Surfing river waves has been around for a long time. Kayakers will tell you they’ve been catching waves in their play boats for years. But for most of us, the idea of surfing rivers on a surfboard is relatively new. But all over the world, often right in heart of urban areas like Montreal, Canada or Munich, Germany the sport has a fanatical following. And it’s growing ever year. Catching waves on your lunch break and you don’t live on the ocean? Absolutely.
To the uninitiated, river surfing can be broadly divided into two main categories in terms of the waves you’re riding. The first are standing waves. These are waves formed by features in a fast flowing creek or river where the water breaks in a specific spot over a rock or shallow area and creates a standing wave that is effectively there all the time. Depending on the water levels and the flow of the river, it can grow or shrink. So after huge rains or snowmelt, standing waves can get larger and larger. One such wave, in Montreal, is called Big Joe. Having paddled into it on a boogie board once, I can attest that it gets big. Ten feet at its peak, and it pretty much ate me up and spat me out.
The second type of river surfing involves surfing a tidal bore. Tidal bores make some of the longer point breaks in the world look puny in terms of catching really long rides. One of the more famous of these is the Severn Bore, which is a tidal bore that happens on the river Severn in England, and was one of the first tidal bores ever surfed.
A tidal bore is a phenomenon in which the leading edge of an incoming tide forms a wave. Tidal bores are relatively rare in the world and require a couple of things all happening at once to be possible. First there has to be a huge tidal range, usually more than 20 feet between low and high tide. Second, the tide has to sweep in from a bay or wider area and into a shallow, narrower area. Tidal bores only happen on the flood tide (as opposed to the ebb tide) and as the tide sweeps into a narrow, shallower area a wave is formed on the leading edge of the tide. And these waves can travel far inland offering the hearty river surfer chances for some of the longest, most workable rides in the world.
Some of the largest tidal bores in the world occur in the Amazon, where surfers have been known to ride waves for as long as 37 minutes! For three days and nights sometime between February and March, when the Monsoon Rains and a full moon cause a high tide where the mouth of the Amazon River meets the Atlantic, a wave known as ‘La Pororoca’ (which means great roar) breaks up to 13ft high, a mile and a half wide and travels at up to 20 miles per hour. Some locals have seen the wave break inland up to 180 miles!!
Because we humans like to conquer everything, during that time each year, there is a surf comp. And it was there, in 2004, that Picuruta Salazar, a Brazilian surfer, set his record-breaking ride of 37 minutes. Think about that. He must have traveled somewhere in the vicinity of 13 miles on ONE WAVE!!!! How fun would that be?
Other massive tidal bores occur in China, New Brunswick, Canada and Papa New Guinea. Some of them, like the Severn Tidal Bore, break more frequently (up to 50 times a year).
River surfing abounds in spots around the globe, many of them yet to be discovered. And the beauty of it, whether on the leading edge of a tidal bore or dropping into a standing wave, is the only limit to the length of the ride is the strength of your legs. So get out there and find your local wave. Who knows? Maybe you live close to one and you don’t even know it.
Be safe. Ride hard.