Surf Skis kayaks, also known as Ocean Skis or just Surf Skis, are a relatively niche are of the sport but with a growing following. Typically here we are talking about sit-on-top boats rather than sit in kayaks with a cockpit. The boats are designed to pick up fast on waves and cruise or race with the waves on down wind runs. These are very different to the short maneuverable surf kayaks used for surfing on breaking waves on the shore.
In the same way that other areas of the sport can be pursued in different ways, the same is true of Surf Skis. The SPEC Surf Ski is built to a specification and has been used for many years by surf life-saving clubs up and down the coast. Designed to bash out through big surf and able to perform rescues these boats are also widely used by these clubs to race from shore, round a buoy and back to shore again.
More recently downwind racing has increased in popularity with boat design evolving from the SPEC Ski and advancing rapidly in the past decade or so. These are the boats that this webpage is focused on. The boats that are used for this racing discipline make wonderful tools for playing in swell but also lend themselves to training and exercise boats for all types of paddlers wanting a work out on the sea. Unlike the Spec Skis they are not designed to be used extensively in breaking surf and generally are not strong enough to be used in this environment.
Finally we have also included here the fast sea kayak. A small category of boats blending the speed of the Surf Ski with the storage and touring capability of Sea Kayaks. These boats are a real blend with hints of flat water K1, sea kayak, surf ski and white water racer all visible in the designs.
The joy of the surf ski for downwind racing is that they tend to be built in a range from 12kg to 18kg rather than the sea kayaks that rarely get below 20kg. Some of the top racing skis even come down as low as 9 or 10kg if your pockets are deep enough! That said the SPEC skis paddled by surf life saving clubs are not this light and still need a good deal of muscle just to carry them down the beach!!
This lighter weight makes them a delight to paddle being fun and responsive on the water especially on the pick up and much easier to lift onto your roof rack when off the water.
At the beginner end of the market a small number of skis can be found in polyethylene but in the main construction is a combination of Kevlar (for strength) and carbon (for stiffness) with some of the heavier, more economical entry level boats involving more fiberglass in the construction. Vacuum bagging of Kevlar and carbon, along with the use of sandwich honeycombs lead to an endless array of construction combinations.
Surf Skis are typically between 15' and 21'. (Most manufacturers provide length, width, depth, volume and typical weight of their designs). Longer boats are typically faster and some of the longer boats are also narrow making them less forgiving but great for speed if you can handle them. That said some of the shorter boats are still very speedy and can be more easily transported and stored. Length also of course increases the amount of material in a boat and makes it harder to keep the weight down.
Width is a good indication of stability particularly relative stability within a manufacturers range. However, it is only part of the story and one boat that is 44 cm wide will not necessarily be the same stability as another. Hull shape and volume are also important influences. That said, the widest boats will inevitably be the most stable. Boat widths are typically in the range from 42cm to 54cm.
The volume in the front of a ski helps it to shed water and pop out if it buries in a wave. Look out for lower volume
versions of some designs if you are a smaller paddler, you won't need
the same volume to pop up out of a wave if you are not burying as deeply
in the first place. If you are light too much volume can make you feel
like a cork bobbing around on the surface too much and you need less
volume to sit the boat in the water as it was designed. Likewise the
bigger paddlers should pay attention to the overall dimensions looking
for a craft with a higher volume.
Log your favourite down wind course on Downwinder
The theory with a Sit-on-Top is that when your paddling doesn't go quite to plan and you end up in the drink you can remount the Ski from the water without assistance and carry on with your session.
The truth is, the less stable the Sit-on-Top the harder it is to land yourself back on your Ski without falling straight in again. You need to practice this and you need to consider it when choosing a boat. Its no good buying a boat you can't re-mount if it stops you enjoying your paddling. You also want to be safe and know your ability when venturing away from the shore.
Check out this Video if you need to know how.
The primary brands in the surf ski market are set below. Each of these manufacturers supplies a range of skis differing in stability / volume and inevitably speed. To see their ranges take a look at our on line database. You should be able to filter the database to find the information you need.
Epic - USA company, Made in China, marketed around the world
Nelo - Some shorter designs, made in Portugal and marketed around the world
Carbonology - Made in South Africa, marketed around the world
Fenn - South African company with distributors around the world
Knysna - Made in South African, distributors around the world
Think - South Africa, distributors around the world
Zedtek - Made in Portugal - dealers in Denmark, Norway, Spain, UK
You will want to wear a leash attached to your leg so that should you capsize your ski does not disappear off downwind leaving you without a boat. You will also want a leash on your paddles. Check for the leash attachment point.
Surf Skis are sit-on-tops which means that you sit on a shaped area on the deck of the boat sometimes referred to as the bucket. The comfort of that seat is important so try to get to try paddling any boat you are interested in for more than a few minutes. We'd suggest that you will get a better feel for it if you try out for half an hour or so.
You will see an area where you sit and then a raised section called the hump between the seat and the footwell. The hump comes in various heights but you need to check that your legs have enough freedom of movement over the hump. This is particularly the case if your legs are short!
You should also be aware that some ski's sitting positions are wetter than others and some have bailers. Look at reviews and don't be afraid to ask to find out everything you can about any individual design.
Some surf skis are made for a specific fixed leg length. If this is the case make sure you fit!. Increasingly though boats are designed for a range of leg lengths with a footplate. Again check your leg length will work with the boat you are interested in and check how it adjusts. If you will be the only person paddling your craft it doesn't matter if its a bit fiddly to adjust but if you are going to share it with others then easy adjustment is important.
Surf skis come with rudders to enable steering on waves. Depending on the environment in which you will be using your ski you may want a bigger rudder (big swell), smaller rudder (shallow/ weedy area / smaller waves) and / or an overstern rudder (shallow / weedy areas). Generally the rudder is operated with pedals. This is a different mechanism to the tiller system used by many flat water racers. The rudder is adjusted with small movements of the toes whilst the rest of the foot sits flat on the footplate.
If you found the Surf Ski database useful you might find our Sea Kayak Database of interest too
Surf Life saving is a distinct sport with various life saving sports including races on surf skis out through the surf, round a buoy and back. The International Life Saving Federation set a specification for the boats used in these races which is set out in its rules but includes a requirement that the boats be no less than 18kg, no less than 48cm wide and no more than 5.79m long. The boats have a wave deflector on the front.
Downwind surf skis skis often appeal to flat water racers as boats that use a lot of the same basic technique but that are comfortable to use on the the ocean. These same paddler also pose the question " Why not look for a boat with similar properties but that have a cockpit and spraydeck with the associated options of warmth and the option of rolling in the event of capsize?" The Fast Sea Kayaks are the crossover in this respect. There are very few of them and they all have different properties. The most common boats in this category are as follows:
NDK - Quantum
Kirton - Inuk
Mega - Sea rocket, Tempo and Velocity
Seabird - Sport 600
Rockpool - Taran, Taran 16 and Tarantella
Valley - Rapier
Zedtek - Cruzader, Corvette, Sea Racer, Python
Epic - 18X and 18XS