Riding the Waves

Surf skis offer a new and exciting way to travel local waterways

From left, Kevin Lawrence, Carl Tessmann and Ryan Stuart hit the ocean waves near Goose Spit in Comox in their surf skis. Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Okay, we’ve got some boat wash coming towards us that’s going to cause some waves.” These words were from Carl Tessmann, guide for my inaugural foray out on a surf ski. And I’ll admit, I stiffened up a bit when I heard those words, wondering if I was going to suddenly end up in the water instead of on the water.

But I forced myself to relax and instead of going for a swim, after a few strokes I realized I was having fun. My boat was more stable than I thought it would be and I was actually enjoying the sensation of the boat rising and speeding up as it was pushed along by the boat wash. I imagined what it would be like to surf some real waves. At that moment I knew I wanted more. And just like that, I was smitten by the surf ski.

Tessmann and I enjoyed a long conversation at the Comox Marina after our time on the water. We talked about the sport of surf skiing, how it came into existence, and why it’s garnering such interest. Tessmann also shared his personal story of how he came to love surf skiing and why he believes it is a sport that could take off here in the Comox Valley.

One just has to talk surf skiing with Tessmann for a short while to see that he’s slightly obsessed with the sport. In fact, Tessmann has created a website as well as a Facebook page just to share his love of surf skiing. “People often ask me if I’ve got a business or something, but I tell them I’m just excited about spreading the word about this fantastic new sport. I want to see more people out on the water enjoying their surf skis.”

The name surf ski conjures up different images in different people’s minds and can cause a bit of confusion. Surf skis were named such because the boats were initially designed to rescue surfers who got into trouble. With the boat’s sleek and fast design the rescuers could quickly get beyond the breaking waves where they could reach the endangered surfer. The surfer could then easily grab onto the boat for the rapid ride back to shore.

Since those early days, however, the surf ski has evolved from a single purpose craft to a boat designed for fun in varied water conditions. “The surf ski is now a relatively narrow, long kayak with an open cockpit, designed for speed on flat water and efficient movement in downwind ocean conditions,” explains Tessmann.

Surf skis are also easy to enjoy. The boats are made of fibreglass and as a result are incredibly light. It’s easy to load and unload the boats onto any vehicle and to carry them to and from the water. “Because you sit on top of a surf ski, you don’t need as much stuff—the spray skirt, bailer/pump, and paddle float are all unnecessary. If you fall out, you simply flip the boat over and jump in, as they have built in drains that suck the water out of the cockpit as soon as you start paddling,” explains Tessmann. “So as a recreational boat you have a lightweight, simplistic way to explore or play in the waves.”

As a result of the new design, the surf ski is now at home in any type of water. “Surf ski paddling can be a calming cruise on flat water or an adrenaline inducing rip in the wind and waves. They are fun on a calm sunny day, in a big downwind storm, or on a mushy beach break in Tofino,” Tessmann says. “Many surf ski paddlers have no interest in rough water and seek flatter protected conditions like in Victoria’s Gorge, or protected bays. They are happy to get on the water for a bit of exercise and scenery.”

“Flat conditions, downwind paddling in a storm, recreational focus, or racing, this boat offers me an incredibly diverse athletic experience,” says local surf ski enthusiast Carl Tessmann.  Photo by Boomer Jerritt

And it is a work out. After only 30 minutes I could feel it in my core. In fact, surf skiing works every major body area, from your arms to your legs and everything in between. As a result, surf skiing is becoming a sport of choice for those who want to give their body a break from running or cycling. “Flat conditions, downwind paddling in a storm, recreational focus, or racing, this boat offers me an incredibly diverse athletic experience,” Tessmann says.

Although Tessmann appreciates the great workout, he actually got into surf skiing to give him a competitive edge at the Mind Over Mountain Adventure Race (MOMAR), held last year in Cumberland. “I got into surf ski paddling last June because I signed up for MOMAR and didn’t want to pay over $100 to rent a slow standard ocean kayak. I spent a lot of time learning to paddle leading up to the race and in the end had a 10 minute or more advantage over my direct competition, who were in much slower boats. It seems a bit of an unfair advantage, but in the end I was so glad I spent the time learning to paddle my ski.”

Although Tessmann has become quite comfortable on his surf ski, he recalls that getting to that point was a challenge. “The learning curve in this sport can be steep as you progress, but the rewards are so big it’s worth the time and effort. My first few times out I endured countless itchy noses for fear of taking my hands off my paddle. I remember times on the water when I couldn’t talk, look sideways, or even adjust my position in the bucket without falling in!” he says with a laugh.

Tessmann admits, though, that he started out on a boat that was not perfectly suited to his skill level. According to Tessmann, the right boat will make learning the sport much easier. “New boat designs are shortening the learning curve significantly. Manufacturers are now easing the barriers to entry by creating more stable boats to suit any body type. The cool part of this is that the slowest, most stable surf skis can still rip it up in the wind and waves and be faster than any traditional sea kayak on flat water. In fact, there is a growing trend to purchase more stable boats instead of the elite racing rockets that can be a handful to master. Even so, I equate learning to surf ski to learning to surf. It’s very hard to be good at it if you don’t put the time in. The nice thing is that you don’t have to travel to the West Coast to play in a surf ski.”

This leads us to why Tessmann feels the Comox Valley is a perfect place to grow and enjoy the sport of surf ski.

“Here on Vancouver Island, we have a climate that allows for paddling year round in conditions suitable for any paddler. Lakes and sheltered bays offer the perfect conditions to learn the sport. Flat water is where you get started, establish balance, learn proper paddle stroke technique, and practice your re-entry—but it is also a perfect setting for a serene cruise or a fast paced workout for skilled paddlers.

“As storms roll through, many opportunities arise to paddle these boats as they were intended,” Tessmann adds, noting that 15-20 knot winds create waves from a foot to more than a metre. “Paddlers often choose a point-to-point route for a ‘downwinder’, where they ride the waves for a higher speed, rough water experience.

“One thing I have noticed is that no matter what the conditions, every experience on the water is different. Flat water cruises or rough water adventures, I can’t say that any two outings are ever the same,” continues Tessmann. “With so much wildlife, changing weather patterns and completely varied water conditions, the Comox Valley is perfectly suited for the sport of surf ski. And there is no shortage of places to explore. I’ve never been in such a dynamic environment.”

Kevin Lawrence, owner of the Ski and Surf Shop in Courtenay, also loves to surf ski and agrees that we live in an incredible place for exploring the water. “We live in a stunning location surrounded by gorgeous water and wildlife. The Comox Valley is such an amazing place to surf ski. I see wildlife almost every time I go out,” Lawrence says.

An important take-away for most readers is that surf skis are not only for thrill seekers who just happen to have amazingly good balance. “The fastest growing group to the sport is women of intermediate skill,” Lawrence says. “They appreciate the lightness of the boat and how efficient it is in the water—a couple of strokes and you’re really moving—faster than you’d ever get going in a standard kayak. Add to this the fact that these newly designed boats can be quite stable, and you’ve got a sport that can be enjoyed by most people. In fact, with these new stable boats the learning curve can be quite quick. Before you know it you’re looking for waves. The fun factor comes very fast.”

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Although the sport is definitely growing, it’s true that here in the Comox Valley surf skis still turn heads and cause people to point and ask questions. “At this point, very few people know or understand what surf ski is here in the Valley,” Tessmann says. “But in other areas surf skiing is just huge.

“For example, if you go to North Vancouver’s Deep Cove, or Bellingham, Washington, you’ll see big groups paddling daily. Deep Cove Kayaks hosts some big events. Their Tuesday night races have a surf ski focus but also a good SUP contingent. They often get over 50 surf skis out to their Tuesday night races. And the neat thing about Bellingham is that they have a huge community of surf ski paddlers and many races and weekly meet-ups. Many of the people who participate are 50 years old or more. Yes, there are younger people there too, but to see the older guys and ladies out there shows me that this is a sport that I’ll be able to do for the rest of my life.”

Surf skis are available for purchase at Ski & Surf Shop in Downtown Courtenay, and the store will be offering demo days this summer. To learn more about the sport of surf ski and to keep abreast of local events visit the following sites: