A Case for the 3-Stroke Burst

The other day, I witnessed a surfer paddling as fast and as hard as he could to catch a wave that was still ten feet behind him. The wave inevitably caught up to him and he eventually caught it, got to his feet and rode away.

He paddled out for another wave, and at the next opportunity, he repeated his sequence of events, paddling as hard and fast as he could with the wave at least ten feet behind him. On this attempt, the wave moved underneath him, and he rolled down the back of the wave. So, he didn’t paddle back out as far.

On his third opportunity, he once again started to paddle as fast and as hard as he could with the wave ten or more feet behind him, but this time the wave crashed horribly on top of him and sent him rolling around in the washing machine.

He then headed in. Given the three wave attempts I observed, he had a 33% make rate. On top of that, he looked tired, and I’m sure would have said he needs to get more “paddle fit”.

But what if there was a more efficient and effective way to catch waves? How might we increase that make rate?

While there are many variables that go into wave catching (which I cover in Level 2), I’d like to make a case for the 3-Stroke Burst, which is one part of the wave catching sequence I teach. In short, the 3-Stroke Burst is a quick, overlapping, three stroke sequence at the correct moment in the wave catching sequence.

The purpose of the 3-Stroke Burst is not to catch the wave. I know that sounds rather contrary, but a 3-Stroke Burst, even by the strongest, most technically sound paddler will not even move as fast as a 2-ft wave moving into the beach.

According the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, a wave’s speed moving into shallow water is the square root of gravity force multiplied by the depth of the water.

A wave breaks in a depth of water that is approximately 1.28 times the height of the wave (true height from trough to crest).

For example, a 10-ft wave begins shoaling (or breaking) over a depth of approximately 12.8 feet of water.  A 2-ft wave breaks in about 2.56 feet of water.

The speed of a 10-ft wave at that moment of breaking in shallow water (at that depth) is 13.8 miles per hour. The speed of a 2-ft wave at that moment of breaking is 6.2 miles per hour.

IN FLATWATER, the top paddlers move at most high 4 mph, longboards at most low 5 mph, and prone boards are around low 6 mph.

Therefore, as I mentioned, we cannot possibly move fast enough in flatwater to catch even a 2-ft wave, that is moving into the beach at 6.2 mph.

But we have all witnessed longboards and even some shortboards, catch a 2-ft wave. So how does that work?

Paddling doesn’t catch the wave. Momentum transferring to the surfer from the wave’s propagation (movement speed and direction) and Gravity (i.e. the wave creates a ramp) allows the surfer to gain the appropriate amount of speed required to move from displacement (which is what we are when we are paddling) to planing (the state we are in when we are surfing – skimming the top of the water).

Some may say, what about the Molokai to Oahu paddlboarders? Over a distance of 32 miles, the top paddlers are averaging 9-10 mph. How is that possible if prone paddlers top out at low 6 mph?

The simple answer is that they are riding waves. If you research the Ka'iwi Channel conditions in the years they run the race, and compare the finishing times for the prone paddleboarders, you will see a direct correlation where the fastest times are the years in which the channel conditions had the largest swells and wind.

As I said, the 3-Stroke Burst is not meant to catch the wave – meaning, it will not get you to the speed required to catch the wave. It will simply help the surfer move from displacement to planing, just a little bit sooner – meaning, slightly before the momentum shift to the surfer and gravity takes place (at a lower ramp angle).

Moving from a displacement state to planing takes the largest amount of energy for all vessels. A boat moving slowly and then accelerating to a planing state, uses the most fuel per unit of time in the transition from displacement to planing (the "hump", or "getting out of the hole").

The idea I am introducing is attempting to move from displacement to planing at a moment in time and space where the wave’s gravity forces are less, and the wave’s transfer of momentum to the surfer is less, providing the surfer more time in the entire sequence of events. Could you enjoy a bit more time getting to your feet, or assessing the crowd in front and around you, or discovering the line down the wave you want to take? I would venture to guess the answer to that is a resounding “YES”.

The 3-Stroke Burst provides that advantage given they are effective strokes (i.e. not slipping and in the correct direction of force - Level 1) and they are at the correct time (Level 2). 

Additional supporting evidence from the University of Porto (Marcio Borgonova-Santos, et al) shows a surfer’s velocity topping out only four seconds after starting. The more a surfer paddles, and the harder they paddle won’t move from displacement to planing and it takes an enormous amount of energy to hold that speed after 6 seconds (notice the fatigue set in from 6 seconds to 10 seconds).

Also noted is that the acceleration the surfers obtained was mostly in the first 1.5 seconds and then dropped off drastically.  

All of the above points to making sure a surfer doesn’t paddle as hard and as fast as they can while in flatwater – meaning, BEFORE the wave reaches the surfer. The only thing the surfer is doing there is wearing themselves out.

But this doesn’t mean they should do nothing. This is where timing the runway makes a profound impact as well (also covered in Level 2). But if a surfer is in the correct runway, and they are using effective paddling strokes (Level 1), then catching the wave’s momentum and gravity becomes almost effortless. Even the 3-Stroke Burst could then be at 60% of max effort.

I recommend you give it a try. First, optimize your 3-Stroke Burst in flatwater and dryland so that you are using the correct biomechanics (Level 1). Once your brain automatically makes the correct movement, try it out when catching waves. Wait until the wave is closer to you to begin building some momentum, and when the wave lifts your feet, the 3-Stroke Burst should be performed. Again, Timing the runway is critical, so try this further out than you think you need to be and see if you get a burst of acceleration with very little effort. Then slowly move closer to the impact zone.

You may end up surprising yourself. And the others around you.

Until next time, I’ll see you in the water…


Learn more about my Level 1 and Level 2 Paddling Technique courses here. Feel free to reach out with questions.



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