To paddle or not to paddle?

"Hey, Boyan, why do you insist on bracing when surfing the waves?


In our surfski community, where everyone is more or less in it for the racing and going faster, they say that you shouldn't brace because you slow down.


I want to go fast but i also want to surf the waves. What do you think?"


This is a very common question/ objection when surfski paddlers are introduced to the "zen master" downwind technique.


Ask yourself:


"If I could make the exact same amount of money by resting as I would do by working, would I still work?"


You could even push a little further by asking:


"If I could make more money by resting instead of working, would I still chose to work?"

The whole idea of downwind paddling is to develop your skills and abilities to make the conditions work for you instead of you having to fight the waves and the wind.



Here is a video from Tarifa during pretty nice Levante wind with steep and easy to catch waves. No paddling needed for 1:30 min.


Of course simplistic answers like this one would likely encourage dismissal and criticism and maybe a little more nuanced answer is warranted.


What do I really think about paddling and bracing?


First of all, I never say that you always have to brace when you are surfing a wave downwind although I strongly recommend it, especially when you are learning the basics and you are trying to find out what lowest amount of energy you could use and still catch and surf the waves you chose.


Both paddling and bracing are valuable downwind techniques and you should use them when it is appropriate. It is not "either/ or" choice in the sense of "only paddling or only bracing".


"Too vague, Boyan!"

I hear you!


Is imitating elite paddlers a really great idea?


Over the years I have found that when it comes to paddling technique, downwind technique etc very often people focus on imitating what other people do (elite class surfski paddlers) instead of understanding why they do what they do.


Often surfski paddlers try to imitate by deciding to focus on one or two particular elements of the elite paddlers technique and they attribute the entire success of that person to those particular elements.


Could it be that what you focus on is the same thing that elite level athlete is trying to change or completely remove from their paddling "tool kit"?


Another question could be, even if you somehow managed to narrow down that one element, do you have the necessary skills set, coordination abilities and fitness level (the elite paddler has) to perform the same way?


Probably not.


The most straight forward example for that would be:


Can you surf and paddle on a wave at 20-22 km/h?


You have a long and fast downwind wave, which requires the paddler to go with steady speed of 15 km/h, accelerate to 18-19 km/h to catch the wave and then continue on paddling at 20-22 km/h in order to remain on top of the wave crest and continue surfing.


An elite paddler can do this:

  1. 15 km/h steady speed? No problem!

  2. 18-19 km/h sprint? No problem!

  3. Maintain 20-22 km/h steady state on the wave? No problem at all!


How about you?


Can you do all that?


This is what will happen to an average surfski paddler with limited downwind experience and technical skills dealing with the same fast wave:


15 km/h steady speed? Impossible!

At 15 km/h most average paddlers (read majority of the paddlers out there including me) will not last even a minute (this is a very generous statement as many surfski paddlers will only sprint at that speed) before we crash and burn with frustration and anger.


And guess what, if we don't have the steady speed for that wave there is literally zero chance to surf the wave. But let's say somehow you managed to get to 15 km/h steady speed.


Sprinting at 18-19 km/h? Can you do it? Once? How about hundreds of times during that downwind? How long are you going to last?


This is impossible for most people (99.9%). So, now not only didn't you stand the chance to catch the wave because of you basic speed being too low but you also don't have the capacity to accelerate to the speed needed to catch the wave.


Congratulations!


You perfectly copied the behaviour of the elite paddler but you achieved zero of the intended result. Instead of surfing you got nothing. You just got tired!


But let's assume you somehow managed to get to that sprinting speed and managed to get on that wave, now what? Can you continue surfing the wave by taking relatively relaxed strokes at 20-22 km/h? Can you even take a single stroke at that speed?


I know I can't.


This guy can run faster for 2 hours what most people can't maintain for 30 seconds!


This reminds me of a video I watched at Youtube where people at a shopping mall were offered to run on a giant treadmill for 30 seconds at the record breaking marathon running pace for Eliud Kipchoge. Check the video and see that there are a couple of athletes who know how to run/ coordinate at that level, but for those who can't...



Very similar thing will happen if you try to take a stroke while moving/ surfing a wave at 20 km/h while you have no capacity to paddle at that speed.


Some people will fall and other will just slow down. In both cases the result would be the exact opposite of what an elite downwind paddler would get out of catching and surfing that fast wave by using constant paddling.


How should most paddlers handle very fast waves?


"Ok Boyan, but then what am I supposed to do with the fast wave you are describing?"


"Ignore, Ignore, Ignore!"


This wave is very likely "out of your budget" and that means you have no business wasting energy trying to catch it.


In that situation I would focus on holding my steady speed and I would continuously scan the waves ahead of me to find a smaller and slower wave I could actually catch and surf.


And guess what?


When I find that wave and I catch it, I would no longer need to take strokes in order to stay on top of it. I could just relax for a few seconds...or minutes...depending on the waves and conditions and I would only paddle again when I have to link to another smaller and slower wave or continue to surf the wave I am on.


These are 3 steps to help you improve your downwind paddling:


  1. Practice your relaxed brace stroke even when you are not paddling downwind.

  2. When you do a downwind, focus on surfing each wave with minimum energy and stroke use.

  3. Once you learn how to surf effortlessly then try to use more effort and more strokes to link larger and faster waves.


In the video above I was using bracing and surfing 80% of the time with only 20% paddling

What do you think about all this?


Do you just keep paddling no matter what or do you prefer to save your energy with bracing and only paddle when you can catch and surf more waves?










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