Discovering the New Maliko Run Stoke with a Different Stroke: Shifting from SUP to Surfski

SUP surfski

by Bill Boyum
Maui, Hawaii 

“Especially on flat water, propulsion using a paddle is basically canoeing,” said Simon Toulson, the secretary general of the canoeing federation. “Standing up or sitting down is irrelevant.”

This is from an article in the NY Times about the ‘ownership’ of activities in relation to them being Olympic events.

My discussion isn’t about that drama.   The status of Olympic events is in a galaxy far far away from the reality of what it means to canoe, surfski or stand up paddle in high winds that occur in some areas of the world.   No, this is my experience about transitioning from one, man-powered water vehicle, to another.   The differences, contrary to what the secretary general said, are significant.The island of Maui, where I live, is one of those windy places.   “Especially on flat water” Nothing is flat here in Hawaii. The islands certainly aren’t and the water is seldom flat.   What it has created is a hard core paddling community of adventurers that are willing to brave the intensity of a rolling sea. Some paddle into the wind for training but the real fun begins going downwind.

I’d been surfing since I was 12 and began downwind paddling on a prone paddleboard (with hands, no paddle) in 1979 at the age of 29.   At that time, 30 seemed like an age where fitness was no longer going to be a given. A group of us, all surfers, figured strength had to be maintained during the flatter summer months. We knew we needed to be ready when the large surf came up again in the winter. But what began as a means to stay in good paddling shape turned into the realization that it felt amazing to catch open ocean swells away from the contentiousness of crowded surf breaks. One of my sons also joined our small group and made it even more attractive to me.

SUP Maliko Run Bill Boyum

We found that Maliko Gulch was an ideal launch spot on the north shore of Maui. The wind consistently ran tangent to the coast and provided us with a safe venue that didn’t demand us being too far offshore.

Those were fun years but by the early 90’s my interest faded. My son graduated into competitive swimming and some of our crew moved away. But the main impetus in stopping was the pain in my neck. Surfing uses the prone neck-high position but after paddling out to the line up, there is a rest period while you wait for a wave. The non-stop one-hour periods in the prone position while paddleboarding down the coast were ruining my neck. I wasn’t the only one. Prone paddleboards become known as misery sticks. Neck pain even affected my ability to prone surf. The next ten winters I spent snowboarding as much as I could. It was fun but it was cold, expensive and I lived on Maui.

In 2003 I was 53 and feeling like I had lost a step paddling into surfing waves, so I got back into prone paddleboarding. I figured that I could go a distance, sit up and give my cervical spine a break. It didn’t solve the pain. One day while I was sitting up for a neck stretch, Scott, one of the pioneers of stand up paddleboarding here on Maui, glided by me with what surfers refer to as a soul arch. His posture appeared so comfortable and he was flying! I swore I would switch to stand up and never prone paddle again.

That was 14 years ago. The stand up routine has thrilled me all these years since.   I even stopped prone surfing and took up stand up in the waves. Stand up doesn’t bother my neck. In those years, a group of paddlers I’ve gone with have ventured out into stronger and stronger winds, discovering that the greater the wind speeds the more we were essentially surfing out in the wild blue ocean, connecting one glide to the next.   Even 30-40 mph was OK.   Maliko runs became so much more than they ever had been prone paddling.

But the wind isn’t always strong and over a decade of experience has shown many of us, that bothering with wind speeds less than 20 mph just doesn’t match our expectations for continuous gliding. Slower than 20 meant a laborious paddle with only isolated glides.   We’ve realized that there are many of these days that are slightly under our criteria.  Those lighter days combined with all the other responsibilities of life, can add up to big gaps in training. The bigger the gap, the less prepared one will be the next time stellar conditions roll around. But the answer to having fun in lighter winds did exist.

Simultaneous to the stand up paddle explosion in the last 15 years, has been the parallel OC and surfski enthusiasm. During my initial stoke about stand up paddling, I was dismissive about sitting down. As a surfer it seemed a heresy not to stand. Added to that, standing allowed a much greater field of vision, useful for being on the lookout miles ahead for large breaking waves popping up on outer reefs. But soon the performance aspect of OCs and surfskis weighed in.   I saw incredible glide connections as good OC paddlers whizzed by even the best stand up paddlers.   And best of all, they made the days that were too light for stand up, exciting. 10-20 mph became a good day in a ‘boat’ (what we call OCs and surfskis). This opened up many more days for potential activity on the water.

SUP surfski

Stephen Ross and Bill Boyum OC2 with Livio Menelau on SUP

A few of my paddling crew switched over to sitting in ‘boats’. I watched, as they seemed to fly down the coast with little effort, even on the lightest days. They didn’t say a word and didn’t need to. It was that obvious. And yes, OC paddlers use the same general type of blade as a stand up board, though on a much shorter length.   But beyond that, my opinion is; there’s just no way you can say the differences are irrelevant.

The reason, of course, is the hull. Even the fastest 17 foot stand up board with a rudder must have a flat enough bottom to enable standing. Also in order to be stable, they have to be much wider than a ‘boat’. Some of the best stand up paddlers can ride boards as narrow as 24” but many others, (like me) are more comfortable with 26+”. By comparison an OC hull is around 16-18” wide with a much faster rounded bottom or ‘displacement hull’. That design is faster off the line than a flat bottom and off the line acceleration is the key to catching glides.   But that increased performance comes with the stability of a round log. The OC solves the stability issue with the outrigger or ‘ama’.

I eventually tried an OC-2 a friend of mine owned and found it very fun and stable. So I tried an OC-1. Somehow I failed to conquer the psychology of not leaning into the ama. I just couldn’t relax. My lower back kinked and along with the memory of what ten years of prone paddling had done to my neck, I gave up on it quickly.

A few of my stand up pals had chosen to drop into surfskis so I observed them with interest. No ‘ama’ meant less stability but being in one appeared to me as a more balanced situation. With the surfski you have to be responsible for roll to both sides. This is not something learned overnight. And it’s one thing to learn that balance on flat water and entirely another with 4-6 foot wind swells and 30mph winds. Even though they share ‘sitting down’ with the OCs, the similarity also ends there.

surfski Maliko Run Bill Boyum

One balancing tool you have with a ski is the unique paddle.   The ‘wing blade’ is really a work of art. The shaft features aerodynamic foils scooped out at both ends. The stroke is a very refined movement that reminded me of Bruce Lee with nunchucks. Learning properly requires instruction from both pros and or videos.   When the ski begins to roll precariously, the stroke movement turns into tap or drag on the water, essentially turning the blade into an on-demand ‘ama’. It reminds me of the way one might use a balance bar on a high wire. As you improve, your core reactions quicken and the need to tap becomes less.

The highest performance surfskis are around 17” wide and 21’ long. Without the additional drag of the ‘ama’ many consider them the fastest man powered water vehicle. But if you even turn your head to the side in one of these rocket ships, most mortals will roll into the water before they can blink.  In flat water I tried a much more stable, entry-level model at 21” wide and 18’long. 21” wide was still much less width than my stand up board and the bottom, although rounded, featured flatter sections than the totally round hulls of the narrower ‘elite’ skis.  

I was able to handle it and was even able to ride small waves.   So I bought one at the age of 66. It seemed crazy to start something like this, especially when balance has never been a forte of mine but I love the challenge.

I’ve been on it for six months now and don’t regret it. During this last winter I spent all my time in relatively flat water, riding small bumps in the same place many of the new foil wave riders were frequenting. The ski enabled me to ride as far as they did but without the maneuverability they owned. So I learned the steering limitations of what the ski could do while it was planning, trying to prepare myself for dropping into the glides that I anticipated riding on downwind runs this summer. Surfing waves throws many curve balls at you and I wanted to learn in that unpredictable environment.

Technique, aside from the ‘Bruce Lee’ stroke, has much to do with posture. The balance point on the ski is right where you sit so leaning just a bit forward keeps your weight in the stable area, over the higher volume front half of the ski. Leaning back places that weight over the diminishing volume as the ski quickly tapers to the tail. The result is that if you allow yourself to slouch or sit back, the ski quickly becomes unstable and easier to roll. Having a straight back enables you to control this tipping point. So even now, as I write on the computer, I fight the constant urge to slouch. Sitting straight with everything has become part of my training. In the ski, the consequence of sitting back, or allowing your stroke to drift too far back, immediately punishes you with stability issues.

Learning about posture meant I fell out and continue to fall out more than few times.   Remounting is one of the big challenges with the ski compared to the ease of remounting on a stable stand up board.   There are a few methods and whichever one you choose, make sure to practice. Free online videos are excellent tutorials. It takes a fair amount of effort to remount and if you end up redoing more than a few times, your energy can drain quickly. Also a thing to keep in mind as you rip down the coast on a downwind run, is how adrenalized you are, oblivious to your fatigue. Then suddenly, you may end up in the water, wrestling with the ski to align it downwind and remount. At that point you might unfortunately discover just how tired you really are. I would advise building up the distance of your runs so you always have plenty of ‘gas’ in your ‘tank’, not just for the distance but also for potential remounts.

surfski Maliko Run

Larry and Bill surfski Maliko Run

Part of staying safe means staying connected to your ski. My good friend, Larry, already a five year convert from stand up paddling to the ski, has a waist leash attached to the rear handle of the ski instead of the usual cockpit leash that many use. That made great sense to me. Aligning the ski with the waves, and what I anticipated it would be like in strong wind, would make re-mounting much easier.   That worked but the significant yank of breaking waves after a fall also tested the leash I purchased. It had a weak point that came undone so my gal (an excellent seamstress) beefed it up. Swimming for the ski in the surf was something I was comfortable with but swimming after it in a downwind situation wasn’t. We are often a mile offshore on our runs and even though I easily have a mile swim in me, the recent track record of oceanic predators would be playing with my mind. Let’s just say the leash is very important.

So after surfing waves for a few months I figured I was finally ready for my first downwind run in a ski. I chose the south shore because spring conditions on the north side of Maui featured lingering north swells. Aside from dodging breaking waves as they hit the reef, crossed up conditions on the surface would also be challenging.   Crossed up means that a swell with a contrary angle to the swell you’re chasing, breaks the rhythm of your stroke, resulting in more tapping, dragging and wallowing at slower unstable speeds. I’ve yet to learn how to deal with this factor except to stop paddling and go back to my high wire bar routine of the Flying Wallendas.

The south shore features a zero fetch, where the wind source over the water literally begins where we launch. This allows a reservoir of confidence to rise as the wind swells grow from a few inches to three to four feet.   The water surface in Maalaea Bay forms a very readable grain, similar to a groomed ski run. But on my first few runs, I was still nervous and made mistakes I’d already learned surfing small bumps, like sticking my paddle into the water on its edge. The foil of the wing blade would grab hard and yank me out of the ski.

Re-mounts were adrenalized. I’ve adopted a side roll to the ski, slipping my hip into the pit, with both legs off on the mounting side while the opposite hand grips the rail and the blade along the boat. A downside to this method is that the pit fills with water. But the scuppers drain it quickly and one glide usually empties the pit. Once in, I bring one leg in to push a steering peddle, take a few strokes to align the ski properly downwind and bring the other leg in. Not aligning the ski at least somewhat downwind in strong winds usually ends up with another roll into the drink. I’ve learned the hard way and am still learning. Basically all the fear I have out there revolves around re-mounting. It isn’t easy and sometimes it isn’t quick. Things can go wrong. One time my long waist leash did a hitch of sorts around my paddle during a high-speed fall and untangling it took more time than I was comfortable with. I have expectations about how long it should take me to be back in the ski. Being in the water too long, far offshore, lowers my reservoir of confidence.

Using steering foot pedals was also foreign to me and too fast a correction also results in a roll and remount. So I’ve been learning to be subtle… not my forte. But the bump surfing had taught me some of the basics. I’ve been informed that the higher performance skis react quicker to steering input. But at this point in my evolution, stability is king and my entry-level ski glides very well.

Finally summer has arrived and the chances to do a Maliko run, without a big winter type swell, are here. Still the conditions on the north side of Maui are always much more wild than the south. The fetch is far from zero, in fact there are days where it comes from more than a thousand miles away.

My initial concept was to use the ski on light days and my trusty 17’ ruddered stand up for when the wind pegged over 25 mph. So my first runs were in light winds (10-15mph range.) But on days since, the wind has picked up and I was forced to deal with much more than I anticipated. One day appeared light enough for my tastes but escalated to gusts of 35 mph. The glides were great but the roar of rollers breaking behind me also toyed with my confidence. Knowing even the slightest turn of my head might roll me; I placed the blade forward across the ski, faced forward and prepared to be devoured. Whitewater cascaded over me, the pit filled with water but the ski stayed upright. It was empowering to know that leaning forward in my ‘terror’ position would work so well.

There were also other issues even when things began to go well. Many surfers have experienced hypercritical moments, such as being ‘in the tube’. There is a strong appeal for this ‘timeless mindlessness’ or zen state. But the actual time on one wave is usually around 30 seconds or less.   Existing in that state of mind for longer periods was something unfamiliar to me. But that’s what was happening in the ski during ‘bursts’ on sections of the run when everything seemed to magically come together with clean runways and obvious paths. I was ‘in the groove’, maintaining one glide after another, stroking only when I needed and adjusting with hyper fast taps.   It’s very intense with an overwhelming amount of visual and balance input. Then my lack of aerobic capacity weighed in and I’d snap out of it. A bit of fear set in. My state of mind had been so separated from conscious thought it was rather disconcerting. Was it a zen state or just being ‘spaced out’?   Was my heart beating too fast? Ten years ago I had an A-Fib.   My inherent fear from lack of experience in the ski wouldn’t allow me to exist in whatever state it was for more than several minutes. For better or worse, I would force myself back into my conscious mind.

Other parts of the run had ten-foot crests to troughs piling up on sudden shallow areas, which present no issue for me on a stand up board but on a ski had me entrenched in my conscious mind and yet again in my survival mode. If I take the drop and torpedo into the trough, will the ski break in two? In times like that it seemed like the previous 25 years of experience I’ve had prone and stand up paddling out of Maliko Gulch never even happened. I fell out four times and at the end of the run it took me a half hour to fully relax. I freakin’ love the ski.

Bill Boyum

PLEASE share your stoke and support of Bill’s tremendous read and leave a comment on this blog. Our passion for the Maliko Run comes from around the world and we welcome all.

Our tribe is very lucky to have Maui’s own, well known surf legend and author, Bill Boyum.  If you liked this article, you’ll LOVE his famously popular book: Journals from the Edge, by Bill Boyum

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