Surfing a 6-man outrigger canoe

Excerpts from B.V. Bagnall, Edited by S. Kranz.

Surfing an outrigger canoe is a technique that makes a canoe go fast, it’s exhilarating and if your crew can surf well, you will have a huge advantage over other (and even stronger) crews. Surfing a big canoe, in this case an OC-6, is the job of both the steersman and the paddlers combined. One can’t do it without the others. Without team effort, successful OC-6 surfing cannot be accomplished.

First you need to understand what the canoe does on surf. The canoe itself doesn’t surf on its own. If there is a wave at its stern (back), it will pass under the canoe and carry it slightly in the direction of the wave’s travel. If your canoe is moving in the direction of the wave and is traveling the same speed as the wave, that same wave will carry your boat much further. So the more your boat speed can match the speed of the wave, the more that wave will carry your boat, i.e. you will be surfing. Depending on the length of the canoe and shape of the hull, some canoes will surf a little better than others but any canoe will surf.

When you are surfing, your canoe is pulled down by gravity by the wave whereby the bow (front) of the canoe is pointed down and sometimes to the side of the wave. The stern (back) of the canoe is above the bow and is in the wave.

To get your canoe on a wave, you need every paddler in the boat to react. Here is where the individual’s ocean experience and team experienced as a crew factor heavily. An experienced crew will know how to change their rate and stroke style quickly based on the canoe’s feel.

Paddling to catch a wave uses a different set of stroke technique than the basic paddling stroke when you’re just trying to move the boat forward on flat water. You’ll see what I mean as you read on.

Surfing involves your canoe stern (back) being higher than the bow (front). The next time you’re on the ocean with waves passing under you, feel the boat when a wave picks your canoe up from behind. The first thing that happens is that the wave comes under the stern of the boat and begins to lift it. Everyone in the boat must develop and know the feel for this lifting because the only way to catch a wave is to anticipate it. When the wave begins to pick up the stern, the power paddlers (seats 3, 4 and 5) begin to put more pressure on their blades. That means taking strong, deep strokes with more emphasis on the middle and back of the stroke.

When the wave picks up more of your canoe, your canoe will begin to accelerate. The canoe’s stroke rate will climb naturally at this point. This rate climb/change comes from the back of the canoe, not the front. Seats 1 and 2 will feel that acceleration from the power seat paddlers and will react to it, keeping all paddlers still in time with each other. In other words, Seats 1 and 2 changes their rate to accommodate the increased speed of the canoe. So if you’re in front you must have a good feel of what is happening to the canoe and react to keep up with the changing speed of the canoe.

As your canoe approaches the speed of the wave, the boat rate should change from a strong deep accelerating stroke to a quick explosive stroke which emphasized only the catch and the front half of the stroke. You will know that your canoe is beginning to surf when you feel that your blade is easier to pull through the water while the canoe speed remains the same or increases.

Your canoe is now surfing. Now you need to maintain that boat speed without falling off the back of the wave for as long as possible. Since the emphasis while surfing is on quick catch and recovery, the crew sometimes cannot change over quickly enough. So the person who is calling the changes will have to decide whether to call it short or keep the crew on the same side for as many strokes as needed to maximize their run on the surf. You will discover that a badly-timed call for a changeover can cause the canoe to lose its speed and the wave. However if you are on a really big wave (rare in California) and you’re maintaining your speed on it, you can actually bring the rate and power down and let the wave do its job while you take a little breather and enjoy the ride. In this particular case, you can call the changes as usual.

To be able to surf a big canoe successfully as a team, obviously the stronger and fitter the crews, the better they will be able to sustain and carry out a successful surfing experience.

Now what does the steersman do? Their job is to steer the boat in the right direction to catch the wave. First of all, a steersman obviously still needs to keep the canoe headed to its destination. Then the steersman needs to know how to angle the boat to catch the wave successfully. The steeper the wave, the more the canoe will need to be angled off to one side or the other otherwise the front of the canoe will bury in the back of the wave that is in front of it. When that happens, water will rush into the boat from the front, slowing it down and pushing you off the wave that you were riding on just a moment ago. If you miss catching a wave or if your crew lost power and fall off the back of a wave, stop powering away to try and catch a lost wave. You’re only going to waste your energy. Catch your breath and wait for the next one. Ease off your rate and power and let that lost wave go by until you feel the stern (back) rise again with the next wave. Then you do it all over again.

Read this over and over till you understand the dynamics of what needs to be done, no matter what seat you are in. Then be ready to catch a wave the next time we have the opportunity.

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