Boyan Zlatarev
3 min read
03 Mar

I didn’t plan to write about this, but I went ahead and wrote it anyway.

A couple of days ago we did a downwind from Bolonia to Tarifa with great downwind conditions and this thought popped up in my mind:

“This must be the best downwind surfski I have ever paddled!”

The conditions I enjoy most are when there is a mix of larger swells and smaller wind waves, which travel at different speeds and in different directions. For me the ultimate challenge in those conditions is having to find the most efficient path through the water and get the longest time surfing with the minimum possible effort.
I often use the metaphor of having a budget (the speed at which my surfski is moving through the water ), which buys me wave rides.

To make the task even more challenging and consequently more rewarding, I like to use “slow” surfskis where I am artificially deprived of having a high budget(boat speed). I find it beneficial for my downwind skills development as it can be compared to having a limited budget when running a business.

The logic is that the scarcity of speed inevitably forces me to use more creativity and develop other techniques and skills to compensate for it.

I believe that one of the worst things that could happen to a young company is to get a lot of funding too soon. Too soon means before the people running the company have developed the necessary cashflow management skills. A lot of available funding would inevitably lead to a lot of waste and my goal in downwind is to minimise waste.

I think writing the actual model of the surfski without the basis of calling it “my favourite” would be less meaningful and I thought I would explain how I think and, who knows, maybe you find some of this information useful for your own downwind experience.

How do you get enough downwind budget in a slow surfski?

Before I answer that question, I have to mention that a basic steady and sprinting speed is a prerequisite if you would like to get the most out of your downwind sessions. I am talking about any surfski you may have or are planning to buy.

You should be able to paddle at a steady speed of around 10 - 11 km/h and be able to sprint at around 14-15 km/h to enjoy most downwind conditions. This doesn’t mean that if you had less speed you wouldn’t enjoy it. It just means you would have less options of waves you could afford in your budget.

There is another side to having the ability to paddle at those speeds and it is related to safety. If your paddling speed is too low and you have to paddle against 30-40 knots gusts, there is a high probability that you will have very hard time doing that. Yes, downwind means to paddle with the wind, but there are often situations in downwind where you have to paddle against the conditions to help someone or to paddle back toward the beach where you are landing at etc.

Strategies to make the most of a “slow” surfski budget in downwind:

  1.  Prioritise the motto “buy the cheapest available wave”. You have likely heard about “catch a small wave to get the bigger and faster one”. I take this to a slightly higher level and I often outright ignore fast waves. For example, if I could flow from one small wave to the next without taking additional strokes and I also have the choice to accelerate (paddling) from a small wave to a larger one…I chose the effortless link between two small waves. 
  2. Surf all waves diagonally, no matter how small or large they are. Here the strategy extends even further - surf the wave diagonally even if your intended track is to go forward in a straight line. This technique can often give you 1-2 km/h additional budget(speed), which you can later spend on catching the next wave. 
  3. Position the surfski high on the wave crest and stay there for as long as you can. This makes the surfski feel like a motorboat on a plane bouncing over the water surface instead of plowing though. 
  4. Accelerate directly into the steepest part of the wave. This will provide you with the most assistance by your best downwind friend - gravity! Gravity will happily cover the bill for you so you don’t have to spend from your own budget and Gravity will never get angry for having to pay that bill!
  5. Accept the fact that some waves (many waves) will be out of your budget and don’t waste your cash(effort) on them. Let them go past and follow what is written in point number one.

I started using the Epic V8 as my everyday surfski more than 10 years ago and I can honestly say that this choice has helped me more than anything else in improving my downwind skills. I often hear or read about paddlers complaining that you can never surf waves in a proper downwind if you choose a stable / slow surfski, but I find that to be very far from the truth. If you have decent paddling abilities you will be able to surf a “slow” surfski downwind and have a lot of fun doing so.

What characteristics does my ideal surfski have to have in order for me to enjoy downwind surfing the way I like it?

Based the strategies listed above, I have compiled a wish list with brief explanation of how each item enhances my downwind experience.

  • Stability - I don’t like to be worried about balance. I am able to push strokes at higher effort levels when I don’t have to worry about stability. For example, when transitioning from smaller (slower) to a larger (faster) wave. 
  • Manoeuvrability - this helps with surfing the waves diagonally, which ultimately means longer surfing time on each wave and more possibilities to flow from one wave to the next with little to no effort. 
  • Control in tracking in a straight line - tracking in a straight line is very important for the feeling of control as well as when I have to exert 100% effort (spending all my savings) for that one special wave I am not prepared to lose. 
  • Seat and cockpit comfort - this is essential if you consider that some downwind sessions last 2-3 hours and the cockpit comfort is essential for applying force with legs and body movement instead of just arms. 
  • Sufficient volume for my weight - this is especially important for shorter boats. This was the one thing that my beautiful V5 wasn’t good at. I loved all other aspects of it, but the fact that the volume in the nose wasn’t enough when I had to slide down a steeper wave face at high speed to flow into another wave was a deal breaker. 
  • Smooth steering controls - this is important for me because I always nudge the steering to check how much control I have over the rudder so I can be proactive if my surfski is approaching a broaching situation. 
  • Acceleration responsiveness - this is obviously very useful when chasing some of the faster waves which are closer to the budget limits.

So there you have it!

After an amazing downwind in the Strait of Gibraltar recently(in the video below), I declared that I had found a new favourite surfski, ticking all the boxes described above. 

It does not matter what brand or model you choose, more importantly it’s about getting into a surfski, which ticks all the boxes for you and going out for the best possible downwind experience with it. 

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