as you can. Flip at ends which has less water pressure.

When jumping off land flat like a pancake. Never dive or jump leg first. Practice to get good at landing flat. I can land in 2′ of water and not hit the bottom, and I’m 6-5 220 lbs.

Always wear your leash. Double leash in big waves. This either means two leash string loops or two leashes (popular in down winding). Chasing after a loose board isn’t fun, can be dangerous to others and yourself if you’re lacking floatation (PFD).

– After wiping out and you’re coming up from underwater, lift your hands up first and/over cover head with hands until you know the coast is clear of your own other’s equipment.

– If in the water and big wave sets are coming before you can stand up, and if no paddler is directly behind you, don’t hold onto your board, instead duck-dive. Hold the handle of your paddle but let the shaft/blade flow at your side as you dive under. I once was holding the floating paddle in front of my head – the wave pushed the shaft into my forehead. Luckily I was wearing a helmet.

Standing up during the start or after a wipe-out 

Paddle for Stability – As soon as you’re standing up on your board after a fall, start paddling!  Even if bent over and holding the paddle mid-shaft, get the board moving – momentum is stability.  Stalling or trying to balance will mean you’ll get knocked over again.

When Tippy Stay Low and Paddle – Don’t try to balance like on a rope and avoid raising your hands/arms above your head. You gotta paddle. When in doubt – paddle. Again momentum is stability.

– Lots of folks paddle out on their knees.Try sitting. Sitting is a lower center of gravity and you have more contact points with the board. When paddling out, you can lean way forward (almost flush with board, head first) to power through – vs over a wave. Common technique for kayakers who can’t walk on boards.

While sitting you can canoe paddle which is very high cadence (remove blade at butt) and feather. Watch OC or outrigger canoe paddler strokes.  Hold the lower hand just above the blade upper hand in middle of paddle. Don’t hold handle unless not going straight is your thing.

– Throwing in the towel? Surf back to the beach sitting or standing if safe, or surf the board like a boogie/body board in front of you with two hands and surf it back (board first).  Save your energy and body for another day.

Taking Waves
Get low (super low), stay loose (don’t tense up) and drop in (catch a wave) with no one in front of you to avoid collisions.  If the wave is steep, take it at a 90 degree angle first, then once gliding, turn left or right to ride down the face at angle. If the wave crest begins to break or close-out, turn towards the beach. Paddle for stability and/or brace your paddle on the wave at your side.

– See below the SUP Mag article for interval and related training
– Learn how to surf and paddle out in waves long before the race. Start small then build as your skills build. I see a lot of newbie surfers out on big days getting pummeled. Take it easy, build your skills up slowly. Then add your race board, again first on small days.
– Take my Deception Pass Tidal Rapids class to learn how to paddle in swift current and waves. You’ll learn how to paddle in funky water – boils, whirlpools, waves, eddy lines etc.  Anything after will be a breeze.

Suggested Gear
– Helmet. a 14′ board or someone else’s is not a good thing on your head. I like Gath helmets.
– Avoid super narrow race boards. If you can’t surf it, well, what’s the purpose?
– Wear Super Bright Colors in the surf especially on cloudy or foggy days.
– Have a surf launch but open water after in hot temps? Consider neoprene shorts or pants then a light top.
– Vest or waist PFD? Probably just a waist but make sure you’ve used it before (pulled it).
– Hydration pack on your back. Can be drained and used a a backup PFD.
– Good sunblock that is waterproof. The surf may wipe it off if you wipe-out.
– Going offshore a bit, consider a VHF radio (handheld floating, waterproof) attached to you.

Read More5 Biggest Mistakes when Training for the Pacific Paddle Games


Salmon Bay Paddle SUP Tips