Packraft Surfing

Someone on the forums recommended surfing with an Alpacka so I tried it out in southern California last week.

First, I didn’t have a lot of success. Only one good run. I do have some observations.

  1. Since packrafts can’t go under a wave like a surfboard you’ve got to figure a different way to get out into the water with breaking waves. On small waves if I timed it right, I could paddle out over the waves. It was harder to walk/swim out with the boat. It worked to hold boat and paddle over my head if the waves only broke as high as my head. It might have worked to go under the waves with the paddle and hold onto a long leash on the packraft. I didn’t get a chance to try that. One potential problem is that a breaking wave will fill the packraft with water and it may be too heavy to tow out past other waves.

  2. After the fact, I realized I needed to retrain myself. My instinct is to do everything I can to stay in the boat. Not such a good idea surfing. Twice, a wave came up on me when it was about to break. I paddled forward hard but the wave still lifted the stern to vertical then threw me forward as it broke and flipped the boat. I flew through the air and did a big face plant as the wave broke on top of me. After watching some surfers, I realized they would dive off the board to go under a wave about to break on them.

  3. It was tough on my packraft. During my second face plant the back rest was torn cleanly out of the boat. Sometime earlier, some of the spray deck with Velcro on it was ripped.

  4. I decided to close the spray deck and sit on top of it. The boat felt a little tippy, but I didn’t want to get tangled in the deck.

I learned a few things. I really didn’t figure out how best to packraft surf though and I’m not sure I’d try it again. Still, I’m curious to hear if anyone has figured out the secrets of surfing in a craft that won’t go under waves.

Hi Carol,


I don’t know if you were refering the my post on Pacific Surf in the Lower 48 section, but I was the guy who wrote about playing (read: crashing around) in the surf there. As perhaps the most vocal surf-zone afficionado around, I want to ask, firstly, are you okay?

Although I love to play in surf, I don’t really ‘surf.’ Compared to when I have a surfboard (and I’m a lousy boarder), I spend most of my time fighting out, side-surfing, bouncing off the bottom, etc… My chosen armory is typically:

:arrow_right: Open Boat. As it sounds like you found out as well, the decks aren’t built to endure this sort of punishment, plus you’re in-and-out of the boat a lot in heavy surf, upside down, etc.
:arrow_right: Neoprene Wetsuit.
:arrow_right: Foam PFD. This doubles as body armor.
:arrow_right: Helmet.

As far as punching through waves - you’re absolutely right: the surfer technique doesn’t work in a packraft; it’s too buoyant.

Not too banged up, I hope?

Ah, so it’s you I have to blame, Shaggy :slight_smile:
No, I’m not too banged up. Mostly frustrated that I couldn’t figure out the “secret” of packraft surfing.

My experience with packraft surfing has been pretty good, but the issues Carol had sound pretty familiar. A few things…

What I’ve done: Played in the surf on the WA coast twice. Used a packraft to play, land, and launch in surf along the Sumatra coast in 2005. Land and launch a few times in small surf in Alaska.

Generally I’d agree with Shaggy, go with an open boat (though I haven’t experimented in the surf with a deck). Also the potential for hitting the ground with your skull is high enough a helmet is really nice. I didn’t use a dry suit but I suppose that’s nice in cold water.

On the life vest, I think that’s a good idea, but it’s more important to focus on not getting separated from your raft. In cold water, a 200 yard swim, even in a life vest, can be too much. But packrafts are easy to re-enter (much easier than a kayak). So if you keep close enough to your packraft to re-enter but forgot your life-vest, you may be better off than if you brought the life-vest but lost your boat. What I do is make a wrist lanyard… Usually I pull it off during re-entry, but it means in the confusion of getting rolled you don’t lose the boat. I think it’s good to put some shock cord in the wrist lanyard too, or a big wave might break your wrist.

Ok, enough with safety, now how do you have fun?

First of all, as Carol pointed out, it’s really hard to push straight out through surf. I’ve only managed this when the surf is very small, or when I had a strong outgoing current to help out (such as a rip-tide.) Also steep beaches hit by long period waves will have surging waves that don’t break, so that makes for much easier launching. Better luck can sometimes be found at the end of beaches where rocky headlands push out into the surf. Regardless of where you’re launching, the basic idea is to wait for a small set of waves to launch, and then push out beyond the breaking zone for big waves before the big waves come. In my limited experience it’s really easy to botch this timing and get rolled. One weakness of the packrafts is that they are short, even compared to the curl height of waves. If you’re pushing against waves, then a curl is forcing you over in exactly the direction a packraft already wants to roll… backwards.

Coming in is really fun though. Generally the packrafts bob nicely in non-breaking waves. If you get inside of the outermost break and let a large wave break behind you, then you’re in for an easy ride… they bob up on top of the wave bore and shoot in to shore.

Then you can try for what the real surfers want… the smooth curling wave. Generally packrafts don’t seem to plane all that well, but I’ve found it is possible to remain in your boat even in moderate sized waves (say a 6 foot curl, corresponding to a 3 foot or so swell.) What I did was paddle with the wave until it curled over me. If I just kept running with it, it would flip me forward over the bow, so instead I found that throwing my shoulders and head back into the wave so that my upper torso was under a lot of water prevented me from rotating forward. Plant your feet firmly in the bow for this so you remain associated with the raft. Once the wave finished breaking I’d bob up and be on top of the bore, racing toward shore.

One other fun surf thing that I encountered both in Sumatra and along the rocky coasts of BC last summer… If you can find places where big swells are breaking across rocky platforms there’s a lot of fun “whitewater” rafting to do. The packrafts are perfect because the spin easy, float even on airy foam, and bounce off of things if you goof. I found a place in Sumatra where I could run exciting whitewater between two rocks, then turn around and run the next swell back the opposite direction. I only went through three times, realizing that I probably shouldn’t do it without a buddy around, but it was really fun.

Overall that’s a situation where body armor and helmet is probably a great idea… I’ve always only indulged in brief investigations because I didn’t have protective gear. I want to get out and do it properly, preferably with a helmet cam. :slight_smile:

This is good

I don’t know Hig, it sounds semi-insane to throw your shoulders and head back and under the wave. But then you thought walking 4000 miles was fun :slight_smile:

Nice surfing video…

I dunno, throwing my torso into the wave seemed like a good idea at the time, and it worked out. Maybe less scary than getting thrown forward, head first into the water. One of the times I tried this there was a reef encrusted in sharp coral ahead of me, which helped motivate me to stay in the boat.

Carol, perhaps it might help to think of Hig’s technique as the same as leaning forwards into a standing wave: you’re just trying to trim the boat actively against an outside wall of water. That’s how I find I think of it, anyway… “wave pushes forward, I push back, boat stays up.” It sounds nuts at first, but…

I spent days surfing the beach in Mrytle Beach, SC. I guess the waves there were PERFECT for fun fun fun! I felt like a little kid playing in the waves for like, literally 8 hours or more. I love the way a perfect waves grabs ahold of you and drives you foward. :smiley: :smiley: :smiley:

I have been out in the surf at Wilsons Prom, the southern most point of mainland Australia. More fun than I thought it would be and not as cold as I expected. The packraft doesn’t seem to want to go straight when it is on a wave, it wants to turn sideways but they do keep you high and out of the water, even the whitewash. I use a lash on my paddle so I don’t get separated and have to swim if I fall out. I wouldn’t recommend going out in big surf >6’ as they will flip pretty easily.

I have read your 4 tips for the Packraft Surfing. It is really interesting and helpful tips for the interested persons. I am also appreciated to share your valuable experience.

A trick I found, similar to higs throwing his body backwards, was to paddle with the wave until it breaks and then immediately paddle back in order put the stern of the boat into the top of the wave. The bow then goes airborne and you can ride the wave. really fun rides, but I flipped a lot trying to do it. over 6 to 7 footers may not be possible as I barely got into 6 footers, and had the wave eat me more often then I was able to surf it.

The other day I spent an hour horsing around in the surf on the WA coast. It was really fun. My wife caught my best wipeout (one of only two!) on video:

The hull speed and bouancy of the rafts will definitely limit what they can do in anything other than baby surf, but I can’t wait to get out in the ocean again.

Hull speed is less of an issue once you’re on the foam, and doesn’t apply if the boat is planing.

I’ve also had fun out on the olympic coast, though on one visit a friend of mine almost died. Life jacket is key unless you have a really good way to stay associated with your raft. He got caught in a big break fairly far from shore. He popped out and (partly due to a coincidence of several equipment failures) got separated from his raft and life vest. The raft likely surfed along without him. Fortunately another friend got to him with a raft, and in the end all were fine and the gear was all recovered. Maybe the details of this close call are posted somewhere in the forums…

Just to say… you can have a lot of fun in much larger waves than in your video, but you’re getting a whole set of hazards that are a bit different than those encountered in whitewater. As always, have fun but don’t die.

Surfing-related sports such as paddle boarding and sea kayaking do not require waves. Surfing has two major subdivisions within stand-up surfing are long boarding and short boarding, reflecting differences in surfboard design including surfboard length, and riding style.
And packraft surfing was also good. and safe.

It is really interesting and helpful tips for the people. I am also appreciated to share your valuable experience.
I have interested in rafting.Now i can surf safe rafting throughout.

I just kept running with it, it would flip me forward over the bow, so instead I found that throwing my shoulders and head back into the wave so that my upper torso was under a lot of water prevented me from rotating forward.