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Downwind Technique


Zach & Jerry on Miller's Run

Tips for Beginners

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These are some general ideas to try and keep in mind as a beginner downwinding. But what you will learn over time is that some choices and techniques will apply more to your benefit in specific conditions that can vary tremendously depending on where you paddle and what the weather and waves are doing. The greater variety of on-water conditions you experience and practice in, the more you will increase your ability to recognize and adjust your tactics to your advantage - usually…

  • Keep your speed up. Speed begets speed. It will be much easier to catch waves and avoid being swamped from behind.
  • Focus on what's in front of you, scanning from 10 to 2 looking for waves to form and for holes to drop into.
  • Use smaller waves. They can help you gain speed to get on larger waves if they are worth catching. Sometimes larger waves lead to fast dives which may be fun but may also result in losing speed and maintaining far less continuity and far less extension of runs. If you can diagonal across larger waves then you may be able to extend your runs on them, but learning how to spot smaller waves first will likely lead to greater overall skill in reading the water and finding ways to efficiently get your longest possible runs while maintaining energy and strength in reserve.
  • When getting up to speed or regaining speed your best chance to catch a wave is paddling perpendicular to the wave line, perfectly parallel with the wave direction.
    • There can be a moment when maximum power is applied to catch a wave when your boat may seem less stable. (Dawid Mocke on the zone of uncertainty) You have to get used to that. Incrementally increase the size of waves and conditions you practice in. Try to maximize opportunities when the water and weather are warmer when you don't mind (as much) getting wet. If you keep backing off to brace you won't be catching nearly as many waves. So you want to build confidence in being able to continue applying power until you are definitely on the wave and can then brace and/or steer a diagonal without losing the wave.
    • You can also catch a wave a little sooner if you lean forward - moving your center of gravity a little forward
  • Once you have caught a wave you may not want to continue paddling parallel with the wave direction.
    • Too much speed directly down your wave face will maximize the likelihood of diving into the back of the wave in front of you, burying your nose and losing all that speed you worked so hard to get. But there are times when the wave in front is starting to drop and you can keep speed, either crashing through the top of the wave in front or just paddling over the flat that has developed in front of you, keeping speed until you can jump all the way to the next trough in front that is catchable.
    • If the backside of the wave in front of you is too steep/large to push through or jump over then don't go straight down your wave face; surf down at an angle. You can avoid diving into the wave back in front, while keeping your speed staying on your current wave.
      • If you are paddling in a mix of waves going in 2 or more directions, if you have spotted one coming from your side, angling in that direction can help you see and time a hop onto the one crossing the one you are on.
      • One trick to paddling at angles and changing angles while surfing on waves is to not turn too far and broach.
      • the intersections of waves traveling at different angles can provide easier “gateways” for passage over waves. Look for these intersections to sometimes guide your angle on the waves you are angling across. These gateways are opportunities to switch to the other waves you are intersecting with and/or to jump ahead to the next wave in the direction you are currently following.
      • In big waves you may not want or be able to angle sideways. If you are going to hit the wave in front of you, you can lessen your dive and loss of speed by leaning back
  • Don't waste your energy paddling up the back of a wave. If you miss a wave, let it pass underneath you and jump on the next.
    • Repeatedly missing waves and sliding down their backsides is called “wallowing”.
    • You are going to miss waves but if you miss one there is always going to be the next one. If your boat filled with water or you lost too much speed it may take a number of waves before you recover enough speed to get back in sync with the waves
  • “Initiate your turns by tilting your ski, like a surfer uses her board to carve. Minimize the use of your rudder.”
    • Wait a second - ​​​​​​according to who? Not so sure about this one - we've heard it before but it may be fairly minimal and variable depending on specific surfski model design. Experiment with your own surfski and see what you can do in various conditions. Start with small waves then if you prove you can steer effectively with boat lean move up and test your technique in bigger waves. Getting more comfortable with boat tilt while maintaining forward stroke power is not a bad way to improve your rough water paddling in general anyway.
  • Boyan Z., in Tarifa, teaches students while surfing to brace on the side you are angling toward. Regardless of any steering effect, when you are on the front of a wave the side you are angling toward allows a brace on your wave somewhat higher than your boat level requiring little or no lean.
    • But keep in mind, the harder you have to brace the more you will slow down. You CAN increase your turning capacity with your paddle via a brace or rudder stroke, but you have to BALANCE what you gain from extra turning/steering ability against the accompanying loss of speed which will lead to less control and more difficulty staying on or catching waves.
    • by the same token, steering too much in waves can tend to work as braking and slow your boat down causing you to drop off of or miss waves
  • You have to work a combination of the above suggestions - conservation of energy, your level of fitness, competition or fun, and specific wave and wind conditions can indicate what to work on and what to pay less attention to. But learn to look for and stay on smaller waves when there are clear options between bigger and smaller swell and wind waves and swell waves. Tarifa (Boyan Z.) Video about making choices. Recognizing and being able to work with smaller wave options will help your continuity in all kinds of conditions.
  • Remember, time spent in downwinding conditions is extremely important: there is a lot to learn. Listen to Clint Robinson interviewing Greg Barton


More Technique

Balance Practice

Learning How to Turn Around in Rough Water

Other Strokes

Paddling Upwind

If the wave coming towards you is going to break significantly as you go into it, you probably want to be stroking with a blade in the water applying power as the wave hits you. Beyond providing greater stability and reducing the amount you stall, this is also better than holding your paddle horizontal trying to keep it above the wave. If you have your paddle horizontal and the wave still catches your paddle you stand a pretty good chance of getting smacked by your paddle.

Transition from Flatwater to Open Ocean

Click here for description of transitioning to open ocean paddling

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A somewhat related transition to learning downwinding for many paddlers is going from flatwater paddling to open ocean paddling. If you live somewhere where there are waves to surf but little or no ocean swell you may have the luxury of being able to learn to downwind paddle without quite as much dynamic energy in the water as is often present in locations fully exposed to ocean swell. Examples include the Columbia River Gorge and much of Puget Sound where islands block swell across a large area of marine shoreline. Even Tarifa (because of its unique location at the intersection of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean?) does not typically get large ocean swell. Such places may offer their own unique challenges but they will probably not completely prepare you for open ocean paddling. That experience you will only get by spending time paddling in places where you are fully exposed to ocean swell. Also take into consideration that many open ocean paddling locations have their own particular character (and challenges, and risk?) that you may need to learn to adjust to and get competent in after you already have some open ocean experience. All this being said, the more competent and confident you are with basic technique where you can fully rely on your forward stroke for good connection and forward movement in the water, the better prepared you will be to make the transition into paddling through a variety of on water conditions.


Something that usually accompanies learning to paddle where there is real swell is learning to get in and out through shore break. This wiki includes suggestions, videos, etc. about this skill, but it clearly is one only acquired through significant practice and experience.


Making the Transition from Flatwater to Open Ocean Paddling


Working Up to Bigger Water

Powering Through A Columbia River Gorge Wave

Gorge SIC Race Practice 2020 Photo by: Wilson Reavley - Click to enlarge

Technique - Putting it All Together

Advancing to rougher conditions and stronger downwind paddling

Practice/Evaluation Discussion

Best Surfski for Downwinding?

Downwinding in a Double Surfski

Downwinding in a double is one way to get experience on bigger runs if you can team with a more experienced paddler. Learning about bigger water in this manner is not without its challenges, though. In sitting in the back of a surfski with the more experienced paddler steering in the front, one may get enough water in their seat to feel like they will imminently float off and out of the surfski. The backseat paddler often gets a fairly steady shower of water in their face from the front seat paddle strokes. And even though the more experienced paddler may have the situation well in hand, it can feel to the less experienced paddler like their surfski is sometimes perilously off balance (though strong paddlers typically make double skis much more stable than the inexperienced paddlers can make them on their own). Some doubles allow steering to be done from either seat. But - bottom line - with a competent, experienced paddler in charge, a less experienced paddler can experience what an absolute blast downwinding can be in conditions that they are not yet capable of paddling solo.

Gauging/Describing Downwind Conditions and Quality

Understanding and Reading Waves


Videos (Technique)