With the proliferation of whitewater parks in Colorado (like the Buena Vista and Salida parks here in the Ark Valley) and river specific SUP designs (like the Badfish MVP and River Surfer) river surfing is becoming a popular option for park and play whitewater. During the summer, the eddy at the Staircase Wave in BV is often dominated by CKS staff out surfing their SUP boards. When we designed the BV Park and the Office and Scout Waves in Salida, we had stand up paddle boarding in mind as much as kayaking. These three features along with the downtown wave in BV all are great choices for learning to river surf, across a range of flows.
Getting from the eddy to the wave on a stand up paddle board can be challenging initially, but here are some tips, that combined a detailed understanding of the dynamics of the particular spot, will make getting onto the wave much easier.
We have two river surfing technique videos on You Tube that we made with Boardworks/Badfish pro Mike Tavares last summer. They go into a little more detail about surfing technique and move into advanced moves and tricks.
For this post I will focus on the first skill associated with river surfing….getting to the wave. Once you’re surfing you will be stoked just standing up over the rushing water for a while. We can get into Ollie 180’s and pop shuv-its later. Please note that I am assuming you are trying to learn to get onto the wave on your feet, but you can make it easier by paddling from your knees and all the tips still apply.
I am going to break down getting onto the wave into two basic skill areas:
- Know the anatomy of the wave.
- Foot Position.
Anatomy of the Wave:
If you are already a kayaker, then you have a leg up on someone just getting introduced to whitewater through SUP, but you will still be humbled when you first get into river surfing since you have to be more precise on a stand up paddle board than sitting down in a kayak.
Before you jump in the water at a new spot take a minute to stand above the feature and get an understanding of what it’s doing. Things that I look for include:
- How big are the eddys?
- Is one eddy larger than the other?
- Once I fall off the wave is it better to swim one way or the other?
- What is below the wave?
- Is there a last chance eddy that I want to make sure I hit if I miss my first option?
- Where is the eddyline or eddy/wave interface?
- Where is the sweet spot of the wave for surfing and what is in between the eddy and the sweet spot?
Also remember swimming is part of river surfing. Getting off the wave on your feet is even harder than getting onto the wave on your feet. Most of the time we just drag our boards into the eddy using a releasable leash system and quickly swim into the eddy, trying to climb back onto the board before paddling into the eddy just wastes too much time.
Once you have gotten a sense of the wave you have to understand what is going on at the interface between the eddy and the wave. One of the most common mistakes people make when trying to get from the eddy to the wave is to try to enter the wave in the wrong spot. The ideal way to enter a wave on an SUP is to slide onto the face from a position parallel to the wave face. In other words you do not want to paddle above the wave and then fall backwards onto the wave, nor do you want to start to fade into the current downstream of the wave and paddle up over the back of the wave. Both of these techniques are inefficient and tiring, plus they don’t work most of the time.
As you are paddling up the eddy you want to build momentum, as you approach the wave you want transfer that upstream momentum, into lateral momentum when you find yourself parallel with the wave face. Basically you want to get your board gliding with 2-3 hard strokes and then while you are still gliding, place a draw stroke that will help your board slip sideways onto the wave face. As you cross the eddyline you will feel a moment of instability. Once you are surfing you will stabilize and feel more balanced.
Here is a mediocre drawing I did to try to help you visualize.
Foot position in SUP on the river, is the name of the game. If you are glued to one spot on the board you can’t shift your weight and prepare for moments of instability like crossing the eddyline.
For simplicity’s sake let’s define the two basic positions your feet can be in on a SUP board. When your feet are parallel, in the center of the board, let’s call this “paddler’s position”. When your feet are staggered with either your right foot forward (goofy foot) or left foot forward (regular foot) we will call that “surfer’s position”.
I prefer to paddle up the eddy in surfer’s position. I am goofy foot so a river left eddy is easier for me since the wave is on my frontside. You can also paddle up the eddy in paddler’s position and then jump to surfer’s position right when you are crossing the eddy line. Some people aren’t comfortable paddling in surfer’s position, but my advice would be to practice paddling up the eddy in surfer’s position, it’s a much more stable foot position for that moment of instability you will encounter when you cross the eddyline.
I have already hinted at the relationship between the anatomy of a feature and foot position. If you are goofy foot you will find it easier to paddle out of a river left eddy because the feature will be on your frontside. Conversely if you are regular foot a river right eddy will easier. Unfortunately nature (or whitewater park designers) doesn’t always cooperate so you have to develop techniques to get on to a wave when you have to approach it on your backside.
In this situation most people find it easier to start paddling up the eddy in paddler’s position then jump to surfer’s position as they cross the eddyline. The advantage of this approach is that you are in a comfortable position while you paddle up the eddy and can easily spot the point where you are going to cross the eddyline. The disadvantage is that when you cross the eddyline and encounter the moment of instability, you will have the wave on your backside.
Alternatively (and this is what I have mostly been doing these days) you can learn to paddle up the eddy in your switch stance. So since I am goofy foot, when I find myself in a river right eddy, I approach the wave regular foot. Once I am on the wave and stabilized, I just jump back to my natural stance to shred!
Hopefully this brain dump helps and doesn’t just confuse you. Like the backup QB you want to take your mental reps right now while the rivers are low so you are ready to charge when the water comes up this spring. Remember though…the best way to get your river surfing dialed is to head down to BV for Paddlefest May 23-25 and sign up for a river surfing clinic.
Article written by Mike Harvey.
All photos courtesy of Mike Harvey.