How to Handle Boat Wakes: The Top SUP Drills You Can Use Today! | Perfect Paddles

In Instructional, Learning, SUP Technique by Daniel

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Do you paddle around boat traffic? If so, then you need to know how to handle boat wakes in order to stay safe on the water! Check out this quick list of drills you can use to improve your balance and be unbothered by boat wakes!

boat wakes

In this article, we discuss the best way to handle boat wakes for the beginner paddler and what drills you can practice on the water to be better prepared!

Even though it’s often called flat water paddling, in some instances, it can be anything but flat. This is certainly the case when it comes to paddle boarding in marinas and around boat traffic. 

One minute you’re enjoying a nice peaceful afternoon and the next your legs start jiggling as an oversized wake ripples underneath your feet. 

You try to maintain balance but it happens anyway…

The momentum is just too much to handle and you drop into the water. 

Besides the slight feeling of embarrassment, falling in can also be a hassle when you have to keep climbing back onto your board every time a boat travels by. 

Luckily, there are ways to counter such problems with the biggest one being experience. 

The more time you spend on the water and develop your reflexes,  the more natural every movement on a SUP will become. But no one wants to wait until they’ve amassed hours on the water before they can handle a proper wake. 

To expedite the process, there are a few ways you can improve your balance and how you handle boat wakes on the water so you don’t end up practicing more of your doggy paddle instead of your SUP paddling.

How to Conquer a Wake

Before we get into any drills, let’s first clear up how to conquer a wake…

(And always remember to wear a PFDattach your leash, and wear proper sun protection)

Most beginners believe the best way to get through a boat wake is to either drop to their knees and wait for it to pass, or try to paddle away from it until it dissipates. 

Both of these actions can and will indeed work to some degree.

But you may be hard for the boat captains to see...

And there is a better option. 

When possible, you try to turn the nose of your board until you are facing the wake head on and paddle straight into it. 

It seems counterintuitive to head straight towards the wake in order to maintain balance but when you think about the mechanics of a SUP it makes perfect sense. 

As wakes or waves move through the water and hit your board, if they make contact with the rails of your board you are forced to balance side-to-side. 

This motion creates a force that pushes you to put more weight on one rail. As the wake moves through you will have a counter reaction of the opposite rail moving down. The result? You’re forced to maintain balance while your rails bob up and down.  

This is difficult. Especially for beginners. 

But what happens when you head straight towards the wake? The force of the water will move underneath the nose of your board, then your feet, and then out behind you. 

This allows you to balance front-to-back on your board instead of side-to-side on your rails. By doing so you have more surface area of the board to balance on and it is a much more natural motion that will cause you to stay upright. 

If you’re still not convinced…

The next time you’re on the water, try leaning to one side of your board while lifting the opposite rail up. See how long you can stay upright and how difficult it is to do so. 

Now try putting pressure on the front of your foot and then back to your heels…

You will see how easy it is to retain an upright posture. Remember this the next time you see a wake…

To conquer it effectively, head straight into it! This, of course, only applies to cases when the boat traffic has passed and it is clear of any danger. In these cases, it’s best to use your technique, pick up the pace, and charge. 

But some wakes can bounce off boats and sea walls creating multiple angles to contend with. In these cases where there is still too much boat traffic, you can always stick to the side of the canal or waterway to stay away from the traffic and drop to your knees. In cases like this, it is better to get low and ride it out instead of falling near moving boats. 

A few additional tips to maintain balance:

  • Keep your eyes on the horizon, not on the wake. Always look where you want to go. 
  • Keep your knees slightly bent, don’t stand straight up and stiff. This will help you brace for the impact.
  • Stand centered in the middle of the board. If you’re too far forward or too far back it will throw you off balance. Make sure your feet are on opposite sides of the SUP handle. 
  • And keep paddling! Your forward momentum will help you stay upright

Practice Moving on the Board

Another great way to prepare yourself for a boat wake is to test your balance on the water. And improve it. 

On a calm sunny day, with high air and water temperatures (in case you do fall in), you can try a simple drill to improve your balance on the water. 

All you have to do is simply move around on your board. 

Sounds easy enough, but for the beginner, it can be quite challenging. 

First, stand straight ahead in your normal paddling position. Then gain some forward momentum with a few quick paddle strokes. 

Next, take a step back with one foot into a surf position while maintaining your balance. 

After you’ve completed this step, return back to a forward facing position. 

How does it feel? Are you able to comfortably move backward and forward with ease or is it still difficult?

Keep practicing and over time it will become second nature. This simple motion will dramatically increase your ability to balance on the water but also come in handy later in a different way to conquer a wake. 

Using Your Paddle 

Once you are comfortable switching stances, you can then practice how to use your paddle as an extra balance lever. 

To explain it as simply as possible…

Your paddle is a great multi-functional tool. It of course can be used to propel you forward. It can be used as a way to slow you down. And is used for turning in the water. 

But it can also be used as a way to enhance your balance on the water. 

When your paddle is in the water, you automatically have a three point position of balance. 

This extra point of contact can be used as a way to keep your momentum forward and in some instances, when you do feel like you’re losing balance, a simple slap on the water, or a quick paddle forwards or backwards is enough to keep you upright and moving in the right direction. 

In addition, some paddlers will practice using their paddles as a way to slap the water or press it on top of the water’s surface to force their bodies to remain upright. 

The next time you’re out, hold your paddle on your dominant side. Keep the paddle hovering above the water, preferably behind your back foot. Now move slightly forward on your board and slap the water with the back of your paddle to see if it helps with your balance. 

Give this a try a few times and see how it works! 

It’s a quick, simple motion that can save you from slipping into the water. 

boat wakes

Pivot Turn

The next way to conquer a boat wake is to learn how to pivot turn. Pivot turns are a great way to prepare on flat water for ocean paddles. By understanding how to do one and executing it, you increase your balance which helps with boat wakes, waves and staying safe on the water. 

A pivot turn is a way of turning your board by moving into a surf stance, placing more of your weight on the tail of your board to lift the nose, and using your paddle to quickly turn. 

Not only will your balance be improved by practicing this motion, but you will be able to turn the nose of your board to face a wake before it hits your rails. 

To practice: 

First, you need to determine if you are…

Goofy Foot or Regular Foot?

The absolute first thing you must do in order to accomplish a pivot turn is determine whether you are a goofy foot or a regular foot.

What do we mean?

It's fairly simple...

When you take a step back and move into a surf-style position do you put your left foot back or your right?

With your left foot back you are goofy footed and with your right foot back you are a regular foot.

Determine this first to know what foot you need to move in order to get into the correct position for the turn.

Below is a simple illustration - even though this is on a surfboard the stance remains the same.

Practice this first on dry land and then slowly move to the water. Once you feel comfortable maneuvering your feet, then you can proceed to the next step.

The Motion

Now that you know if you are goofy or regular footed, and how to maintain your balance when moving into the stance...

It's time to go step-by-step through the entire motion of a pivot turn.

  • Stand straight ahead and gain some momentum on the board
  • Using your paddle to maintain balance in the way described above, move one foot back into a surf style stance
  • Make sure you are far back enough to lift the nose of the board out of the water
  • Bend your knees - by staying low you create a low center of gravity that will help you remain balanced
  • Take your paddle on the side you are facing towards the water and bring it forward to the nose, place it into the water, and bring it back with a strong paddle stroke towards your feet in a crescent-shaped motion pushing the nose in the opposite direction
  • In this stance with the nose lifted out of the water, you will feel the ease with which you are able to turn the board in any direction
  • Once the turn is complete, use the paddle once again to maintain your balance and hop your feet back into a forward standing position

Your pivot turn is now complete!

boat wakes

Learn to Surf It

All of these tips and tricks are useful to conquer a boat wake. But sometimes, wakes don’t materialize in front of you. Instead they can sneak up behind you. 

When this is the case, your best bet is to learn how to surf it! 


First, run through the Goofy or Regular foot drill. Once you’ve determined this, eye up the wake as it approaches the back of your board. 

Paddle hard to match the speed of the moving wake. As you feel it lift your board, switch to a surfing stance. 

From here you can either keep paddling to maintain speed or let the wake push you forward with its momentum. The choice is yours! 

When you gain more experience on the water, you’ll be able to have some fun surfing small wakes in your flat water paddling location. 

boat wakes


As with all things in life, the more time you spend paddle boarding, the easier everything becomes — from flat water paddling to conquering some of the best SUP surfing breaks around the world. 

If this is the beginning of your journey, check out our Knowledge and Resources section. There you will find many articles covering a wide range of topics helpful for the beginner paddler. 

And of course, the best way to learn is through a lesson. If you’re not sure who to contact, head to the SUP Search section on Perfect Paddles, type in your location, and there you will find a long list of qualified SUP instructors in your area! 

Either way, we hope this simple breakdown will help you conquer your fear of the dreaded boat wake. And save you from any embarrassing falls the next time you’re on the water. 

About the Author


Daniel is a travelling author with a passion for exploring new waterways and sharing his experiences with the world.

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