Surfski – Into the ICF

The following article is from the ICF (International Canoe Federation) site.

Ocean Racing is the latest discipline to fall under the ICF. This exhilarating sport encompasses long distance Surfski, Sea Kayak and Sea Touring races and its athletes, among the fittest of the Canoe World, require both endurance and navigational skills as well as other ocean-going expertise. A marriage of kayak technique and speed, Ocean Racing is an ideal meeting place for athletes of all Canoe disciplines. Indeed, some of the most successful Ocean Racers are well-established Canoe Marathon or Canoe Sprint athletes. That’s not to say there are no specialised Ocean Racing athletes out there too.

An extremely popular sport in warm coastal regions, Ocean Racing is huge in places such as Australia, California, Hawaii, and South Africa. Its appeal is clear; a Surfski is the fastest boat over long distance on ocean swells. (In flatwater, only an Olympic standard Canoe Sprint boat is faster.) Athletes can expect to ride big wind-driven waves or hurricane generated ground swells, as well as the challenge of paddling in 20+ knot wind conditions.

The Surfski boat was first seen in Australia in the early 1900s when two young brothers, namely Harry and Jack McLaren, used them around their family’s oyster beds on Lake Innes in NSW. They also used their custom-made boats to surf on the nearby Port MacQuaries beaches.

Recognising the speed and versatility of the boats, Surfskis were later used for life saving. From 1946, Surfskis entered the lifesaving competition programme and, over time, the boats became much narrower and quicker. Initially a surf life saving sport, Ocean Racing started with short distance races of 700m but with developments in boat design, people started to go further out to sea and Ocean Racing as we know it today began in earnest.

From Oyster picking to Ocean Racing

The first Ocean Racing event was in 1958. The 46km-long Scottburgh to Brighton race in South Africa has been held every year since. The longest race is the Port Elizabeth to East London race in South Africa (known as the Southern Shamaal). This 240km race is run every year since 1972. Now, every even year features an individual race, every odd year a team event. Probably the most famous of all is the Molokai Race in Hawaii. 60km of racing in the beautiful Pacific waters, the Molokai run since 1976.

What is a Surfski?

A Surfski is a long, narrow, lightweight kayak with an open (sit-on-top) cockpit, usually with a foot pedal controlled rudder. They are generally 5-6.5m (16½-21ft) long and just 40-50cm (16-20″) wide.
In complete contrast to the shorter boats we see in Canoe Slalom and Canoe Freestyle, Surfskis are not very manoeuvrable, yet in the right hands the boat can cut through large broken waves with ease.
Some boats are made from polyethylene but much lighter versions (and more expensive) are made from composite layers of epoxy or polyester resin-bonded cloth such as fibreglass, kevlar, carbon fibre or a mixture. Depending on its use, the number of layers can be increased (for added strength) or decreased (for a lighter craft).

In the beginning Surfskis were like surfboards, laminated in light wood and sometimes covered in fabric. By the 1960s production had moved to polystyrene foam strengthened with wooden stringers and thin layer of fibreglass. But as the sport grew in the 1970s production moved with the use of moulds. Moulds were made from the most successful Surfskis and replicated into glass fibre which was much cheaper.

Branching away from short distance lifesaving Surfski racing, Ocean Racing Surfskis were made longer with sharply pointed bows and under stern rudders. They also differ with the more longitudinal curvature or rocker. Helping it cut through waves, the large volume in the bow creates buoyancy and making use of ocean swells, the boats have a longer waterline. Expertly crafted Surfskis must be sleek and narrow (to reduce water resistance) yet it needs to be stable enough so that athletes can paddle through rough conditions.

Into the ICF

As Ocean Racing grew the sheer number of entries and scale of the competitions has led to the ICF organising International Competitions through it’s National Federations. A Surfski World Series is underway for 2010. The ICF has set new rules for this discipline.

The different types of kayaks, varied ocean water condition, and the climate of the different regions of the World are so varied that it is going to be a major challenge to establish suitable criteria and body of rules that will fit all types of Ocean Racing. Distances can vary from approximately 10 kms to multi day races over ultra long distances. Races are held in single and double surfski’s or sea kayaks and in single and six person outriggers

Keep watching to check the progress of Ocean Racing as an ICF Discipline.


  1. This article implies that surfski is a mature discipline in ICF and that they’ve already organised surfski races.

    That’s simply not true (as of mid-2010) and while there appear to be some benefits to ICF becoming involved in our sport, there are lots of questions to be answered about the potential downsides.

    I hope one day the ISPA and ICF find a way of working together.


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