Surfski Tarifa


It is the end of November, the clocks went back a month ago and to add to the encroaching depression the temperatures are set to fall to around freezing by the weekend, the final nail in the coffin.....the rivers are flooded by consistent heavy rainfall. To say I am not disappointed to be boarding a plane to the most southern point in Europe would be an understatement.
Along with a few friends from around Europe we are heading down to Tarifa, near Gibraltar, for a week of respite at the Epic Surfski Centre. On arrival at Malaga airport a simple 90 min motorway drive saw us arrive at the beachfront hotel, just 15 rooms, 100 meters from the water, simple clean rooms and the most relaxed vibe you can imagine. The restaurant serves great food and the overall package meant that none of us felt the urge to drive the 4km into Tarifa town all week. 
The days programme, run by Epic, under the efficient control of Boyan, begins at a leisurely 9am when breakfast is served; a daily briefing follows which varies according to the ability range of the group.  While we are sipping extremely good coffee and finishing our food the trailer is being loaded with skis to suit our needs/abilities, ranging from the fun machine V8 to the race ski V12 and double skis for those who prefer company. All the skis are well maintained and, as guests, our contribution to the chores associated with trailer loading is entirely optional. Everything runs like clockwork which in Spain is a rarity! The obvious question is why on earth we are loading a trailer when the ocean is 100m from our door!!?? Well that is an easy one to answer, these skis are great in any conditions, they will go wherever you want them to go, but give them a downwind run and they turn from being a great ocean paddling craft to being an hysterical joy ride! We were therefore being driven 15km upwind so we could enjoy the ride without the being tired from a 15km grind to get there. Our trailer had become the equivalent of a ski lift and we were being dropped off for a ride which would end at the door of our hotel. The beauty of Tarifa is that for 90% of the year the wind will only blow from the east or west, so the trailer will take you in whatever direction it needs to get the most fun. The remaining 10% is simply the time it takes to shift from one direction to the other.
For those who are unfamiliar with surfski, they are derived from surflifesaving, essentially a sit on top craft, an adjustable footrest allows them to be fitted to any size paddler (our tallest was just over 2m!) and a rudder operated by foot pedals. The rudder will, at first, seem unfamiliar to most sea kayak paddlers but within a very short time you realise they are an invaluable tool on a craft that is designed to hunt out the very best runs the ocean has to offer. The range of skis from V6 up to the brand new V14 covers every ability from the complete beginner to the race specialist who has no stability issues at all. What was evident from our group of mixed ability and very mixed ego range paddlers was that those who opted for security over speed had a lot more fun. The advice from Boyan (via Oscar Chalupsky), “stability before abilty”, was well founded! Lesser paddlers in more stable boats were outperforming better paddlers on unstable ones easily. The skis are lightweight at a maximum of 15kg for the base models and an almost freakish 9kg minimum for the 21 foot V12 Elite! All are easily lifted by one person which is a real bonus. For me with a flatwater racing background one of the most comforting things about these craft is that should I fall off, my lack of rolling ability is no problem. A quick remount sees me on my way, the ski drains automatically through the efficient bailer and I am back up and running. On this point it was very interesting to listen from the guys from Norway and Sweden who were dealers for Epic. They were saying that a lot of sea kayakers were using their skis in the winter in preference to their standard sea kayaks as they were safer. This safety was based on the fact that remounting was so simple and reliable for those who did not have a bombproof roll, also they said that in the ski the paddler automatically dresses for the water temperature not the air temperature so in the case of a prolonged swim they were better prepared. Up until now I had always considered the skis to be a summer tool but apparently it is not so in colder climes.
Anyway back to the fun stuff, paddling out in a sheltered bay we could see the ocean swell some 2km away and to be fair approached with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, as we got nearer so the waves became bigger, comfortingly though as the waves grew so you realise the skis are designed for exactly this, stable, comfortable and capable. On reaching the headland we are given our next briefing about how the group will be managed and herded without detracting from our own fun and independence. Boyan would act as sweeper and each of us were familiarised with the signals and routines that would allow us to keep an eye on each other.
15km of fun followed, these skis are designed to catch the ocean runs so everybody had the joy of skimming along at what seem to be impossible speeds, some of us had never been on the ocean before, others had plenty of experience but not one of us came back from that first trip without a smile on our face. It is one of those sports where success is inevitable and progressive. For the beginners who came back having ridden a few waves to the pros who had linked as many as possible to cover the 15km in an implausible 55 minutes we all had our story to tell and every one of us thought we had had the best ride of the day. Pulling up on the beach in front of the hotel seemed like a premature ending and left us wanting more. 
A two course lunch followed but the good food was constantly punctuated by “fisherman’s” tales of wave rides and high speeds, of near misses and of what could have been. After lunch some chose to snooze in their room while others lounged among the palm trees on the outside sofas and continued their tall stories.
The afternoon sessions, (all of which are optional) were a mixture of more of the same which was probably the most popular choice or lessons in handling the skis in the shore break, remounting and generally learning the necessary skills to deal with whatever the ocean throws at you. Certainly in our group which was VERY mixed ability there was no one who opted out of any session and some people refused to get off the water at the allotted times, preferring just to play outside the hotel going in and out through the surf. 
7 days, it turned out, were never going to be enough, as with any snow ski holiday the end approached way too fast and talk turned to future bookings.
This place would be an ideal escape for pretty much anyone into paddle sports, but if you have never paddled before then I think you would not get the most out of this superb venue. From sea kayakers to flatwater racers, touring paddlers and playboaters this side of paddlesport cannot be ignored. It is new but is not trying to reinvent the wheel, taking some of the best influences from other disciplines this fast evolving fun fest is going to be hard to ignore. For racers who want speed without effort, for sea kayakers who want the ocean with added thrills, for anyone who wants to paddle and come in smiling, this is it!
The structure and the content of the lessons given by Boyan in Spain are based around the knowledge of Oscar Chalupsky one of the directors of Epic Kayaks. Known for his legendary ability to paddle downwind efficiently there is no one better to decide what we, as relative beginners, should take away from our stay in Tarifa. The course content designed around learning through fun, while keeping a close eye on the safety aspect.
For your introduction to Surfski I cannot recommend Tarifa enough, with a view from the restaurant window of the ocean and the north coast of Africa there is something magical about the place. It is well organised, well run and a great place to take the family( if you need to bring them along to justify spending time and money on your own indulgences!!) Everyone in our group promises to be back and who can blame them?

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