Beach Landings in Surf and the Risk of Broaching

One of the most notable hazards that skiff clubs face is broaching in shallow water.  The SCRA committee have received two incident reports this year, when such incidents have occurred.  No one was injured in either incident, with the crews being able to stand in the shallow water where the incidents took place, and there was no damage to skiffs either.  However any incident where rowers can end up in the water is to be avoided.  The clubs that use Portobello beach probably have the most experience of surf conditions, and how to deal with them.  Below Nick Johnson of Eastern ARC shares his experience and thoughts.  Thank you also to RowPorty for the video that is linked in this post.


Safely Landing in light Surf

Rowing in waves can be hazardous – the clubs that row off Portobello Beach have quite a lot of experience in this area and have found ways to minimise risks. We are lucky in that even in relatively wavy seas the wide beach offers a safe place to row with very few obstacles and no great importance to exactly where you land. Apart from actually getting in the boat, which carries the risk of people getting very wet, rowing out through the waves has not, to date, presented any problem. Occasionally a little water is shipped which can be bailed once out through the breakers. The main risk that we have experienced comes when rowing back in with the waves when the skiff can effectively catch a wave and start surfing. At this point it is possible for the boat to broach, by which we mean suddenly turn through 90 degrees to be parallel to the waves, which is usually quickly followed by a capsize or severe swamping and rowers in the sea. This has happened a couple of times in the last 6 years – always relatively close to shore in about waist deep water, roughly at the point at which the waves are breaking. Through experience we have found ways to stop this happening, the essence of which is generally to slow the boat down and keep it at right angles to the waves. The most effective method is the deployment of a drogue anchor from the stern of the skiff.

The skiffs are very stable and unlikely to broach out at sea (the boat should not be out in conditions where this is a risk).  Broaching when returning to the beach through the surf is a more likely occurrence.  Broaching will be quite sudden and so preparedness is important.  If returning to the beach in a breaking following sea there are different possible approaches which are outlined below but the most basic rule that applies to any of them is to keep the boat at right angles to the surf:

  1. If the tide is high and the breaking zone quite short, one approach is to row hard right onto the beach, with the waves directly behind you. Keeping the boat moving means you will hopefully maintain control but there is still a high risk of catching a wave, in which case the cox must concentrate very hard to keep the boat going in a straight line, using quick and sometimes exaggerated movements of the tiller.
  2. If the tide is low and the breaking zone quite long (due to the shallow gradient of the beach) there are three traditional approaches; stern first, back-water into waves, deploy a drogue to reduce speed. We would not generally recommend the first two unless you do not have a drogue available.
  • Stern first– historically, in very poor conditions row boats would come in stern first; point the bow out to sea and row backwards.  This has the advantage that the Cox can see what’s coming, instructing rowers to hold water when large waves are passing. It could be an awkward process given our oar set up and what we’re used to.
  • Back into waves– row in normally with the waves behind you but back water into big waves so they pass under the boat rather than carry it.  This requires a fairly skilled crew as they have to switch easily from rowing forwards to backwards and back again.  Also the Stroke may have to advise the Cox as they’re in a better position to see the following waves.
  • Deploy a drogue– a drogue acts like a parachute in the water behind the boat.  It slows the boat so again waves tend to pass under rather than carry it along and being tied to the stern of the boat it also tends to keep it at right-angles to the surf which is trying to push the boat in to shore.  With a drogue deployed the tiller will be very ineffective so you may need to rely on the oars to steer, but the boat will be more stable.  A drogue is the simplest and most effective way to reduce the risk of broaching. You may find that because the boat is going so slowly, larger waves will crash over the stern and into the boat, getting the cox quite wet – assuming he/she is wearing suitable clothing this should not be a safety concern. Also note that the pull on the line between the boat and the drogue is strong so make sure that it is properly tied on and is not caught up around arms, legs, rudder etc when it being deployed.


In terms of actually using a drogue RowPorty have produced a useful information video which can be found here:


People sometimes ask at what point the drogue should be deployed. Firstly, all club coxes should have a go at deploying it in benign conditions so they know what to expect and how to use it (it makes for a good work out for the crew). It’s hard to give quantitative advice about when it is required so our general rule is ‘if in doubt, put it out’. It should also be noted that of course the decision to go out when there are breaking waves is itself highly subjective and the cox or captain should consider general weather conditions and the competency, preparedness and experience of crew. Additional consideration should be given to making sure that there are no unnecessary items loose in the boat and all crew are prepared to get wet and are wearing appropriate PFD.

If you are unlucky enough to get broached then swamped or capsized don’t panic – you are likely to be not very far from shore in relatively shallow water. Our advice would be to first and foremost make sure that all crew are ok and get them to shore, your oars and boat will probably be generally washed in and can be collected once everyone is safe.


See also the Safety Brief on Capsize in Open Water. 

When using a drogue it is essential to be able to release it quickly -  have a knife immediately to hand if there is not another way to release it in a single quick movement.


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