Downwind Paddling – A Never Ending Evolution---Nick Murray

This summer I didn’t have the bandwidth to blog about downwind paddling, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of interest.   As I sit down to write this, I’m on a 13 hour flight to Tokyo,  so what better time to recap my summer of downwind paddling.  Yesterday I was a little surprised and very pleased to clock a personal best on a downwind run that I’ve done many times.   I went from a prior record average speed of 8.1 mph   to an average of 8.4 mph,  which confirmed for me, that at least I’m heading the right direction.

My obsession with improving my downwind paddling skills is stronger than ever and thanks to my very patient family and living in one of the best downwind paddling areas in the country,  I was able to enjoy at least an hour or two of surfing runs almost every weekend of the summer.   Although I live right across the street from West Bay,  I’ve discovered over the past 2 years that the open water along the western shoreline of the Leelanau Peninsula is really where it’s at if you’re looking for consistent runs.    The closest launch point for me is Leland,  so that is where I’ve been doing about 80% of my paddling.     The prevailing summer afternoon conditionstypically consist of wind out of the west / southwestat around 5-15 mph.    While not big, this delivers nice runs in the Manitou Channel on a very consistent basis.    The majority of my paddling is in 2-3 foot waves,  which I find is perfect for easily linking runs together.   When the wind flips to the North, the conditions pick up in a hurry and the waves typically get into the 4-6 foot range with a lot more dimension and complexity.

When I have the time and willing support crew to shuttle me I’ll do a true downwind,  but 90% of the time, I just do out and backs from the beach heading out anywhere from 1-4 miles offshore then turning around and surfing in.    The warmer the water the further off-shore I’ll go

Getting into the Flow

The out and back approach means that I spend a lot of time turning around and starting from essentially a stopped position.   There seems to be a pattern here that when analyzed and broken down can offer some guidance.   Typically the pattern is that the wave starts to pick me up, I accelerate hard to get on it,  get a decent run on that first wave,  but then fail toget into a linking sequence.  This also happens to be a very common scenario for many beginner downwind paddlers who just can’t break out of the cycle of paddling hard, catching a run, then getting hung up in the trough until the next wave picks them up and they frantically scramble to get on it.     The core problem here is that the boat speed is not steady and consistent which is making it hard to match up to the speed of the wave ,which is critical in order to get parked on the wave for that brief moment in time, which then sets you up to find the next run and leverage your momentum to  link it.

I have found that most of the time it is better for me to resist chasing the first wave with a hard acceleration,  and rather try to find a line that allows me to just start paddling steadily for 20-30 seconds so that I can gradually build up my boat speed and then start catching the runs.   This might mean that you have to turn off the direct line of the waves or just find a smooth route in front of you.  It may seem counter intuitive but I believe it pays off allowing you to be better positioned when you do start getting on the runs.

Smooth and Steady Wins

When I first started writing about downwind paddling, I probably overemphasized it being one big interval session.  While that is very true for most beginners,  I realize now that the elites maintain a much steadier level of effort when they paddle downwind.    This was reconfirmed for me when I had a chance to quiz Zsolt on what he was seeing when he had the chance to paddle with Hank, Clint, Jasper, Oscar and other legends.   With 100% confidence and clarity Zsolt said the best of the best aren’t doing full on mad man bursts of efforts, rather they are extremely steady, certainly putting in charges and taking the opportunity for a paddles down break when it presents itself, but generally maintaining a pretty steady level of effort as they stay in sync with the flow of the water.   I study a lot of video to help understand how the elites paddle in downwind conditions.  It is always challenging with edited footage because you can’t get a true sense for the cadence, but recently they had phenomenal downwind conditions in Tahiti for the SURFSKI World Championships.  The crew took some great unedited footage that is absolutely worth checking out.

Mental Focus

Like many things in sport, downwind paddling is as much a mental game as it is a physical game.   I find that I have my best runs when I’m able to detach and observe myself and what I’m doing and then intervene when needed.    Often it goes something like this…   self talk convincing me that the runs just aren’t good, too messy,  too stacked,  too fast to catch, etc..    It is truly amazing how fast the self talk starts in.   

More often than not,  when I observe what I’m actually doing,  I see that I’m on a fixed line,  not evaluating the runs from side to side and simply trying to paddle onto the biggest runs I can see.  Rather I should be working the small runs, letting them take me where they go and just keeping an open and patient mind until the big runs start to present themselves.   (In my experience the small to big concept starts to apply at around 4 foot waves and up.  Anything under that on the Great Lakes seems to be more of a single wave sizes with some bigger than others,  but not typically waves on top of waves).  It probably ultimately becomes an experience thing, but for me and my skill levels,  3 foot and below runs are very straightforward,  but as it gets into 5-7 foot swell I need a lot more mental focus and discipline to link runs.

So whenever you’re out there and starting to think the runs just aren’t good,  remind yourself that:

  • The elite paddlers would absolutely be working these runs to their full advantage
  • It never hurts to take a time out, gather yourself,  and start fresh
  • In bigger conditions, the small runs will lead you to the big ones.   All of the legends preach this and for good reason.   The small runs allow you to build a higher and more consistent speed which is what you need to match the speed of the big runs and actually catch and ride them them versus just powering onto them and immediately sliding down the face.
  • I really comes down to a steady ramp up of speed  and then when you have that top speed and momentum and get on a nice big run, you have to be immediately prepared to carry that momentum and add additional strong bursts of paddling to power onto the next run

Body Language

The holy grail of downwind paddling is parking your surfski on the wave and riding it for as long as possible,  which is all about finesse, body language, and timing.   A great example of this is to watch the really good SUP paddlers and how they move up and down the boardto milk the rides.   We can’t walk up and down on the surfski, but we can shift our body weight forward, backward,  make micro adjustments (both braking and accelerating) with our paddles and play with slight angle adjustments using the rudder all to effectively increase the length of time we spend parked in unison on the wave.

I’ve found that among all the other benefits,  the lighter Epic GT model really allows me to feel the small waves better than I could before.  Oscar preaches to always have a paddle on the water, and while I believe this is true for beginners,  as your stability and feel for the boat and conditions improves, I find that in small conditions, holding the paddle ever so slightly out of the water allows for a better feel of what is going on with the boat relative to the wave and I can make better micro adjustments to stay on the wave.

A good technique to practice is seeing how long you can stay on a single wave.  When doing this, I find that I have to resist the urge to paddle and at times simply give a little forward lean or turn the boat just slightly to keep it running on the wave.

I have also been playing with throwing my body weight back to raise the nose.  In bigger conditions this can mean driving both heels against the footboard and fully extending both legs and putting my back over the rear deck.    When sliding too fast down the face of a wave I may also brake with the paddle by digging in on the brace which can really help hold the boat back and prevent the nose from burying into the wave in front.   If you do happen to bury the nose, the best thing to do is just apply some strong strokes and power through it and continue accelerating until you reach a good run out in front of you.    If you don’t paddle hard after burying the nose, there is a good chance you may soon stall out in the trough.  To take that concept one step further, once you start coming down the face of a wave, essentially the ride is over and you have to paddle hard until you are well positioned to park on the next run.

Stability is King

The more I paddle downwind the more I realize that you simply will not reach your full potential if you aren’t in a boat that makes you feel rock solid stable and confident.   Good downwind paddling requires not hesitating even a split second, to put full power into your stroke, just when your boat is in the most precarious position imaginable and all of your self preservation instincts are screaming for a brace.   

When paddling with beginners, one of the most common things I notice is that just at the moment when a strong stroke or two will put them onto a run,  they are bracing because they feel unstable and in that split second they miss the run and fall off the back of the wave and into the trough.    This issue is further exacerbated when you don’t have the luxury of running a direct downwind and you need to surf the waves at an angle.   In this case, a lot of times the runs will still be there, but it requires you to be fully confident paddling full on with the boat at perhaps a 45 degree angle to the primary wave direction.    I know that before I achieved good stability in my boat, my modus operandi would be to catch the wave perpendicular then surf across it at an angle,  the problem is that I was bracing the whole time and by not paddling through it, I missed the opportunity to link to more runs.  Consistently the ride would end,  I would have to square back up to the waves and then restart my momentum to catch the next run.   In the end it comes back to way too much starting and stopping and max efforts, versus steady paddling.   

Another conclusion I’ve made is that there is a significant difference between stability in 2-3 foot waves, versus 4-6 and beyond.    Not only does the complexity and dynamics of the bigger conditions by itself require much greater stability,  but catching runs in big conditions takes a combination of catching the smaller runs, but also being able to apply full power and generate significant speed.   Then once you’re on the big runs, it takes as much or more stability and power to make the transitions.

Moral of the story,  if you wan’t to paddle well in bigger conditions,  but aren’t 100% bullet proof in 2-3 foot conditions,  you should probably consider a more stable boat.

Every paddler should experience downwind

Downwind paddling is ultimately what the surfski experience is all about, I know for me it has become an absolute addiction.   It is so much fun that I really don’t even think about that fact that I’m getting a workout,  rather it is a pure playful, adrenaline fueled, and meditative experience for me.    It is also important to note that it doesn’t have to be dangerous or extreme.   With a good remount and proper safety clothing and PFD, safety kit, etc it can be made extremely safe.   Additionally it doesn’t have to be a big day to go fast and have fun.   I find anything 1 1/2 foot or bigger is typically surf able and a lot of fun.   I’m still clocking faster times in 2-3 foot conditions than in 4-8 foot.    

If you haven’t experienced surfing your SURFSKI I strongly recommend putting it on your list of priorities for 2016!

Thanks to Nick Murray of TC Surfski