british columbia tide race adventures

In summer 2015 I took a trip to the famous British Columbia tide races. Traveling with Kate, we visited three classic venues: Skookumchuck, Surge Narrows and Okisollo.

Driving north from Vancouver, we took the Sunshine Coast ferry and drove to Egmont, camping close to Sechelt inlet, home of the famous surfable standing wave known simply as ‘Skook’.

A new venue for me, I was keen to get afloat and curious to witness the large spring tides coinciding with our visit, guessing that the exceptional conditions would simply create more exciting surfing. Kate advised me that a 10-knot tide was ideal for long boats, while our sessions would encounter 16-knot speeds. It all sounded great, to this naive Brit visitor at least.

We paddled a few km to a spur of rock, the submerged ledge of which creates the Skook surf wave. Arriving at LW slack, we enjoyed mellow surfing as the wave gradually developed. Within 30 minutes we were blessed with a 20-metre wide face of ever-steepening green water, becoming more dynamic with the passing minutes.

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 21.10.34

In a borrowed Sterling Reflection my only view was the deepening trough upstream of the wave face, dominated by a huge green slab of water pouring over the rock ledge. I was looking into a pit several feet lower than the eddy from which I had recently exited.

Anxiety won the day and I returned to the eddy – just in time to see the wave close out as the crest collapsed into the trough, creating a powerful recirculation. Lucky timing! It was easy to imagine its potential effect on me and my boat. Returning to shore, I settled down for an afternoon of sunbathing.

As the peak hours approached and passed, I felt little desire to launch into the mayhem of the top wave, a turbulent washing machine promising only carnage. I also had no wish to challenge the appalling conditions extending a kilometre downstream of Skook, on the biggest tide of the year. Possible? Certainly, and surely paddled by some. But not me, not today.

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 21.29.05

The closest experience I could compare was high-volume Alpine white water paddling, with added whirlpools. It looked nasty, a likely swim – and a certain horror show if unseated. I cracked open a beer, gazed at the sky, and chilled out until the final hour of the flood tide arrived.

I waited impatiently for the white wall of foam to relent as the wave began to reveal occasional breaks, the recirculating crest reaching less far into the trough. As the wave turned green I jumped afloat, crossed onto the wave and enjoyed a minute of fabulous surfing – before the crest dumped on me again. Buried in the trough, I felt a mix of frustration at the end of a fantastic ride, anxiety at Skook’s watery grip, and delight at experiencing a classic BC tide race adventure – immersed in a turbulent void in the ocean, in a suddenly-inappropriate vessel.

Digging myself out the trough like a car from a ditch, I spun back into the eddy and launched into the wave as it greened out again. The next 45 minutes were bliss, enhanced by Mike and Kate’s excellent company. Lapping the service eddy, we exhausted the final minutes of the huge spring flood, revelling in the wonderful energy of the wave.

Oh, and the next day? We did it all again…

Our BC tide race tour now took us to Quadra Island, home to Surge Narrows and Okisollo tidal rapids. From our camp next to Surge’s playful eddy lines, we paddled north to Okisollo, a 2-hour trip to reach the fabled venue.

This was a more complex wave than Skook, demanding a ferry out to access the steep section, with a bowl to surf, a shoulder to fall off – and the occasional wave face collapse. On a small spring tide, the power of the feature was less violent than Skook, though still a challenge to surf well.

I watched as Kate shredded the wave, paddling with an elegance befitting this west coast surf girl.

With more surfable time during the tidal phase, I relaxed into the Okisollo experience more than at Skook. Time on the wave face felt smoother, less tense, with more fluent transitions between moves. Rides began to flow, with more precision and less energy lost to fighting the wave.

I noticed that the balance between contact and pressure inside the boat was more suited to the clean waves at Oki. Too much tension creates a loss of fine tuning, with gross movements from edge to edge, rather than a smooth adjustment of hull shape. My Oki moves felt more fluid than the more edgy, hesitant weight shifts I made at Skook.

I also felt more ‘ahead’ of events at Okisollo. Looking at the two clips, I lead with my head more on the latter day. At each venue I rotate my upper body fully into the desired move – an ingrained foundation skill for me – but my head position is better at Oki. At Skook I was often bow-watching, rather than focusing on where I would be in a few seconds’ time.

My sense of – and response to – position on the wave is also better at Okisollo. In the trough or high on the face – each time my posture and weight shifts are suitable and well-timed. At Skook, I sometimes found myself down in the trough of the wave without arc or momentum to climb back up the face – behind the curve, late to the party.

Finally, my stroke linking and blade placement is cleaner and better-timed at Oki. I felt far more blade pressure at Skook, combined with occasionally-messy blade entries.

I was more relaxed at Oki. My fourth day on BC tide races, I was more in tune with the at first-unfamiliar kayak and paddle (excellent kit! Thank you Kate / JF for the Sterling / Saltwood set-up!)

I was also more up to speed with these fast glassy BC tide race waves. Much of my UK tide race paddling is at exposed headlands, where eddy lines are messy and waves break unpredictably. It’s a different challenge. I felt, at Okisollo, that I was ahead of the game at last.

I also took a more pro-active, dynamic approach at Oki. I decided my desired boat position and took action. At Skook I was a little uncertain, wary of the wave and tended to respond – rather than shape events. As a result, my surfing at Skook was less fluent.

I know this because I took time to reflect, watch the footage and compare. I’m stoked (as they say in these parts) to get back to Skook and step up! Remember, we can all be our own best coach. Watch, focus, do, reflect, plan, set goals, go paddle, repeat…