You're reading my first post here at Faster Farther. Welcome!
In the spirit of firsts, I remember my first paddle in a surfski vividly. It was a bright, but cool day in the Puget Sound. I was paddling an Epic V10 Sport that I had rented for a day, and I was determined to see what a surfski was all about.
Gently sliding into the bucket seat, I gingerly placed my feet into the foot brace and then just sat there, somewhat surprised that I hadn't fallen in, but unsure what to do next. I knew enough to know that it would be my movement that would make the boat unstable, and I didn't want to screw it up. So I took a gentle stroke. Then three more.
"Ha! Not bad. Wow this thing really glides and..." ***SPLASH!***
I was unceremoniously dumped by the shining white steed prancing about next to me into the 44º water. I quickly remounted the ski and found myself thinking that I had no idea what I had done, but I didn't want to do it again.
I've since learned while paddling a wide range of far tippier craft that it's not what I had done, but what I didn't do to keep the ski balanced. It's easy to assume that balance is the ability to hold perfectly still, and not disrupt that which is already balanced. On the moon, this may be true. Set a pillar in place and it might be there for a century or ten. But on planet earth, specifically while on the water, balance is an ongoing negotiation with gravity and every other dynamic force being sent your way.
Balance, like juggling, is a learned skill. Do it long enough, or in my case go for a paddle with someone like Greg Barton on a rough day, and it is quickly elevated to an art form.
Flash forward to today after a little over two years of paddling as many skis as I can get my hands on (and swimming next to a few of them), I've come to the belief that the best place to calibrate the balance of a surfski is at the catch (where the paddle blade literally "catches" the water). With a wing paddle and decent form, the water is firm enough to push and simultaneously pull against with your hands, feet and butt to adjust the axis and balance point of the boat with essentially three points of contact with the water. This enables a rider like myself with modest natural balance to drive the ski in almost any type of water condition and wave size; quartering beam, bow slapping upwind chop, downwind or rebounding slop.
Having a fast stroke rate is crucial to making rapid fire corrections needed to rebalance the surfski. Every once in a while, I will misread a wave and need a low sweeping brace to prevent a swim. This happens more frequently when I am training at night and a big boat wake puts the sneak on me. I am able to use the blade exit to calibrate my balance as well, but this carries a fairly significant speed penalty because the paddle acts as a break to generate balancing force. Having a larger sized rudder can also help pad your margin of error, and this is a very good idea for new paddlers. You'll need all the margin you can get!
Finally, remember to challenge yourself in order to continually improve your balance. Incrementally seeking out more challenging water can pay huge dividends quickly, as can just putting in lots of bucket time. Using seat pads and smaller rudders can also help. Paddle a tippy elite ski and you'll get remount practice at no extra charge. The payoff to better balance will mean more speed, power and overall fun factor as your confidence increases. And you never know when you might find yourself needing every drop of balance you can muster to get back to shore, and thats the best kind of return on your investment.