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5 Myths about stable "slow" surfskis

Updated: Apr 23, 2022

I remember when I started paddling approximately 20 years ago, the only available surfskis on the market were elite type of boats meant for very skilled paddlers.

I started learning relatively late. I was 24. At the time I was working as a lifeguard in Dubai and I didn’t even have my own surfski so I had to borrow one from my boss. Boy, was it a tippy boat to learn with!

I remember my main thoughts during my first year of paddling as “Just don’t fall in, just don’t fall in...”.

My goal was simple, I wanted to paddle for an hour nonstop without going for a swim.

It took a while but I finally made it. I remember the day like it was yesterday. I was so happy.

The following day I fell in approximately 10 times.

What a journey!

Reflecting on my first attempts in surfski paddling if I could travel back in time I would give my younger self only one piece of advise:

"Get a stable surfski."

In this article you will learn the 5 most common myths regarding stable surfskis. These myths may be standing in the way of you getting the most out of surfski paddling, by selling you on the idea that stable surfskis are somehow inferior to the elite boats.

I don’t subscribe to this idea and I am sure you will see the stable surfskis differently after you read this.

Max Barnhoft having fun surfing tidal waves 3 km out at sea in Tarifa, Spain

Myth 1: Stable surfkis are not fun to paddle because they are too slow.

This is a myth some paddlers often propagate although it doesn't have much to do with reality. There are three main points to consider here:

  1. If you are an average level paddler and you are successful in paddling an elite level (read: 'unstable') surfski then you can expect approximately 3-4% faster average open water speed compared to a stable surfski. This sounds quite positive, right? Well, not always, because it could also turn out you get infinitely slower when the conditions become so challenging that you can no longer keep control of the elite surfski. To understand how unnecessary the stability compromise is you just need to consider that you can't even perceive speed difference of +/- 0.4 kph unless you are constantly looking at a GPS watch.

  2. If faster speed meant more fun and slower speed meant less fun then how is it possible that some of the best downwind sessions I have ever had were at an average speed of 9-10 kph paddling (surfing) downwind with 20-25 knots wind and a 10 kph current flowing against me?

  3. “I wish I had a less stable boat for this one!” This is something that I haven't heard anyone say from the hundreds of people who have been to Tarifa to learn about downwind paddling. Usually the feedback is something like: “This boat is a fun machine!” or “This must be the most fun you could have with your clothes on.” You probably guessed, we use only stable surfskis tor all our activities.

Myth 2: You will catch and surf substantially more waves in an elite surfski compared to a stable surfski.

Look at the video above. How many more waves would this paddler catch if he was paddling a "faster", less stable surfski?

This myth has a serious math problem. Before I explain I have to make one thing clear:

Theoretically speaking it is possible that a person paddling a stable boat may catch less waves than the same person paddling on an elite type of surfski. But this should only happen in very rare downwind conditions where there is very little to no wind and the only available waves to surf would be large and very fast swells. Hint: 99% of the time the conditions will not be like that and there will always be waves traveling at different speeds in different directions.

The main logic behind this myth is based on one true but misunderstood fact: Higher speed gives you more potential opportunities to catch waves.

Here the main point is the word “potential“ and the assumption that you get some sort of a guarantee the faster speed would ever materialise. But even if it did, here is the math problem:

I often use the “budget” metaphor when I teach downwind, where your speed capacity is your downwind budget, which “buys“ you waves. Just like going to the market to buy a t-shirt, for example, if you have a bigger budget you could pick from a wider variety of t-shirts at a bigger price range, which you potentially wouldn‘t be able to afford on a lower budget.

While the budget metaphor drives the message of more balanced approach to your basic downwind strategy it is very important to make one distinction. You could walk into a store with 1000$ and buy a pile of t-shirts with a single transaction but you can't do the same in downwind paddling. In downwind you could only “buy“ one wave at a time.

So the reality isn’t that higher budget gets you a wave and lower budget doesn’t. No. What would happen in reality is that on a lower budget you would just get another type of wave, which suits your current budget (speed).

Of course in order for this to work you would have to invest time developing your downwind skills in a way that you prioritise efficiency and surfing instead of high energy consumption and endless effort. Interested?

Myth 3: If you paddle a stable surfski you could never develop high level skills.

This sounds somewhat logical at a first glance because it is very easy to confuse the ability to balance unstable boat as the ultimate definition of a competent paddler.

The metric is not that simple. You could paddle with somewhat decent speed using a totally wrong technique and you could also manage to do an ok downwind time using inefficient downwind strategies. Time and speed could suggest certain level of competence but they don't define it.

Very often paddlers develop bad habits in their surfski skills because when they paddle an unstable boat they continuously compromise their paddling technique in order not to fall in the water. This creates a program in their brains and this program becomes hard wired when it gets constantly repeated and reinforced making it very difficult to correct any time in the future. Some examples of the most common mistakes people develop as a result of paddling unsuitable unstable surfski are:

  1. Lack of leg drive movement due to fear of losing balance because of the body mass shift.

  2. Extended stroke and late inefficient exit phase caused by the need to maintain balance at the end of each stroke (mini brace stroke or dragging the paddle)

  3. Lack of gliding phase again driven by the fact that reduced stability forces the paddler to engage the paddle blade in search of stability while compromising the stroke efficiency.

The above doesn't suggest that no one would ever be able to learn proper paddling skills using an elite level surfski. The point is that a stable surfski would allow you to develop and advance correct paddling techniques and skills much faster and more effectively.

This is an excerpt of a downwind session from Tarifa to Bolonia. The overall paddling distance was 16.5 km for 58 min and this shows a faster stretch of 10 km in the middle section where the average speed was 18,5 kph over 10 km distance.
This is an excerpt of a downwind session from Tarifa to Bolonia. The overall paddling distance was 16.5 km for 58:18 min with average speed 17.0 kph. This image shows a fastest stretch of 10 km in the middle section where the average speed was 18.5 kph over 10 km distance or 32:31 min for 10 km paddling in a beginner level surfski.

Myth 4: Stable surfskis put paddlers at risk because they allow people to paddle out in rough conditions they wouldn't normally be able to manage in elite boats.

A couple of years ago this argument was the main point in a stable surfski discussion in one of the kayak groups online and it has some merit. The main point though was made on the basis that there were increased number of accidents on water involving people buying a cheap 200-250$ plastic sit on top kayak and a paddle and getting themselves (and their eventual rescuers) into a lot of trouble.

I understand this point and I kind of agree with it. My only problem with this argument though is that people using stable surfskis are not the same people who buy a cheap sit on top. Let me explain:

If you get a stable surfski you will not be spending less money than buying the "elite" shape boat. Surfski prices are based on the manufacture material and the brand producing it. That means that to get fitted with a full beginner surfski setup you still need to invest anything between 3000 - 5000$ and that would get you a surfski, a paddle, a buoyancy aid, a leash etc.

We could discuss the prices and the affordability of surfski paddling in another article and for now we could safely make the conclusion that someone who is ready to invest 3000 - 5000$ of their hard earned cash has a lot more commitment to paddling than someone who makes an impulsive 200$ kayak purchase because they were going to spend the weekend at the lake.

Surfski paddlers won't automatically risk their lives and their expensive gear just because they are paddling a more stable boat. That of course doesn't mean all paddlers who buy surfski would be immune to making mistakes and for that reason I always recommend that people take classes before they venture out at open water. And here lays my other argument why we need to make a distinction between the two groups of people described above:

  • The average in-person surfski course is approximately 100 - 200$ per day.

  • The person who invested 3000 - 5000$ in surfski equipment is far more likely to also invest in classes to learn proper skills and safety compared to someone who invested 200$ in a small plastic sit on top.

The reality of stable surfski models is that with the added stability you will be able to experience and learn how to handle more challenging paddling conditions, which you may not even attempt to take on in a "fast" and unstable surfski.

Myth 5: Once you master your stable surfski you have to upgrade to a less stable one.

This myth is perpetuated by some voices in the surfski community and it appears to sit well with businesses involved in surfski sales and manufacture. The logic is that you first buy a beginner boat and then when you gain experience you buy a more advanced model and so on, which should keep the surfski business going.

I would argue that the surfski manufacturers would benefit a lot more if they focus on growing the surfski market by improving the accessibility to the sport and also focusing less on chasing some high performance dream and more on fun and adventure.

I am not saying racing is bad for surfski. Racing has many positive sides - builds character, gives you motivation etc. My point is that focusing only on racing and prize money is a very limited outlook to the development of surfski paddling.

Surfski has a lot in common with surfing - you stay fit and you have fun in nature surfing waves and downwind runs (when the conditions allow it) - this outlook resonate with a lot wider audience, than the narrative of hard core racing. It also has the potential to double and triple the current surfski market because the percentage of people interested in racing vs fitness and active lifestyle is, generously speaking, at about 1 : 10 ratio.

How many people do you know who surf? How many of them are chasing competitive surfing as their final goal?

I know a few surfers and all they chase is a couple of good waves before they go to work so they start their day with positivity and they feel active and energised through the day!

A friend of mine recently wrote to me to tell me: "Hey Boyan, I decided to follow your advice and upgrade my surfski. It was the best decision ever."

"Upgrade"? I was confused. "I thought I suggested a stable surfski?"

"Yes - I upgraded to a lot more stable boat and now I am enjoying my time on water even more!"

I laughed.

He got it!

Are you ready to upgrade your surfski experience?

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Alastair Dent
Alastair Dent
Mar 03, 2023

I suggest that a "lighter" boat can enable people to catch more waves, because it is easier to suddenly accelerate.

Boyan Zlatarev
Boyan Zlatarev
Mar 03, 2023
Replying to

Surfski weight definitely helps with acceleration. On the other hand sometimes very light construction could make the same model surfski feel less stable, especially in extremely strong wind.

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