Addicted to Water and Speed

I have to admit I’m a little trepidatious when Erik Borgnes tells me that I can pick up his surfski kayak. It’s a beautiful, slender kayak – crisp white with a bright blue racing stripe – but I just don’t believe him when he says this kayak, one that easily takes up the length of the sun porch in his Sturgeon Bay home, weighs only 25 pounds. I can see this ending in disaster, but still, I cautiously pick it up with one hand. To my surprise, it feels lighter than the computer bag that I brought into Borgnes’ house. I am then even more amazed when he tells me they can actually be lighter – they vary in weight from 17 – 37 pounds, depending on whether its made with fiberglass, carbon, Kevlar or a combination.

“Surfski paddling is to sea kayaking what running is to hiking,” Borgnes says. Surfskis are around the same length as sea kayaks – most surfskis range in size from 16 – 21 feet long, while production sea kayaks are anywhere from 12 – 24 feet. The main difference between surfskis and sea kayaks is the design of the deck, with surfskis being a sit-on-top design, and sea kayaks being a sit-in design.

Erik Borgnes, a silent sports enthusiast that has called Door County home since 2004, paddling his surfski in Sturgeon Bay.

Also, there are differences in the widths – surfskis are 16 – 20 inches wide, much narrower than a typical sea kayak, whose beams vary from 18 – 32 inches. Because of this narrow width, surfskis are extremely fast when paddled on flat water and are the fastest paddled craft available over a long distance on ocean swells. A surfski is a very effective craft for paddling in big surf; its narrowness and length help it “punch” through large waves and surf with control down non-breaking wave faces. Double bladed paddles are used, often with highly contoured wing blades for extra efficiency.

Even though surfski paddling is faster than sea kayaking, it is also safer.

“Before long distance surfski paddling became a competitive sport, they were used for decades by lifeguards as safety craft in coastal waters,” Borgnes says. “Because one can get out of and back onto a surfski easily, it’s very simple to paddle out through rough waters and rescue someone.” Borgnes goes on to say that if one falls out of a surfski, they can be back in the craft and be paddling again in about 20 seconds.

In fact, surfskis became popular in surf lifesaving competitions in Canada, Australia, South Africa and the United States; but, it wasn’t long before the field of competitors increased, and ocean racing with surfskis began to emerge.

Borgnes made his way to the sport of surfski paddling through a wealth of other outdoor sports. Having completed seven running marathons and seven American and two Norwegian Birkebeiners (not to mention numerous triathlons and other multi-sport races), Borgnes enjoyed the competition but also the health benefits that come from extended periods of exercise.

An example of a typical surfski – a longer, narrower, sit-on-top version of a sea kayak.

“I was a cyclist, a runner, and a cross country skier,” he says, “and was looking for a way to get out on the water for some aerobic exercise.”

Borgnes started sea kayaking in 1992, but found that while he enjoyed paddling, the slow and heavy sea kayak wasn’t an appropriate boat for him. Erik and his wife Kimber moved to Washington State in 1997, and it was there that he found the watercraft he was looking for.

“I was doing lots of multisport races at the time, and noticed that all the better athletes were using these high tech looking surf skis,” he says. “I bought one, got used to it, and never set foot in my sea kayak again.”

At the time of Borgnes’ own surfski discovery, there weren’t a lot of major races occurring in the United States. The earliest surf ski races were: the Scottburgh to Brighton race in South Africa, an event first held in 1958; the Port Elizabeth to East London in South Africa, an event held every two years since 1972; and the most famous of them all, the Molokai race in Hawaii, an event first held in 1976, which courses from the island of Molokai to the island of Oahu. Now, there are major surf ski races held all over the world – including the United States where there has been a huge growth in the sport, with most of the activity being in Washington State, California, Hawaii, Florida, and in the Northeast.

Borgnes began his competitive career in surfski paddling in 1998, and in 2004 and in 2008 was 6th overall in the US National Surfski Championships, which are held annually in San Francisco, CA. (Borgnes has also competed in the Olympic flatwater kayaks, and qualified for the US National Marathon Kayak Team in 2001 and 2002. He competed for the US in the World Championships in 2001 which were held in England.)

When asked why the allure of surfski paddling, Borgnes is quick with a number of reasons.

“Surfski paddling is something that you can do for hours at a time, and it’s so relaxing to be out on the water,” he says. “I love silent sports like this – ones that after a certain amount of time, you don’t even realize you’re putting forth any effort. With surfski paddling, your mind gets preoccupied working with the pattern of the waves on the water, and the real fun part is going downwind when you get to surf from wave to wave almost like you’re alpine skiing on a mogul run.”

And after living in the Northwest and paddling in races in England, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Canada, Borgnes, who has been a Door County resident since 2004, says that Door County is an amazing place to paddle a surfski.

“When there’s a northeaster blowing and the waves are big, I often have my wife drop me off in Egg Harbor or Fish Creek, and I’ll paddle the 13 or 22 miles back home. Downwind, I’ll average about eight to 10 miles per hour, and I’ve been able to clock 20 miles per hour with my GPS in really big waves off Cabot’s Point.”

Borgnes manages to fit as much surfski paddling in as he can when he’s not working as a radiologist at Advanced Imaging, a diagnostic imaging service provider in Sturgeon Bay, but he isn’t the only one bringing the sport of surfski paddling to Door County. Washington Island is planning to hold the first annual Washington Island Canoe and Kayak Event June 19 – 21. Valerie Fons, owner of Bread and Water Bakery on the island, is in charge of coordinating the event.

“Many of my friends from their 30s through their 60s who used to be avid cyclists and runners are now the same friends who prefer surfski paddling over any other sport,” Borgnes says. “It’s easy on the body, it’s safe, and you get to be out on the water, taking it all in. I imagine that it’s similar to the feeling a board surfer gets – sensing the power of the water as you ride it. It’s completely addicting.”

For more information about surf ski paddling, Erik Borgnes recommends these Web sites: and Superior Surf Systems is a dealer in Duluth, MN that specializes in surfskis.
Also, for more information about the first-annual Washington Island Canoe and Kayak event, visit