Surfing Vancouver Island  

Standing Waves by John Newgard  

Standing Waves

by John Newgard

This past spring I discovered a wave that would provide 4 minute rides, a wave that broke in almost the exact same manner every day for 3 months, a wave that was virtually unaffected by wind direction, a wave that never reached shore! Dare I divulge the location of such a gem? Sure, why not, it's located in downtown Ottawa, Ontario, on the Ottawa River. I affectionately refer to this spot as "The Standing Wave".

There are actually three forms of river surfing: 1) riding a tidal bore, 2) tying off to a tree or bridge to get a board to plane on a swift current, and 3) surfing standing waves.

A tidal bore occurs when a relatively large tidal flood wave propagates up a river, causing a wave (and series of trailing harmonic waves) to form. Tidal bores can produce superb surf given the right bottom and wind conditions.

La Dordogne River, near St. Pardon, in France.

Photo by Fabrice Colas

What happens when there are only 2 waves per day? Crowds!

Though planing on a surfboard in a swiftly flowing river could be amusing, it is hardly different than being towed behind a boat on a wakeboard: NOT surfing!

Now riding a standing wave is indeed VERY similar to what we would call "surfing". It is quite feasible to locate and surf a rideable standing wave, providing a great means of staying in touch with your board during the spring/summer doldrums.

Photo by Don Wallace

The author at Bates Island, Ottawa River, Ottawa, Canada.

The Physics

Contrary to what one might expect, a standing wave does not form due to an obstruction on the river bed, but rather, due to an abrupt increase in water depth. Where water swiftly flows down a sloping river bed into deeper water, the deeper water is able to resist the forcing of the flowing water, causing a release of energy in the upstream direction in the form of waves. Where "normal" progressive waves move through water, standing waves are stationary relative to the bottom. More notably, where ocean or lake surfing requires a combination of good swell, a nicely shaped lake/sea bed, and favorable winds to produce good waves, river surf requires only a suitable streamflow and a favorable river bottom (I haven't yet figured out if wind direction has much of an effect on shape). This makes it possible to surf a river spot day after day without having to worry about getting skunked.

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Photo by John Newgard

Experiment performed in the Tilting Flume at the Canadian Hydraulics Centre.

The logistics

The easiest way to find suitable standing waves would be to make contact with local kayakers. If there isn't a kayaking club in your area, chances are there aren't any standing waves.

Most surfers would be able to recognize a suitable standing wave, as it is similar in appearance to a progressive wave, i.e. the ones we surf on the lakes or oceans. When scouting standing waves, questions to ask yourself are: 1) "Is the wave steep enough and high enough to be rideable?"; 2) "Does the current look so strong that I won't be able to paddle against it to get onto the wave?"; and 3) "Once I fall off the wave, will I get mangled while floating downstream, and is there a suitable place to get out of the water?" The more discerning river surfer will also look for waves with a long crest (i.e. long wall or shoulder) and plenty of clean face upon which to maneuver. Keep in mind that the whitewater (or "pile" in kayaker terminology) is very turbulent and no fun to ride. You're looking for a lot of face or "green water", which generally means the wave won't be steep, and so, a longboard is your best bet.

Whitewater can be quite relentless, as it does not necessarily release you like when you wipe out on a progressive wave. Not only can the current continue to carry you downstream, but, worse yet, you can get caught in "keepers", hydraulic features that churn about under the surface and can hold you down for?well, for too long. So you've got to get a spot wired from shore. Figure out how far out from shore you have to paddle to get to the standing wave. Weigh this with the current speed to guess how far upstream you'll have to jump in, then walk an extra 50ft upstream to ensure you'll make the wave. Try to estimate water depth based on the intensity of surface features. Boils generally indicate deeper water, whereas violently breaking surface waves indicate shallow spots. Locate calm spots or eddies, typically close to shore or in the lee of obstacles such as rocks or islands. Such features will help you make it to safety once you've inevitably wiped out.

So now you're ready to take the leap of faith. Stand down at water level and paddle straight out toward the opposite bank, keeping an eye on the approaching take-off spot. Once you're lined up, keep drifting with the board pointed toward the opposite bank, keeping yourself in position. At the last minute, say within 10 feet of the wave, point the board upstream and paddle against the current. This part feels just like catching a "normal" progressive wave, the only difference being that, though you and the wave have roughly the same relative speed as when you're paddling into a progressive wave, you happen to be moving toward the wave and the wave is standing still.

Once you've caught the wave, resist the temptation of sliding down the face on your stomach. Instead, do your usual "pump and jump" to get to your feet as soon as possible, crouch a bit, and make a turn. Now simply maneuver back and forth across the face, trying to keep high on the wave where the power is (as you would on a regular wave). For an initial ride at a new spot, it may be worth riding on your knees. This way you are very stable yet have good control of your board. You can get to know the wave on your knees without having to worry about falling too hard. Note that, once you're on your knees, it's difficult to get to your feet, so once you decide to stand you just have to commit to it on the take off.

You WILL fall. It took 8 stitches to teach me to wear my bike helmet out there. To seem responsible I'll also suggest wearing a life jacket, though I don't wear one myself. A wetsuit and boots are handy to guard against cuts, regardless of the temperature. Having said that, make sure you don't feel for the bottom when you fall! Try to fall flat and keep your legs on the surface as you retrieve your board. A leash is handy to reel-in your board and avoid having it continue surfing while you float away downstream.

Now remember, whitewater can be dangerous. It is recommended that you educate yourself about hydrotopography and consult with an experienced kayaker before heading out on the river.

You will most likely be sharing your standing wave with kayakers. Have no fear though! Kayakers will respect you and you will likely find them quite courteous. After all, you are a novelty act, a "crazy surfer dude/chick", and so you command respect! And if you have to wait your turn, big deal! The swell isn't going to drop, the tide isn't changing, and there's no risk of a sea breeze coming up!

Keep surfing!

John Newgard's great lakes surfing

John Newgard is a coastal engineer, oceanographer, surfer, and Great Lakes surf pioneer. After four years as a coastal engineer with the Canadian Hydraulics Centre at the National Research Council of Canada in Ottawa, he studied artificial surfing reefs in New Zealand, then pursued his masters degree in oceanography at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He then left Canada for 2 years, exploring the entire south coast of Australia for surf, working as an oceanographer at the University of Western Australia, and surfing in eastern Indonesia for several months. He is now back in Halifax, working as an oceanographer at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography. He is hoping to shift gears and move into the field of surf forecasting.

all John Newgard photos are Copyright © 1998-99