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.