Why Surf Ski? What’s it all about?

Whenever I tell anyone that I’ve been surf-skiing they always look at me a little blankly and don’t know what it is. People I would expect to know don’t seem to know what a surf ski is either. To make matters worse, even once I’ve explained to them what the ski itself is like and what we do on them they still don’t really get it so I thought I’d tell you what it’s all about here.

What is a Surf Ski?

As usual, Wikipedia has the answer here:

surf ski is a long, narrow and lightweight craft similar to a kayak but with an open “sit-on-top” cockpit and a self-bailer to eliminate water instead of the enclosed kayak-style cockpit which can be sealed against the elements with a spraydeck. Surfskis are primarily designed for speed, including fast runs on the open seas, and have a powerful, pedal-operated rudder to control the boat while surfing on waves.


Here’s a photo of mine


It is paddled with the double bladed paddles you are familiar with from a normal kayak.

Surf Ski’s are pretty long , usually around 6m and fairly narrow too at around 40-50cm in width. This makes them very sleek and able to cut through chop and swell really well and punch through broken waves too.

Punching through the waves
Punching through the waves

It also means they track well on a wave but aren’t as manouverable as shorter, narrow craft and are also very unstable. Their sleek nature also makes them fairly fast on flat water, only a K1 racing kayak is faster.

There are actually two main classes of surf ski, Spec Skis and Ocean Racing Ski’s.

Spec Ski’s were developed for surf life-saving and a usually a little wider, a little more stable and have a shallower cockpit. The Ocean Racing Ski’s evolved from the Spec ski’s to provide a faster more performance orientated craft.

What is a Surf Ski for?

As you may have gathered from the description above, a surf ski is generally paddled in the sea. Spec Ski’s are used by Surf Life-saving Clubs, not only for patrolling beaches but also for surf life-saving competitions. They have to adhere to strict size and weight rules for races and are generally a little heavier and more robust than their racing counterparts.

The ocean racing ski is made for long-distance ocean paddling and is usually raced downwind with the swell. They were traditionally performance orientated and may be built in lighter weight constructions. As elite performance racing craft they were generally on the longer, narrower, lighter side which required high levels of skill to paddle. In recent years, as their popularity has increased, many companies have started producing more intermediate and beginner surf ski’s that are wider, shorter and easier to paddle but not quite as fast.

Surf Ski’s are most popular in warmer coastal regions such as Australia, California, Hawaii, and South Africa – All of the usual hard core surf mecca’s really. As paddling a surf ski inevitably involves contact with the water they have been less popular in cooler climates but are beginning to catch on now.


As water craft go, a surf ski is actually quite versatile. When paddled well, it is a fast craft and therefore capable of covering large distances. They can be paddled on flat water and of course excel in large ocean swells or even playing in the waves off a beach. Unlike a kayak with a cockpit, the sit-on-top nature means that they are easy to remount should you get knocked off by a wave or lose your balance. I had plenty of practice at this when I first started

The reason I chose a surf ski (after much deliberation) was indeed this versatility. I could use it for flatwater Quadrathlon races, but could also use it in the sea without worrying about falling off. I could head off on mini-adventures in it and I could play in the surf too. Since getting it I’ve done all of this and more.

What’s do good about Surf Skiing?

Well, the versatility mentioned above is one of the selling points of a surf ski to me, but the actual act of surf-skiing has it all.

  1. Aerobic Fitness Training – First up, it’s a proper hard workout, or can be if you want it to be. I do lots of endurance style sports, swimming, cycling, running etc and I enjoy the training aspect of these. I can do exactly that in a surf ski. Long endurance paddles covering many miles are possible, as are much more intense workouts. I often head to the flat waters of the estuary for a hard interval session in my ski and love such training. The training ethos of K1 kayak paddling has transferred across to the Surf Ski world, so doing such training is the norm.
  2. Skills Development – As a newcomer to paddling of any type I had a lot to learn. First of all just staying on a ski was almost impossible. There’s a lot more to it than just balance though. You can gain a lot of satisfaction from learning a new skill. With a little bit of perseverance great gains can be made in a short amount of time and it’s always good to be learning something new. As with most sports there is always something new to learn or an aspect of your skill to improve upon too.
  3. Exhilaration – Surf Ski needn’t be all about hard fitness style training efforts and conscious skills development though. Even with minimal fitness it can be an exhilarating sport when taken to the surf. I’d never think of sports such as windsurfing or surfing as being all about fitness and training and the same could be said of surf skiing in some respects. There’s much fun to be had just heading out for a play on the waves off the beach. Obviously the size of the waves will play an important role in the levels of excitement and levels of skill and fitness needed. A surf ski can be a great craft for mellow days on the beach or more extreme surf sessions too. It’s amazing how many waves you can catch on a Surf Ski. Whilst a board-surfer can be sat there for hours on end catching just a few waves here and there, a surf-skier can be catching wave after wave and enjoying the ride all the time. Such sessions do help with fitness and skills development too but in an unconscious, more fun way.
  4. Adventure – Heading off on an adventure is all part of the fun too. Some ski’s have hatches to store kit in so you could even do multi-day trips in them, or you just head off somewhere for the day. It’s a great way to get away from the modern world and discover new places from a different vantage point.
  5. Racing – For some, the ultimate aim of surf-skiing is open ocean racing. These races are usually point to point along the coast or between islands and are organised so that the paddlers go with the wind and swell. With the help of the wind and sea some pretty large distances can be covered at great speed. There are races all over the world with some really well established ones. The earliest races were the Scottburgh to Brighton in South Africa, a 46 km event first held in 1958 and the Port Elizabeth to East London in South Africa, a 240 km event held every two years since 1972. The most famous race is the Molokai race in Hawaii, a 60 km event first held in 1976. The Molokai is also considered the unofficial World Championships of ocean ski racing. There are also major surf ski races held in South Africa, Australia, and Dubai, with “The Doctor” in Western Australia and the Southern Shamaal and the Dubai Shamaal, being some of the newest surf ski races.

For me it’s the mix of all these things that makes Surf Skiing so much fun. I’m certainly no Elite paddler. It took me a while to get my balance on my ski and even now that I’m better at it I’m still not fast – I don’t think I ever will be either. But none of that really matters. It’s just good fun getting out on the water and going surf-skiing. Whether that’s a hard interval session, playing in the waves or a gentle paddle up the estuary it all counts.

The skis’s themselves are pretty nice too. Carbon, kevlar, composite, honeycomb, racing machines – you know I like my toys!

I also enjoy the fact that it’s a fairly unknown sport in the UK. I’ve never been one to follow the crowd. I was windsurfing and surfing long before it became popular. I was kite-surfing before it was even a thing in the UK and then stopped when everyone started doing it. I was a triathlete before it really took off and everyone (and their grandma’s) got in on the act. I still do all of this, but these days I’m also a surf-skier and quadrathlete. I’m not sure that surf-skiing and quadrathlon will ever become quite as popular as the other sports in the UK. If they do it will have been good to have been doing them for years, if not, then doing something different is good too.

If you really want to see what surf ski is all about take a look at this video from the Oregon Gorge in North America – Now tell me that doesn’t look like fun!

1 Response

  1. Anonymous says:

    I’ve paddled some very twitchy spec ski’s

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Alan Cole

Alan is a Freelance Website Designer, Sports & Exercise Science Lab Technician and full time Dad & husband with far too many hobbies: Triathlete, Swimming, Cycling, Running, MTBing, Surfing, Windsurfing, SUPing, Gardening, Photography.... The list goes on.