Tidal Race Surfing: A Starter Guide

Tidal Race Surfing: A Starter Guide

By Lee Richardson

Tidal race surfing is extremely exciting and can be fun for paddlers of almost all levels, from fairly novice paddlers to experts. Naturally, there is a progression of skills for novice paddlers that would see them start off paddling in lower current speeds to build their skills and gain confidence, before progressing towards trying to take on faster and more difficult current speeds. Paddlers should be introduced to current speeds gradually, starting at speeds of around 1 knot, and then gradually getting into higher speeds as they feel comfortable taking them on. Novice paddlers should also expand their safety skills and general paddling skills before progressing beyond low current speeds.


Tides, Tides,Tides

With that all said, to get into tidal race surfing paddlers have to become proficient at identifying current speeds and using tide and current tables to make predictions on current speeds. 

Tide heights have a direct impact on the shape of the wave, so tides play a significant role in conditions and what kind of waves will be present for you to surf. Learning to use the tide heights and knowing what the current speeds will be will assist in making solid predictions on what the wave will be like, where and when it will form, and for how long. Expect the wave to evolve since as the tide goes through its cycle the wave shape and speed will change. I use a rule called the 50/90 rule to make predictions on tide speeds and times. To learn more about the 50/90 rule you can read about it in the book linked below,  "Navigation, Sea State, Weather-A Paddler's Manual."

In general, I highly recommend taking some courses that will help build all these skills. The Paddle Canada Level 2 Skills is usually the first introduction to crossing current, and a great place to start learning the many skills needed for tidal race surfing. Once you have all these skills and you can figure out how to predict tides for the tide races, you can start to get to the play spot at the right times.

At one of my favorite play spots, the waves form the best at 2.15 m. I look for max current speeds that match with that tide height to find the best days to play at that location. Some calculations have to be made to figure out tide speeds. One of the best places to find information is in the Tides and Currents tables put out by the Canadian Hydrographic Service. The Tide and Current Tables 50/90 rule mentioned above can really help you figure out the best times to play at your favorite play spot.


Gear Considerations

One thing to consider is how much gear you bring to the play spot. For example, last week I was late getting to the put in. I was planning on camping by the wave we were playing on, but since I missed the slack time and the current was pushing against me, I opted to bring my kayak up to the wave relatively empty, and then go back to retrieve my camping gear closer to the next slack time in the cycle. It may have been impossible for me to attain the current if I had kept my kayak loaded with all my gear, especially if I had been eddy-hopping to get up the current. (If you don’t know already, eddy hopping is using the back eddies as leverage to get up current.) When I know the tide is running against me I try to bring only the essentials so my kayak isn’t too weighed down. I bring a first and second aid kit, some food, water and my regular safety gear required by Transport Canada.

Critical Skills

Not only do you have to get good at predicting the tide heights, but you also need to have some physical kayaking skills to enter into these conditions. Taking Paddle Canada Level 2 and 3 Skills courses will teach you the skills you need to have to enter into these environments confidently. To safely progress beyond anything but the lowest currents, you should know how to do a re-entry in moving water and to be able to assist someone on re-entry in moving water. Practicing in smaller, gentler conditions and then working your way up to faster and more challenging conditions is necessary to get proficient at the skills you need.

To be successful at surfing, and to be able to support your friends and be able to assist them in re-entry, you need to have a proficiency in kayak handling in moving water. This takes practice and patience, the more you paddle in moving-water conditions the better your boat handling skills get. You should also keep refining your skills in flat water because focus on refinement and finesse will go a long way towards getting you successfully surfing.

Ultimately, being able to consistently complete a roll is a huge asset. For example, in a scenario where there is a group of three kayakers, the best case scenario is to have two out of the three able to consistently perform a roll in moving water. If multiple kayakers in the group have a consistent roll, they can avoid a potentially dangerous situation where all three paddlers end up out of their kayaks in moving water, or two of the three paddlers do, leaving the third to try to assist multiple people at once.  

Rolling is an important skill that consistently needs maintenance and practice. I work on mine weekly and try new rolls and rolling in current whenever I can. The groups I paddle with generally have a two-swim rule at our play spots: if you swim twice, it is time to take a break and give others a chance to have some fun. Once you feel rested and have had some time to re-energize, then you can think about entering into dynamic water again. Sometimes it is best to take some time to refine some skills, and then return into the dynamic water once you have perfected the skill you're working on.


Know Your Surroundings

Taking the time to get local knowledge of play spots, and creating a risk assessment for each spot is imperative before just paddling in. Understanding what risks are not only downstream from your play spot, but also upstream is important. The focus on the downstream side of things seems to be more intuitive, however, I heard a story this past weekend that emphasizes just how important it is to research potential upstream risks.  I heard about a fairly new paddler who went to a river to play on a wave, a little different than a tide race, but the paddler did not do any checks for potential risks or hazards before he went. It turns out that while he was out paddling there was a water release scheduled to happen upstream from him. So, while he was out on the water, the release happened, and the resulting large influx of water into the river caused him some problems and he ended up losing his kayak. That is just one example of an upstream hazard that needs to be managed.

Playing in tide races is a lot of fun, and paddlers of almost every level can enjoy it with the right preparation and training. Getting out there safely by planning and managing potential risks, refining and critical skills, practicing small before going big, and bringing the right gear for the situation can set you up for success. Start practicing small and soon you'll be crashing through the surf!

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