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Can You Surf on a 6” Thick Inflatable Paddle Board?

How well does a big thick inflatable board like the iRocker Ultra Compact surf? writer Bill Dawes decided to find out. Pix by Jenna Dawes

I feel fairly confident in assuming that when iRocker were designing their excellent 10’6 Ultra Cruiser compact iSUP, surfing performance was not at the top of their priority list. The board is high volume, 6” thick, has a super wide tail and generally looks about as far removed from a surfing iSUP as a board could possibly be.

Which is why when I took it out for a surf the other day, my friends were watching from the beach with great anticipation, confident that I was about to get severely trashed every which way.

To everyone’s surprise though (including mine, I won’t deny), their confidence turned out to be misplaced. I paddled out, spun the board around, and with just a couple of strokes was effortlessly onto a wave and riding. To be clear, we’re only talking small surf here – knee high waves, thigh high at a push. This was not Pipeline! But small waves are a pretty common scenario at beaches around the world, and in those conditions when the ‘serious’ surfers aren’t even thinking about taking their boards off the car roofrack, us paddleboarders can have it all to ourselves.

Surfing on Inflatable Paddle Boards
Surfing on Inflatable Paddle Boards
Surfing on Inflatable Paddle Boards

Cards on the table, I’m already a big fan of iSUP surfing. I travel extensively for work, and it just isn’t practical to lug hard boards around with me, so I keep an iSUP raceboard in my truck for flat water conditions, and a Red Paddle Co Compact 8’10 for surfing. The Red is the best iSUP surfing board I have found – being just 4” thick it feels small, responsive and a whole lot of fun. No, it doesn’t surf like (or as well as) a hard board; you can’t lay it in and crank through a bottom turn, but once you learn to drive it with your back foot right back on the kicker, you can actually push it around on a wave face and have a whole lot of fun on it. I’ve used it in a wide range of conditions from ankle high to overhead surf, and most importantly, been able to go and ride waves when otherwise I would have just been sitting on the beach and watching.

In my early years in the iSUP industry I loaned one of our country’s top SUP surfers a surf iSUP (a Red Paddle Co 9’4 Surf) to see what he could do with it. He placed 4th overall in the national SUP surf championships, and then took the board up to Indonesia and got fully barrelled on it – this pic was taken over 10 years ago but I have yet to see a more radical picture of an iSUP in action. So there is no argument that iSUPs cannot be used in surf.

Surfing on Inflatable Paddle Boards

I also knew that it doesn’t need to be a dedicated SUP surf board. I’ve had some very fun waves on bigger iSUPs over the years; all-round 10’6s, 10’8s and 11s, but again, always with rounded tails and a thinner profile; just 4” or 4.7” thick. I’d never tried to surf a 6” iSUP before. Indeed, to be quite honest, I assumed it would be an awful experience.

The Compact ‘revolution’ changes the game, though. It’s so easy now to travel with your board, hike it down to the beach, take it to places where there may well be a bit of a wave to have some fun on. I’ve started seeing 6” thick iSUPs appearing on surf beaches. Hence my being out there on the iRocker Ultra, to find out how well it would work.

So let’s get into the detail. On entering the water, you instantly notice that you’re a bit higher above the surface than usual, so my regular surf paddle needed swapping for something a bit longer. (Generally you surf with a shorter paddle because you’re rarely standing up at full height when you’re SUP surfing).

Surfing on Inflatable Paddle Boards

Getting out over the white water and inner waves was definitely more challenging than on a regular SUP surfing board or indeed my Red Compact, simply because there is so much more board for the incoming wave or white water to hit. The board tended to get stopped almost completely, so you need to stay low and anticipate that sudden lurch. To be honest, unless your getting-out technique is very good, it’s a whole lot easier just to paddle out in kneeling position. Being higher above the water becomes an advantage when you’re down on your knees, and you can lean back a bit to ease the nose up over the white water. Indeed, that nice little turn-up in the nose rocker on the Ultra Cruiser works really well in this regard.

Once you’re ‘out back’, it’s great being on such a big, stiff and stable platform. You can easily cruise around, and get a feel for what the waves are doing. And then, when you see the wave you want to catch, the size and rigidity of the board (immensely more than my Red Compact) really comes into its own – it is SUPER easy to catch the wave. You can just paddle straight onto it, with minimal effort. If you’re new to sup surfing then there is a whole bunch of technique stuff that you do need to know in terms of timing and positioning to line up for and catch a wave, enough for its own blog article that we’ll save for another time. The most important point though, is that you need to catch the wave early. You do NOT want to be trying to take a wave that is just about to break on a board of this size. It should still be a ‘bump’ rather than a ‘wall’.

Once you’re on the wave, you can trim the board to ride along the face – and yay! You’re surfing. Great stuff.

At this point, you will discover that there is one very big problem with surfing the iRocker compact. Normally, you would reposition yourself further back on your board towards the tail, in order to turn the board, and keep the nose up as the wave gets steeper. However, because iRocker were quite understandably not expecting anyone to be thinking about going surfing on their Ultra Compact, they didn’t bother putting any deck grip back there. So you find yourself standing on wet PVC with all the grip of an ice skating rink. And there is only one way that’s going to end!

Surfing on Inflatable Paddle Boards

So, you get yourself back on the board, shake the water and sand out of your ears, eyes and various other orifices, and paddle back out into the line up, with the realization that your surfing technique will have to be modified slightly, since you are restricted to standing in that middle area of the board. Which is fine, but it does mean that really the only option is ‘straight lining’ the wave, and then just getting low and hoping for the best when the wave finally breaks. But hey, it was still a whole bunch of fun.

Surfing on Inflatable Paddle Boards
This is NOT ideally where you want to be standing when the wave is about to break!

What I was very pleasantly surprised to find was that the twin fin set up on the iRocker gave excellent grip; those long scimitar-like fins kept me very well attached to the wave even when it did get steeper.

Surfing on Inflatable Paddle Boards

In contrast, my Red Paddle Co Compact 8’10 is a completely different surfing experience. Being smaller and less rigid it’s harder to catch the wave, but once I’m on it I can make turns, redirect the board as I want, come off the top of the wave, and survive the breaking part of the wave no problem. However, this does all require a whole lot more technique – the board feels dramatically smaller underfoot. A friend who had only hitherto paddled a 10’6 had a go on my 8’10 and refused to accept that it was actually a SUP at all. To him it just felt like a tea-tray. It is definitely not a board to learn to SUP surf on.

So what conclusions can we draw from all this? For starters, I’d say that if you have an all-round SUP that has deckpad going back to the tail area (as, to be fair, most boards do, to allow for tail-sink turns etc), and a 3 fin configuration too, as opposed to a board with just a centre fin, then I reckon you’ll be able to catch and ride small waves on your board, and have a whole lot of fun. If the board is 4.7” thick as opposed to 6” even better, but what I really did notice from the iRocker Compact surfing experience was how much the rigidity of the board plus the stability played its part. So if you’re on a more flexy 4” or 4.7” board, then it’s going to make it a whole lot harder to catch those waves.

Surfing on Inflatable Paddle Boards

Again, to be clear, we’re talking about ‘straight lining’ here. 6” thickness is just too much board to meaningfully redirect and crank through turns while you’re on the wave. If you want to get into that stuff, you’ll need a smaller, more surf-focussed board.

But straight-lining on small waves is still a whole lot of fun! And well within the capabilities of any paddler who can accelerate reasonably quickly from a standing start, is a confident swimmer (you will end up doing some swimming), and can turn their board reasonably quickly – an important prerequisite for positioning to catch the wave, etc.

Surfing on Inflatable Paddle Boards

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Heyo! At we are a team who love the water, the outdoors, and are more than grateful that our full-time job allows us to review stand up paddle boards. We paddle year round (it helps that we are just about 2 hours outside of Las Vegas), and we bring in a wide range of paddlers with the goal of providing our readers with the best, most in-depth, and accurate stand up paddle board reviews.

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