I’ve been playing a bit along Pacific (Washington) beaches along the outer coast. In fact, if you go to the “Beyond Spec” home page (search for it…), you can see a picture of me being given a serious comeuppance by a small but extremely ill-tempered wall of high-velocity seawater. Small swell (a couple feet or less is pretty tame, but can still make you work hard to get through the swash and breaker zones.
Anyway, a couple general things I’ve come up with regarding fun in moderate surf:
- Have a read PFD. The old therm-a-rest under the raincoat trick is NOT a good idea, consider the pressures and forces involved when a breaking wave dumps you. I had a friend almost drown when he got spilled in the surf, and his thermarest tore his zipper out of his coat and ejected. He lived by clinging to the pad, before I got to him in my boat. My bad for not realizing he’d followed me into the outer line, but I’ll never let that happen again.
- Recommend a GOOD PFD, ideally foam, not inflatable. Why? If you’re out in swells greater than, say, 3", there’s a good chance you’ll spend a few seconds in Davey Jones’ locker, when you get caught right in the throat of breaking wave. You’ll come up fine, but you wouldn’t want to have a PFD that’s going to rupture from pressure.
- Choose an area with a sandy bottom, or light gravel - not cobbles. You can get dumped from the boat and slammed into the shingle. Again, a foam PFD is nice here, since it doubles as body armor.
- Helmet = Good. As above: You can hit the shingle pretty hard, just like hitting rocks in a rapid.
- Be pepared for a wet and arduous ride. The waves are ready to make short work of the unprepared. You’ll want to keep bow- or stern- into them, and that’ll involve a lot of paddle-work, sometimes. Expect to ship a lot of water. You’ll be paddling hard, fighting seemingly endless barrages of foam at times, and losing nine feet for every ten you gain when trying to punch through the surf line. Wear clothes that’ll keep you warm in both the wind and the water.
- Be prepared to DUMP. A wave can put you out of your boat and in the drink. I once bailed voluntarily out of my boat in the outer surf line, to send a nearly-drowned buddy in on it, then paddled most of they way inshore on my back, using my Splat paddle. Again, dress for success: Good PFD, warm clothes: raingear w/ fleece underlayer, or neoprene (wetsuit), or drysuit. You can get in through moderate surf over a kind bottom, especially if you’re used “diving” under waves when you need to, but you don’t want to be in a speedo out there, or you’ll get hypothermia.
- Watch out for your chums. It’s good to be able to keep track of your buddies out there, for sure. In fact, in anything rough enough to be “exciting,” I personally always have a buddy (this from a guy who does a lot of his rivers alone).
- Think about a tether. You can consider a lanyard from your paddle to the boat. It’s up to you. One one hand, it lessens the possibility of losing your boat if you dump, and having to swim in. On the other hand, it has all the usual lanyard woes of wrapping around you at embarassing moments. I never use a lanyard in hair rivers. My modus operendi is currently to punch through the surf zone w/o a lanyard, but hook one on if I’m doing open water stuff beyond the surf zone.
- It gets deep, fast.
- It’s really good to be at home in the water, psychological as well as physically. Surf zones can beat you up - or at least, they beat me up. I always assume I’m going to be swimming some. They’re a grinder of sorts - a testing ground.
- Personally, I don’t surf well in them. I have a hard time getting the necessary speed up to surf, at least in 3’ - 4’ surf, which is about as big as I’ve pushed it.
- It’s good to have a photographer on shore, so they can record your moments of incredible oceanic smack-down (as in, when it smacks you down) for all posterity.
Personally, I love surf zones, but I respect them a lot. I get cold, I get tired, and I get sloppy - but they don’t. They’re too busy trying to erode continents to worry about me. They’ve fun, and they definitely push your skills and fitness, if that’s what you’re looking for. Cheers!