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.)
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.
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 It was originally made for wheeling my hang glider up Marriners Lookout, which is on the ridge in the photo on the left but concealed by the house.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.
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 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.
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.