Surf ski

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A surf ski is a long, narrow, lightweight kayak with an open (sit-on-top) cockpit, usually with a foot pedal controlled rudder.


There are two types of surf skis, the spec ski and the ocean ski. The spec ski is the traditional craft used by surf life saving clubs and must adhere to strict size and weight. The ocean ski on the other hand is typically a longer craft with a deeper cockpit. The Spec ski is designed tougher and with more rocker to manoeuvre in and out of the wave zone. The ocean ski is made for long-distance ocean paddling and is usually raced downwind with the swells. Typically 5.0-6.0 metres(16½-21 ft) long and only 40–50 cm (16-20") wide, surf skis are extremely fast when paddled on flat water (only an Olympic K1 or K2 kayak is faster) and the fastest paddled craft available over a long distance on ocean swells. They track well but are less manoeuvrable and have less transverse primary and secondary stability than shorter, wider craft. Despite its typical instability, a surf ski (with an experienced paddler) is a very effective craft for paddling in big surf. Its narrowness and length helps it cut or punch through large broken waves. Double bladed paddles are used, often with highly contoured wing blades for extra efficiency.

A waveski is a type of short surf ski similar to a surf board, used primarily in surf play. It is usually less than 3 m (10 ft) long, typically with a wide planing type bottom and with one to three fixed skegs, or fins.

Current use

Surf skis are used worldwide for surf lifesaving, surf kayaking and for training and competition on flat-water or ocean (downwind) racing. They are most popular in warmer coastal regions such as Australia, California, Hawaii, and South Africa, as paddling a surf ski inevitably involves contact with the water. In cooler waters, paddlers often wear a wetsuit or drysuit.

Construction and design

Some cheaper, heavier surf skis are made from polyethylene. Light weight surf skis are made of composite layers of epoxy or polyester resin-bonded cloth: fibreglass, kevlar, carbon fibre or a mixture. To cut weight, the number of layers of the material and the amount of resin may be minimised to just that necessary for structural integrity or increased for extra strength and durability in heavy surf.

Early surf skis were constructed in the same way as early surfboards, being laminated from light wood and sometimes covered with fabric. In the 1960s, the first foam surfboards and surf skis were carved from a single block of expanded polystyrene foam, strengthened with wooden stringers and covered with a thin layer of fibreglass. As the demand for surf skis grew in the 1970s, this custom method of production proved too costly and moulds were made from the most successful surf skis so that moulded craft could be made more cost effectively out of glass-fibre. At the same time, there was a divergence in ski design, one type becoming known as the lifesaving specification surf ski (spec ski) and the other being the long distance or ocean racing surf ski.

Ocean racing surf skis differ from spec skis in that they are longer, have sharply pointed bows and under stern rudders. The front of the modern lifesaving type surf ski is often flared to prevent nose diving on returning to shore when surfing down large steep waves. Ocean racing surf skis are also usually longer than long distance racing kayaks; they have more longitudinal curvature (rocker); they typically have less transverse primary and secondary stability but more longitudinal stability because the paddler is seated more towards the centre of the craft to enhance wave riding ability. An ocean racing surf ski must have enough volume in the bow to provide buoyancy when punching through surf, a long waterline to make use of ocean swells, a sleek, narrow shape to reduce water resistance, as well as enough stability to make paddling in rough conditions feasible.


The surf ski is used in surf lifesaving competitions all over the world including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, the USA and in Europe. Since its introduction, surf ski racing has been managed by the International Life Saving Federation. The standard ILS surf ski race is about 700m, from a start in the water, out around a series of buoys and back to the beach. Events include:

  • Surf ski
  • Surf race
  • Paddle board
  • Ski relay
  • Taplin Relay
  • Oceanman (new name since ILS Rulebook 2007, in history it is Ironman)

It was not long before people began going further afield in these new, extremely seaworthy craft, and ocean racing began to emerge. The earliest races were the Scottburgh to Brighton in South Africa, a 46 km event first held in 1958; the Port Elizabeth to East London in South Africa, a 240 km event held every two years since 1972; and the most famous of them all, 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, the newest surf ski races.

More recently, there has been a huge growth in ocean surf ski racing in mainland USA, Australia, New Zealand and other Pacific countries. There has been a move in many of these active surf ski racing countries to transfer the ocean events to the International Canoe Federations as the Lifesaving Federations often do not have the resources to manage long distance races with up to 500 competitors.

As well as ocean racing, surf skis are becoming increasingly popular as a versatile racing craft for open class races that take place in sheltered bays, lakes and rivers. One advantage of the surf ski over the traditional kayak is that if the conditions tip the paddler into the water, a "wet entry" is possible by simply climbing back onto the boat and continuing paddling without first having to drain the boat of water.

Venues include: Thurso East in the UK.


File:SMcLaren Harry Bps 1919.jpg
Harry McLaren, the first maker of surf skis, second from the left, with Ray Dick, Herb Reckless and Bert McLaren, left to right. 1919 on the Hastings River, Port Macquarie

Harry McLaren and his brother Jack used an early version of the surf ski in 1912 around the family's oyster beds on Lake Innes, near Port Macquarie, New South Wales, Australia, and the brothers used them in the surf on Port Macquarie's beaches. The board was propelled in a sitting position with two small hand blades, which was probably not a highly efficient method to negotiate the surf. The deck is flat with a bung plug at the rear and a nose ring with a leash, possibly originally required for mooring. The rails are square and there is a pronounced rocker. The boards' obvious buoyancy indicates hollow construction, with thin boards of cedar fixed longitudinally down the board.[1]

Surf skis were later used by lifesavers to rescue drowning swimmers. Until the 1960s, surf boats—lightweight rowing boats with a crew of five—were responsible for the rescue work in and behind the surf line. These boats were expensive and require a huge amount of skill to be used effectively. It was soon realised that a double surf ski could do almost everything that a surf boat could do, and in 1946 the importance of surf skis was noted by the surf lifesaving associations and they were included in lifesaving competitions and championships. Riders could stand up on them to surf them back to shore. These early surf skis were very wide and bear little resemblance to their modern counterparts. Surf skis were quickly introduced into surf lifesaving as a competition event. Over time they became narrower to maximise speed.

In 1984, waveski surfing became established as an offshoot of surf skiing with the formation of the World Waveski Surfing Association.

In the television series Magnum, P.I., the character Thomas Magnum was often seen on a surf ski.


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