Things I’ve seen from my surf ski at Apollo Bay

I’ve been paddling an 18 foot surf ski since the early 1980s. I’ve owned a few. They are a remarkably efficient craft to paddle over a good distance, but catching waves is what they do best. I’ve paddled my various skis at Byron Bay, Port Lincoln, and many ocean beaches between Pt Lonsdale and Apollo Bay. In recent years, all my paddling has been on the coast near Apollo Bay.

They can be awkward to carry, especially in windy conditions. Care is also required when loading and unloading from car roof racks. But the moment the ski is set down in the water, it assumes a position of perfect balance and just invites a paddler to take a seat and go.

(There is only one photo in this post taken with a decent camera –  the photo of the three dawn patrol swimmers and the ski paddler standing on the beach. But sometimes straight content without any artistic excellence is sufficient to carry a photo, provided that the content is interesting enough! I hope this post is one of those occasions.)


Lizzie took this photo at Apollo Bay while standing on the harbour wall. For me, it captures the essence of catching a gentle Apollo Bay wave across the bay.


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I do love a backlit wave in the morning. This shot was taken with a GoPro mounted on the back of the ski. Paddling into a rearing or breaking wave in the shore break is as simple as getting a bit of speed up, hitting the wave at an angle close to 90 degrees,  and keeping the paddle stroke rate high until over or through the wave. The nose will rear up over quite a height of white water if you have enough speed. The nose is designed to be very buoyant for this purpose.



This video was taken by Hamish with his new DJI Mavic Air drone. A remarkable machine and video camera platform. These gentle green swell ones were rolling across the bay at Apollo Bay one autumn afternoon recently.  As you will see, a mere hint of a wave hundreds of metres from breaking, can be caught and ridden on the surf ski. Yes, it is as peaceful and relaxing as it looks.



Punching out through the shore break. At such a moment the white water can give you a solid thump in the chest – if there’s enough white water it can sweep you off the ski regardless of how hard you are paddling.
When there are no waves, I put the ski in the water at the end of my street (a 300m walk, with the ski transported effortlessly on purpose designed two wheel buggy welded up by my brother Noel) and head offshore. I usually visit a beach or two, and do a lap of the harbour (visible in the distance by the yacht masts).  The ski covers distance very easily, although it is much easier to paddle downwind than into wind. Surf skis like mine are not very popular recreational craft in Victoria. That said, they are used in surf life saving and iron man competitions in Victoria. So in surf life saving club environments they are holding their own. But the rubber duck (the outboard powered rubber dinghy) has taken over the life saving role once played by these skis, which way back were the quickest way to get out to the back of the surf break to a swimmer in trouble. They are more popular in Queensland and NSW (mainly in SLSC circles), but in South Africa, they are a major sport and industry. There are huge surf ski clubs, regular competitions, training organisations etc. The event they seem to love over there is a long (20-30km) downwind paddle in strong winds with a following sea providing breaking waves and lumps of swell which they ride which allows them to cover distance much faster than they could paddle the same distance in still conditions. I generally paddle my ski on my own at Apollo Bay, and in peak holiday season there might be one or two other ski paddlers visiting town doing the same thing. I can’t understand why the surf ski is not more popular in Victoria. Conditions are great all year round.


The buggy made by Noel. It was originally made for wheeling my hang glider up Marriners Lookout, which is on the ridge in the photo on the left but concealed by the house. It serves equally well as a surf ski buggy.


The Anaconda Adventure Race was a fixture on the Victorian sporting calendar for a few years. It was a gruelling 4 leg adventure race, for individuals or teams. The legs were a swim (2kms), a run (around 12kms), a ski paddle (13ms) and a mountain bike ride (22kms) – in that order. I have done the ski leg in two of these events. The ski leg is the orange line on the map above – 13kms of ocean paddling from Cumberland River west to Artillery Rocks, then back along the cliffs a couple of kms out to sea from the Great Ocean Road to Lorne for a finish in front of the surf life saving club. After my first team entry in this event, with four in the team, my nephew Darren (mountain bike rider in our team entry) did the full race solo the following year, and achieved a considerably faster time.  Who (apart from Darren) knows what any of us could’ve done individually that second year, with a further full year of training under our belts….
Race day started with a mellow misty morning along the coast. Skis on the beach at Cumberland River in readiness for their paddlers.  Of my two entries in this race, I completed the course the first year, and in the second event, the ski leg was modified (due to rough surf in the open water) to circuits of Louttit Bay at Lorne, and was cancelled after the first 45 minutes or so of the race due to winds rising to over 30 knots from the east bringing waves, white water, and carnage to the ski fleet. Many didn’t make it out through the shore break, many fell off their skis and couldn’t get back on, and some fell and lost contact with their skis. Jet skis did a round picking up the stragglers, while the riderless skis all washed ashore in the strong onshore wind. I stayed on my ski, until told the race was over.
This was a ski paddle race at Apollo Bay from Marengo beach, around Point Bunbury, direct track across the bay to Wild Dog Creek, then back along the coast for a finish in front of the surf club.  I made it to Wild Dog Creek.  I vividly remember that there were very large green waves at Point Bunbury, with cavernous troughs between them. The race rules were that we had to come ashore at Wild Dog, run around a flag, then paddle off for the last leg. This shows me paddling ashore at Wild Dog to go around the beach flag. So far so good (4.5kms to this point).
After coming ashore and rounding the beach flag I headed back out through the shore break, which had a bit more punch in it than it looked from the shore. There was also a strong longshore current.
What’s that saying about the best-laid plans of mice and men….?




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I often paddle around the nooks and crannies of the harbour, sometimes stopping for a chat with a visiting yachtsman a professional fisherman, a local recreational sailor or a strolling tourist.
While the rudder (operated by foot pedals) can turn the ski, the quickest way to change direction is to dig a paddle in, as shown.
I never knew that a mini-barrel was thrown up by the ski when I dug a paddle in to turn, until the GoPro was mounted on the back of the ski.
It does it every time.
Good wave
I have just paddled my heart out to get over the top of this barely formed wave, and gravity has taken over and I am now coursing down the face of the wave for a ride to shore. From where I sit on the ski, there is no sense of the ski dividing the wave as occurs behind me. The nose of the ski stays above the water while I am riding a wave.
Paddling around the sizeable harbour at Apollo Bay is a contrast to the ocean conditions outside the harbour. I have jumped off the ski here to get some cold water inside my wetsuit to stop me overheating from paddling.
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The harbour has beautiful sea grass plains as shown. The shadow is of course from the ski. I often see large resident stingrays basking on sandy patches in the middle of these sea grass areas.
One of the 3 or 4 resident stingrays in the harbour. They sometimes wander out into the ocean –  I’ve seen them when I’ve been swimming out behind the waves.  They will swim towards the surf ski, and pass close by underneath it on occasions. This one is recognisable by his truncated tail. There is a much larger one than this in the harbour.
Taken on a glassy no swell day in the ocean outside the harbour mouth. I have again entered the water to cool off. That’s the township of Apollo Bay in the distance. This paddle was in summer.
The orange buoy. This is 300m out from the harbour mouth, 600m from Tuxion beach, and about 500m from the SLSC on a high tide. I know the distances because the friends I swim in the ocean with will do a 2km triangle with a turn around this buoy when the conditions are right.
The next bay around to the south west from Apollo Bay is Mounts Bay. At its southern end is Little Henty Reef which is permanent home to a (non-breeding) colony of around 100 Australian fur seals. This is one of them, on a visit to town. They are every bit as personable as they look. They swim near the ski when they come to our bay, and will sometimes do a lap or two around me, including diving under the ski and surfacing on the other side. This seal though is obviously contemplating something deep and meaningful.
The ocean waters near Apollo Bay are regularly visited in and near the winter months by whales on their great migratory journeys. Many have calves with them when the swim past Apollo Bay. Occasionally, a mother will stay in a quiet corner of the bay for a day or two with her calf, presumably resting up. In order of regular sighting, the species include the southern right whale, the humpback whale and occasionally, orcas (killer whales). This photo shows the tail of a southern right whale.  It was taken near Skenes Creek, a few kms east of Apollo Bay.
To the right of the ski is the head of a 40 foot southern right whale which had just swum towards me, gone underwater, and then surfaced as shown as it headed east out to sea beside the harbour wall. The law in Victoria specifies distances which must be maintained from whales by various forms of sea craft. But there is no law against sitting stationary on a ski while the whale swims as close as to the ski as it wishes.
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This screen capture from the GoPro shows the pectoral fin of the southern right whale between me and the shoreline. The building between me and the fin is the surf life saving club at Apollo Bay. This was not deep water and I was very surprised that the whale was able to almost entirely submerge here. It submerged after this moment, swam past me underwater, and surfaced east of me as it headed out to sea.  The next video clip is the footage from which these screen captures were taken. I have saved this short clip in slow motion to allow a good look at the whale’s pectoral fin as it slices through the water then submerges as it comes towards me. You will note that initially I am paddling backwards, endeavouring to keep out of the whale’s way.  But I quickly realised the better option was to hold my position and let the whale pass me at its chosen distance.





Liz took a photo on her phone from the shore when the whale was swimming near me. It wasn’t a great shot technically, but it did allow me to compare the size of the whale with the length of my ski (18 feet). The whale was a good bit more than double the length of my ski. The memory of this encounter is indelibly etched in my mind. I rate it a more memorable encounter than seeing great white sharks up close on a cage dive off Pt Lincoln. That was very interesting, but there was an element of contrivance and artificiality about it. In contrast, this whale chose to come to the waters of Apollo Bay, and to stay a while and just cruise around, aware of locals like me but essentially ignoring us. The whale was content to approach me and to come close and then leave me be, all with the same slow deliberation. As it did so, my earlier apprehension gave way to wonderment and a sense of great privilege at the brief crossing of our paths. And it was my simple surf ski that took me to this place.


This is not my main ski – it is shorter, and easier for beginners to paddle. This was a dawn shot as three of us (me, Dan and Mike) headed out for a 2km lap around the orange buoy to the harbour mouth, down the wall to the beach, then back across the bay to the beach in the photo.  Hamish was riding shotgun on the ski as we were going 400-500m offshore. It was a memorable and beautiful ocean swim.





This video was taken with the GoPro back in 2013. I have long since abandoned titles and such frippery. In fact, I have moved away from movies and take mostly still photos, both with the GoPro and with my DSLR.  Such matters aside, this was taken in mid-winter 2013, late one afternoon as the sun was about to disappear behind the hills. The sea was absolutely glassy, and there were small but perfectly formed little waves quietly rolling ashore at the beach at the bottom of my street. It was a short walk with the ski on the buggy. This clip captures something of the peace and pleasure of a sunset paddle on an ocean almost completely at rest.

I have included this photo last because it shows how all my ski sessions end – regardless of whether I have just had a flat water paddle to the harbour and back, a session of exhilarating rides on solid green swell lines, or an encounter with a forty foot whale. All these sessions end with a barefoot walk up the street in my wetsuit, the ski balanced on the buggy being easily pushed with one hand, hosing it down on the lawn, and parking it in the garage.  Riding the ski is wonderful, and surprisingly, all the minor but necessary rituals before and after the ski actually touches the water somehow provide moments of quiet satisfaction, and perhaps even a form of enjoyment.


Postscript for those interested in a few comments on the technique of ski paddling:

The ski takes a day or two to get your balance right, but after that you never forget how to do it. A common mistake beginners make is to think they should master sitting still on the ski while holding  the paddle, thinking balance in this position should precede catching waves and going distances. They imagine that using the paddle is potentially upsetting for their balance. This is incorrect. The paddler is most stable when moving with a paddle blade in the water. One required technique which is not obvious at first, is that you must push your heel into the foot well on the side that you have your paddle blade pulling through the water. Paddle pulling in the water on the left, press the left heel hard into the front of the foot well. Sore thighs should result from longer paddle sessions when you first start. The act of paddling creates stability because you are balancing on the following points: your backside (pressing back into the rear of the seat as your heel is pressing forward), your feet (actively pressing forward, not simply resting in the foot wells), and a paddle blade in the water (alternating left and right of course). Paddling creates a strong balance position. When you want a spell, most of us take our legs out of the foot wells and dangle them over the side in the water. This is a stable resting position.

It’s important to twist the upper body as you paddle, as this deploys the large muscles of the back rather than the smaller muscles of the arms and shoulders. As in many balance activities, looking at the horizon will give you better balance than looking at the nose of the ski and the water near it. You tend to go where you look. The ski is not very wide and will feel very ‘tippy’ when you first get on it. This long and narrow design is the price you pay for the low drag and high efficiency a ski has in gliding across the water.

The seat is only a shallow depression in the deck and there are foot wells with rudder pedals for the feet. A bit of surf wax can be useful in these areas. The paddle is light and easy to use (right is tight – look it up). If paddling in anything but calm water, a leash connecting the paddle to the ski is something I find useful. My current ski was custom built, and I had a reinforced attachment point installed on the deck for the ski leash.

When I fall off in white water I simply fall (when possible) towards the breaking wave (to avoid getting clocked on the head by the ski washing over me), hold the paddle, and thus keep contact with my ski via the leash. The alternative of losing touch with the ski and the paddle, then trying to swim with whichever item you find first while attempting to reunite with the other, is simply unattractive.

Remounting in deep water is very easy with a bit of technique. I have had many sessions in solid swell or paddling over long distances where I have not come off at all, other than on purpose to take a dip and cool down. But if you are giving it a good crack, you are going to come off from time to time. You must expect this, and be able to remount quickly and effortlessly.


7 thoughts on “Things I’ve seen from my surf ski at Apollo Bay

  1. Ah, the WaterMan. In his element. A stimulating read.

    It struck me how many of your favourite pastimes the ski allows you to indulge in. Sightseeing, cardio- vascular exercise, creature watching, wave catching, talking, photography, getting wet and so it goes on. A post with something for all comers and a template laid down for any grandchild who wants to turn his or her hand to a paddle.



    1. The ski does indeed deliver all those things Hunto, and more.

      It performs beautifully in all conditions from calm seas to sizeable swell.

      A lap on the ski from Waratah Bay to Walkerville would be a good warmup for you before a swim with the Walkerville Walruses. Then you could paddle back to your home beach, finishing off with a long ride to shore on one those plentiful green waves in your bay.


  2. John, great story and photos. I am a keen paddler, living in Apollo Bay now, and would love to join you on the water some time soon (this week?) Mike


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