Pearling and Sea Kayak Surfing

If you’ve ever seen a sea kayak do an “endo” (pitch-pole) while surfing, chances are the bow pearled, leading to the flip.  Pearling is a surfing term meaning the bow has submerged under the water while sliding down the face of the wave from the crest to the trough.  As the bow pearls, forward momentum slows, sometimes abruptly, but the wave is still pushing the stern forward and as the wave pitches up, the stern continues to lift higher and higher.  Eventually it needs a place to go, and you can soon be out of control.

Aggressive bracing into a wave
Bracing into a wave.

This came to mind yesterday when my bow started pearling in some small surf in Virginia Beach and I was able to prevent the endo.  On smaller waves, or even spilling waves, it’s less of an issue — the bow will rise back up and you’ll lose a little speed, but continue surfing in front of the wave.  At worst, you may end up broaching and side surfing.

On larger or steep dumping waves, like the type we experience over sand bars in the mid-Atlantic area at low tide, it’s usually better to avoid pearling or getting pitch poled.  If you find your bow pearling on a steep wave, one solution is to immediately “throw” your body into the wave, in a very tight high-brace position.  You’re basically capsizing into the face of the wave.  I prefer to go to my strong side, but if you’re angled the other way a bit, go to that side.

You should have your elbows in tight to your body and think about the blade really digging into the water down low — you really have to throw yourself over, not just let the wave take you.  When you do this, the blade and your body will help slow down forward momentum in the middle of the boat and the wave will take the stern and you’ll end up side surfing.  If the wave is too big, you wait too long, or you’re not aggressive enough, you may end up getting windowshaded.  If that happens, you’ll feel yourself staring to go over the other way — tuck your head, get into the roll setup position and as soon as you go over, start your roll — the motion of the wave will grab your blade and you’ll pop back up (combat rolling in the surf is another topic).

As with all sea kayak surfing – wear a helmet and grow your skills slowly — don’t take on conditions that are too challenging until you have good fundamentals of rough water boat control.