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What is a Surf Ski?

By Ken Black
Updated Feb 20, 2024
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A surf ski is a type of personal watercraft that is powered by the individual. It is very similar to a kayak, but with one significant difference. Unlike a kayak, which has a hollowed opening in which the user sits, the surf ski has a much shallower indentation on the top for the rider. This is the reason why surf skis are sometimes known as sit-on-top kayaks.

Though surf skis have only recently begun to experience widespread popularity, they have been in existence for nearly a century. Harry McLaren, who lived in Port Macquarie, Australia, came up with the idea for this watercraft presumably as a way to reach local oyster beds. Little is known about their production until the 1930s, when a design was patented in the United States. It is thought the construction prior to then consisted of hollowing timbers.

Modern surf skis are no longer made of wood, as the material is too heavy and slow to find a following among modern users. Rather, fiberglass and Kevlar® are the preferred materials. These offer the opportunity to make a very lightweight product that is easy to transport both on land and on water. Kevlar® and fiberglass materials usually last longer than wood as well.

The dimensions of the surf ski are very standard with only a little deviation between models. Most surf ski models are between 19 and 21 feet (5.8 and 6.4 meters) long. The width is generally between 17 and 19.7 inches (43 to 50 cm). There may be some variation outside of these dimensions, depending on the manufacturer.

The primary benefit of a surf ski is its speed. They are considered much faster than most kayaks, and the fastest surf ski should outrun a similar kayak built for speed. Therefore, they are often used by those who like to travel long distances under their own power, simply because they glide through the water so easily. Over great distances, this leads to less energy being used during the paddling. As with all benefits, however, there are also some trade-offs.

The main disadvantage to the surf ski, especially when compared to the kayak, is in the area of stability. While wider and shorter models may be more stable than those built strictly for speed, they are still considerably more unstable than kayaks. It is not uncommon for beginners to fall off several times per outing until they are able to better understand how the watercraft will react.

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Discussion Comments

By Sara007 — On Sep 12, 2011

For those who are looking for a surf ski that is high quality and moves really fast, which brand would you recommend as a good investment?

My husband and I have been looking at surf skis for our summer home and are torn between purchasing a Fenn surf ski and a Futura surf ski. I don't think the prices vary that much, but we haven't tried either out yet, so we're looking for someone who has used one, or both to help us out.

My brother-in-law has mentioned that the Fenn surf skis come in a variety of styles, so that might be a good way to get something we'll like.

By manykitties2 — On Sep 11, 2011

Our family has a cottage and we recently went looking at kayaks and discovered the surf ski. Both were somewhat pricey to buy, but we ended up finding an amazing discount on a used surf ski which we ended up purchasing so we would have something fun to do in the summer.

They Hayden surf ski we bought is really light weight and great for the family. We love that it is such good exercise, and an awesome way to get around the lake near our home. We had to buy the surf ski paddles separately, but that wasn't a big deal as they were pretty cheap.

By irontoenail — On Sep 11, 2011

@KoiwiGal - It's a good thing the water was warm, because whenever I try to use surf skies, I tend to fall off them!

Well, I did at first anyway. I'm a surf lifesaver and we use them as a way of getting out to people who need us as quickly as possible. I can see why they would be a good choice for playing with if you had the time and inclination, but we liked them because they were fast and, once you got the hang of them, they were easy to handle.

We could usually get out to most people quicker on those than if we hauled out the boat.

By KoiwiGal — On Sep 10, 2011

I was recently on vacation in Tonga, which is a small bunch of islands in the Pacific. We were staying at a resort which offered free kayaks for use in the lagoon which was nearby.

They also had some surf skies.

I don't really like using kayaks because my legs fall asleep when I sit in them for too long. This can even be dangerous, since I find it a struggle to get out of them once I'm finished.

With the surf skies I didn't have that problem at all. The water was warm, so we didn't really need to worry about keeping out of it either.

We just paddled around to another island and went hunting for sea shells.

It was a wonderful experience and I would recommend it to anyone, but particularly if you just want to have some fun.

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