July 27th, 2017

SUP surfing the Skookumchuck tidal rapid with Team T’ashii

This July Team T’ashii ventured out of our little surf and SUP paradise on the the Esowista Peninsula in Tla-o-qui-aht territory to head East to find surf. A wave on the ocean created by tides rather then swell awaited. Hunting the tidal currents we went to Skookumchuck narrows. It was time to swap our weather and swell forecasting with the ability to read tidal charts,  (or just google the best times on the internet), nice to have a more sure bet than the unpredictability of swell, tide, and wind.

We donned our whitewater gear, got ready to ride the never ending tidal wave and find an answer to the age old question… “Does wearing board shorts over your wetsuit make you a better river surfer?” Here’s what we found.

tashii paddleboardWhat its like to SUP surf the Skookumchuck narrows, a world class standing wave tucked deep into the inlets on the Sunshine coast.

SUP surfing Skookumchuck Narrows (Skook) is definitely an experience worthy of an advanced paddle board surfer that puts to the test your skills of navigating strong current and big eddy lines. The name comes from Chinook jargon for “strong water” and the term is used in maritime jargon for any set of strong rapids, particularly those at the mouth of inlets. Even though the wave is on the ocean, its tucked away from what we refer to as the west coast. It felt strange heading inland to find surf… but hey, Skookumchuck is more similar to a river wave than an ocean wave. In reality it’s a unique entity with its own characteristics. Rather than being created by a change in elevation in the river, the currents that create the wave form due to an amazing amount of water (760,000,000 m3  of water on a 9.8ft tide) being constricted by a straight at the mouth of the Sechelt inlet. All the tidal flow of the Sechelt Inlet, Salmon Inlet and Narrows Inlet is constricted at this point creating a world class tidal rapid.

The Surf

It’s quite different from surfing ocean waves because at Skook, water is flowing very fast (in excess of 14knots of flooding current.) When surfing this wave (and other “river” style waves), you aren’t moving much, only traversing the wave and dropping in/re-entries from peak to trough. We rely on gravity created from the steepness of the wave, to shoot us down the face and keep us from falling off the back of the wave. It’s really interesting, almost psychedelic when surfing, because you’re watching the water rush past you as it flows over a shallow shelf and you stay in place. Standing on a SUP it also an amazing vantage point that we hadn’t experienced before in past missions in a kayak. The taller perspective gives you an astonishing view of of the inter tidal life that dances below the wave. Swaying kelp and seaweed displaying the full range of inter tidal beauty.

explore tofinoCatching the Wave

Getting on and off the wave is a different story. To catch the wave we started by ferrying on to the wave from the eddy the feeds into the main flow the current. We found our SUPs were able to maintain their speed well while crossing the eddy line an ferrying into the pocket of the wave, but pealing into the current is no easy feat, it requires maintaining control in an eddy with boils and strong counter currents (there’s no staying in one place here).

And yeah there’s also the option of dropping in. Remember this is a tidal rapid, so the constantly changing level of water along the shoreline will only allow for eddy access to a certain point. After this, the only option is to drop in from upstream (or up current? not sure what proper tidal current term is really). Walk up drop in. This gave us a great chance to perfect the belly ride, and the pop up!

The ride itself is a blissful and trippy experience as we worked to feel out the way our surf SUPs preformed on the glassy and sometimes surgey  ripping current under our feet. Maintaining clam and composure while in the back of your mind you know the real working begins once you fall off the wave. That’s right, its always a great idea to save some energy for the dreaded TOUR! 

The Tour

Downstream of the wave, is where The Tour takes place. This is the 4oom section of very turbulent whitewater; including surging waves that build up and look like they want to chop down on you, giant boils, eddy lines that make you forget which way is home, and never ending whirlpools, one forming into the next. Big water river experience is definitely an asset. As  paddleboarder we got very familiar with the tour.

Kayakers, after falling off the backside of the wave  are able to get into the close-by eddy and seldom find themselves riding out “the tour”. On SUPs, we found that once the current reached a higher flow that the tour was almost inevitable and we gave in to swimming the tour (almost) every time we surfed the wave. Being ready for it and most importantly staying calm, not wasting our energy by fighting the turbulent water,  we got into just going with the flow. After the chaos settles down, then you can paddle into the back eddy that brings you up the coastline back to the wave. The tour in it’s entirety, can take upwards of 15 minutes to paddle through, so relax and enjoy the ride.

team tashiiSafety considerations whenever your dealing with moving water

Required Safety Gear:
  • White water approved helmet
  • PFD approved for Whitewater – required to have a quick-release tow belt.
  • Leash for SUP (*This leash must be connected to your quick-release tow belt or else you risk serious entrapment issues).
  • Immersion Gear (Yes, you will fall and swim the “tour”, so be comfortable – I recommend the wetsuit for SUP as it’s more hydrodynamic to swim in than a drysuit)
  • Board shorts (optional)

At the end of the day, we found that following your heart and letting your mood decide how exposed you’d like your lower regions to be is totally up to you. The surfing’s fun either way!