Riding waves in a kayak is so much fun and easy to do and you don’t need an expensive and fragile high performance surf kayak just to catch some waves. There are a variety of sit-on-top and sit-inside kayaks that perform well in the surf. The goal of this page is to give you some useful information to help you get the right equipment for what you want to do.
We’ll start by talking about kayaks, and then discuss paddles and the other essential equipment you will need. There are essentially five categories of kayaks suitable for surfing:
Recreational sit-on-top kayaks are the most affordable and easy to use. Not all recreational sit-on-top kayaks are ideal for surfing. The Dagger Kaos, Ocean Kayak Rapido and Cobra Strike are all good choices. The Cobra Strike is still available and probably the best choice. Dagger did a limited run of the Kaos in 2016 but the Ocean Kayak Rapido is no longer being made. You should be able to find used models of all three.
Avoid kayaks with deep channels through the length of the hull or big vertical sides. They will be hard to control on a wave. By adding thigh straps to the kayak you will significantly increase your ability to control the kayak, yet still be able to get on and off the kayak easily. You will likely spend some time swimming with your kayak so adding webbing or soft, thick rope tails to the grab handles at each end of the kayak will make it much easier and safer to hold onto whilst you are in the water. Sit-on-top kayaks are typically made from roto-molded plastic and are easy to use, extremely durable, but they are heavy and their performance is limited.
A more advanced version of the sit-on-top kayak is the waveski. These range in size and performance from introductory models to high performance custom designs. They are typically shorter and narrower than recreational sit-on-top kayaks and you secure yourself to the kayak with toe loops and a lap/quad belt system. Waveskis typically have a single fin, tri-fin or quad-fin setup. Waveski manufacturers on the US West Coast include Infinity, MacSki, and TL Surf.
Performance waveskis are arguably the most high performance paddle surf craft available but they are typically more difficult to roll than a kayak and can feel unstable to paddle in challenging conditions. That said, if you choose the right waveski for your body size and ability, you will quickly develop the skills needed to catch waves and have fun. Waveskis are easier to launch from rocky shorelines than kayaks with fins because you mount the waveski once it is safely floating on the water.
Tyler Lausten, owner and shaper of TL Surf wave skis has been instrumental in the development of wave ski designs for people with limited mobility. Check out this High Fives Foundation inspirational video.
Whitewater kayaks are an excellent way to get introduced to kayak surfing. There are many hundreds of whitewater kayaks designed for paddling rivers but not all of them will perform well in the surf. Look for lower volume (freestyle/river running/river play) whitewater kayaks that have a flat planing surface through the mid-section of the hull. Some favored designs that are currently available include the Dagger Axiom, Jackson Fun Runner, Jackson Zen, Liquid Logic Braaap 69, Liquid Logic Mullet, and Pyranha Loki.
Modern rodeo/playboats around 6′ in length surf quite well but are slow to paddle and require a radically different style of surfing more akin to whitewater rodeo to get the most out of their performance characteristics.
A favorite among many west coast surf kayakers is the Necky Jive which is sadly no longer in production but used models can be found through the normal used boat channels (see below).
A fairly unique kayak made in South Africa designed for both whitewater and surf is the Fluid Element. It has the ability to surf both river waves and surf waves very well as the video below shows.
There is no known US distributor for Fluid Kayaks at the present time but it should be possible to import one directly from the manufacturer.
Sea kayaks are not designed specifically for surfing and their length can make them difficult to control so for this reason it is generally not advisable to use a sea kayak for surfing a crowded surf break. That said there are some modern and not so modern designs that surf well and there are several benefits to surfing a sea kayak:
- because of the greater hull speed of a sea kayak compared to other kayaks it is very easy to catch even the smallest waves
- you can access remote surf breaks away from the crowds
- you can carry safety equipment that is often difficult to transport in other kayaks
Look for a sea kayak less that 16′ in length. If the hull has hard chines it will encourage the boat to plane and carve a turn. Be VERY careful about keeping a minimum four boat lengths from other surfers AT ALL TIMES. Do not rely on hatch covers to remain in situ during a surf session. Back them up with float bags. Add webbing or soft, thick rope tails to the toggles or grab handles to assist with holding onto the kayak whilst swimming.
Some favored designs that are currently available include the Dagger Stratos, Jackson Karma RG, P&H, Delphin, P&H Aries, P&H Hammer, Sterling’s Kayaks Reflection, Sterling’s Kayaks Progression, Valley Gemini.
The Mariner Coaster is no longer in production but it is possible to find them for sale used and it is a great surfing sea kayak.
Kayaks that are designed specifically for surfing have been around since the 1970’s. Check out our ‘History of Surf Kayaking’ blog post for more information on historical designs. Modern surf kayaks are designed to fall within two specifications, stipulated by the rules for international competition: International Class and High Performance.
In general, the rules state that the kayak shall be of hollow construction, with the paddler sitting in, not on, the kayak. Any material is allowed for construction. In addition, each kayak must utilize a fabric type sprayskirt / spraydeck, which completely encircles the paddler’s waist, and the boat’s cockpit to attain “watertight” status from the waist down.
The kayak will be moved around by the paddler using a paddle as a means for propulsion and steering. No other equipment may be used. This prohibits the use of motors, propellers, rudders, foot pedals, etc. to propel or maneuver the kayak.
International Class (IC) Surf Kayaks
- Length: 3m (118”) or longer as measured in a horizontal plane.
The hull may be any shape as long as the maximum concave depth under a straight edge, placed perpendicular to the long axis of the kayak at any point on the hull, is less than 10mm. There are no additional restrictions on deck design, hull radii or seat location. The kayak can have up to 4 fin boxes, as long as there are no fins in them. Fin boxes must be covered OR empty, and may be no longer than 25 cm and no wider than 2 cm.
High Performance (HP) Surf Kayaks
- Length: 2.75m (108¼”) or under, as measured in a horizontal plane.
There are no restrictions on hull design and fins are allowed.
There are currently only two manufacturers of surf specific kayaks in North America; Wold Ski Custom in Arcata, CA and Murky Water Kayaks in Ontario, Canada. Other brands of surf kayaks are imported including Mega Surf Kayaks, Ride Surf Kayaks, Valley Surf Kayaks from the UK and Watertech Surf Machines from Portugal.
The performance of a surf specific kayak on a wave is significantly greater than a whitewater or sea kayak. The flat planing surface of the hull gives the potential for almost unlimited speed and the rails (edges) of the kayak and fins (HP kayaks), give tremendous grip and drive through turns. Surf kayaks are available in (polyethylene) plastic, fiberglass, carbon and Kevlar and other exotic materials. Plastic surf kayaks are the most affordable and great when you are learning to surf because they are incredibly durable. They are typically heavier than other constructions and the weight of the surf kayak will affect it’s performance on the wave. A lighter kayak is preferable for more advanced moves but they also tend to be more fragile. There are extremely durable lightweight constructions available but at significant cost. Expect to pay around $1,000 for a plastic kayak and in excess of $2,000 for the lightest available.
Used surf kayaks are often available and the US West Coast Waveski/Surf Kayak Facebook page, your local paddlesports retailer, Craigslist and BoaterTalk/Surf Zone are good sources for finding used boats.
Paddle selection for surf kayaking is very much a personal choice but there are some common factors that differentiate paddles used for surf kayaking compared with other kayaking disciplines.
In general, kayak paddle length and blade size are determined by factors such as your torso height, the length of your arms, the width of your kayak, how high above the water you sit, the angle of your paddle shaft during the forward stroke, your ability to apply power to the paddle stroke and if you prefer a higher or lower cadence.
The length of paddle used for surf kayaking tends to be shorter than a whitewater paddle because a high cadence is preferable when accelerating to catch a wave or when paddling out through the surf. A shorter paddle is also less likely to get caught by the pitching lip of a breaking wave. High performance waveski surfers tend to use even shorter paddles than surf kayakers to enable radical maneuvers on a pitching wave face.
Blade size is typically the same size or slightly smaller than a whitewater paddle for the same reasons and to reduce the swing weight of the paddle.
It should be kept in mind that a shorter paddle and a smaller blade size will give less support when bracing and make it more difficult to execute an eskimo roll. You may find it necessary to switch to the extended position during the setup for the roll to gain additional leverage.
Life Jackets/Personal Floatation Devices (PFD’s)
A US Coast Guard approved Type III or Type IV life jacket or personal floatation device (PFD) is legally required in all States if you are using a kayak in the surf zone. Unlike board surfers and SUP surfers that are attached to their board by a leash, there is nothing attaching you to the kayak in the event of a wet exit. Surf kayakers typically use life jackets or PFD’s of minimalist design that afford maximum range of movement. Some competitors use impact vests designed for wake-boarding instead of traditional PFD’s because of the amount of torque the body is put through during off-the-lip landings. Be sure to check that the impact vest is a US Coast Guard approved device.
When swimming in the surf zone it is often advantageous to duck dive under breaking waves or foam piles or to avoid other surfers. Too much floatation in your PFD will inhibit your ability to duck dive. Type V life jackets usually have more floatation that Type III. Unless you are teaching in the surf zone it is unlikely you will need a tow system and so a Type V life jacket with an integrated harness is not required.
Here is a link to an excellent article on the topic of impact vests and PFD’s written by Peter Blenkinsopp, Chairman of the World Surf Kayak Association.
A whistle is an extremely useful addition to your lifejacket and meets the legal requirement for a sound producing device.