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Tidal Races

Photo: Vaughn Roberts video, Penrhyn Mawr Tidal Race (Wales) - Click to enlargevideo link



See descriptions of tidal race (or "tide rip")

Tidal Races

For many years most surfskiers have left human powered boating for recreation in these tidal phenomena to other vessels such as sea kayaks. But in the right circumstances surfskis and OCs can thrive there too and do some kinds of wave surfing better than any other craft. Many of the races listed below will rarely if ever provide worthwhile or safe conditions for surfskis. But some probably offer excellent opportunities when conditions are right and a paddler's skills and local knowledge are up to it. Someone just needs to study more of the tidal races that are reasonably accessible and learn how they work. The surfski and OC communities in the Pacific Northwest have spent time studying and practicing in their nearby tidal races at Deception Pass and Ambleside and find them exceptionally fun and great for conditioning and skill development when conditions are right (though not for the faint of heart or skill when they run big).

Tidal races offer unusual variations of downwinding and surfing with their own technical, challenging and sometimes ill-advised for paddling conditions. Some tidal currents create standing or slow moving waves that are surfable while other locales offer wind swell going against the tidal current with waves stacking up and moving up-current making for downwind like paddling that can be similar to the Columbia Rive Gorge though often with stronger counter current. Catching such tide race waves, particularly fast moving ones against the tide can require a lot of power and acceleration. Skilled sea kayakers often like to play on the waves and in the roil of eddy lines and whirlpools that are common around tide rips, while surfskiers generally are looking for sections where they can use their speed to catch, maneuver on and link waves in a downwind surfing manner. Tide races need to be thoroughly investigated in terms of variability and degree of hazard and either prepared for or avoided as conditions and skills dictate.

  • Further Explanation
    • Tidal Races
      • The Paddler's Guide - Paddling the Tide Race Video (this is from a sea kayaking perspective but it refers to the same kind of wave catching that surfskiers are looking for - surfskiers are typically looking for somewhat cleaner tide race conditions when waves can be linked and there are not so many “surprises” as the video refers to although races will often have more multi-directional waves than most downwinding)
      • Reading Rough Water Video This one is also aimed primarily at sea kayakers, but surfskiers need to understand eddies too if they want to paddle in these kinds of places.
      • Tide Race Safety Tips Video again sea kayak oriented, but many of the tips are applicable for anyone approaching paddling in tide races

Safety - learning Tidal Races

  • Deception Pass - this is one of the better understood tidal races that surfskiers frequent. Notice all of the safety related information included on this page and take it as an example of much of what to pay attention to in many tidal races. But different races can pose other significant risks that need to be recognized, evaluated, and avoided when appropriate (or possibly need to always be avoided). And consider that the safety information for Deception Pass was accumulated from more than just a few trips or a short period of observation.
  • If local knowledge is available (sea kayakers, surfers, etc.) - take full advantage of it. but you will still need to develop your own site expertise, biting off bigger chunks to chew as you gain greater familiarity. Hard to get to sites will probably take more time, more people, and more resources (if you have them - like a power boat?) to gain a reasonable understanding and achieve an adequate safety level for paddling.
  • Some sites may take less time to become familiar if they reveal an unusual level of predictability and stability.
  • Some sites may prove to be unreasonably dangerous due to any or all of the following: volatile unpredicatable weather, remoteness and distance from emergency services, excessive turbulence, excessive boat/ship traffic, inadequate paddler skill levels and/or safety support.
  • Incremental learning steps:
    • First Observe:
      • Observe what happens with different combinations of swell size and direction, local wind speed and direction, and tidal current speed. Pay particular attention to what happens with the more extreme combinations of these variables and begin to compose sets of “conditions that should be avoided” below which may signal a range of viable conditions for paddling. Developing more skill and/or adding additional safety support may allow you to subsequently expand your range of viable conditions.
        • Make note of cleaner areas to paddle in and problem areas to avoid and how they may shrink or expand with different combinations of conditions.
        • Spend plenty of time safely outside of the main race current watching what happens as the current gets stronger. If land is close enough for this observation and there is elevation then you can get a better view in safety. If you can only observe from the water, then the bigger and more stable the vessel you use for observation the better.
    • Initial Paddles:
      • Start out only paddling when the tide and conditions are weaker/smaller AND when the current strength is dropping
        • You can go out incrementally into stronger current as you are ready, but it will almost always be safer while you are still learning to gauge conditions if you choose times when the current will be dropping while you are on the water (exceptions might involve dangers that can come into play at lower tide, such as shallow rocks).
        • If you can work along the edges and practice in smaller waves then great
        • Always pay attention to what is down current from where you are paddling. Make sure that this area offers manageable remount and/or rescue opportunity if you should fall out of your boat.
    • Full safety precautions: particularly when operating in initial exploratory mode
      • Full safety equipment and clothing in good shape.
      • Paddle buddies
      • Emergency communications
      • Spotters on land if helpful
      • Power boat/jet ski support? Note that boat rescue within a tidal race can be dangerous and/or impossible and often is only realistic if one will be carried by the current into calmer seas.



The tide races currently known to us in Australia seem fairly remote.

  • Races - King Sound, Talbot Bay


OC Surfing Ambleside

Baynes Channel Victoria BC



Great Britain



Penwryn Mawr Tidal Race in Wales


Jupiter Inlet Tidal Race Surfing

Big Day at Deception Pass Tide Race (Washington State)

More Sustainable Waves?

Beyond discovering every kind of wave already existing in nature that can possibly be paddled on, what else is happening to grow wave riding opportunity? Surf parks that mechanically generate their own waves are rapidly becoming very popular. But surf ranches, parks, etc. are not really the domain of surfskis. Virtually all current (2021) surfski wave riding, whether in downwinding or on waves (standing and moving) in tidal races is done on waves formed by nature. The environmental cost in producing natural waves is zero in terms of human energy expense/carbon footprint. That “zero” does not take into account the energy expense of transportation to get to such waves or the expense of equipment manufactured for such pursuits but such costs are there to some extent for all waves ridden unless one is body surfing a neighborhood river wave or shore break. Surfers who travel around the world probably have a larger carbon footprint from their travel than they will ever generate from using a surf park, but those kinds of surfers are a small percentage of the whole surfing population. And surf parks hold the promise of vastly increasing the overall numbers of surfers by opening up surfing to largely untapped populations living inland. Some surf parks have made an effort to get their energy from renewable sources, but it is unclear whether they are really contributing to increasing generation of sustainable energy or merely tapping into what is available causing other existing energy users to use a higher % from non-renewable sources.

As of 2021 there is a fledgling movement towards engineering more local wave opportunities in rivers that will cost zero energy to sustain. But standing waves in rivers, particularly those preferred by surfers, do not typically have a shape and steepness that favors surfskis. Then again, who knows? Maybe some of these will have configurations that make them reasonably surfable for surfskis also. Or maybe some surfskiers will want to exercise other water skills and surf with other watercraft (SUP, surf board, wave ski, slalom kayak, ???), particularly in locales where there are limited or non-existent opportunities to downwind or surf naturally formed waves.

About making river waves:

Finding waves where you can:

No Waves

  • Or what about using a bungee like a tow-in to get you onto a wave for surfing against current where you otherwise don't have the speed to get onto such waves? Then you let go and paddle to maneuver and stay on such a wave….

Aqueduct Foiling?

tidal_races.txt · Last modified: 2021/05/19 18:26 by preavley