A lot of aspiring river surfers come from an ocean surfing background. River surfing for ocean surfers can be a little easier than it is for those who are coming into river surfing cold, but there are a lot of aspects of river surfing that are very different. Some are obvious, some not so obvious. Here are some tips:
River Dangers are Different
One of the first things to know is that river dangers are different from ocean dangers. You don’t have to worry about sharks or rip currents, but there are other things that will kill you. Read more here.
Gear: Ditch the Ocean Board
River waves generally aren’t as steep as ocean waves because they are continuously breaking; they don’t wall up and then break like an ocean wave. Combine that with freshwater, where you’re less buoyant than you are in salt water, and you end up needing quite a bit more volume in a river board. There also isn’t as much of a drawback to the extra volume because you’re not duck-diving under anything. You also probably want a shorter board, with more rocker, so you can fit in the river wave without stabbing the nose of your board into the oncoming water.
Short and with a lot of volume. You can go cheap with a foam board; I like the Taquito and the CBC Fish for new surfers, or you can also get something shaped by someone who knows what they’re doing. Either way, that ocean shortboard probably isn’t going to do you much good on all but a few waves.
For other gear recommendations, check here, and if you’ve been surfing warm water so far and need a wetsuit, look here. Also for you warm water surfers, be mindful of Surfer’s Ear. Note that helmets are pretty much mandatory for most shallower waves, and ankle leashes are a no-go for the reasons discussed in the River Safety article you should have already read.
Popups Are Easier
Some waves you can skate or acid drop onto; for others, you’ll want to enter the wave on your belly and pop up from there. This is where you probably have a leg up on those who have come to the sport from whitewater kayaking and the like. Not only do you have the pop up generally down, but it’s generally easier on a river wave because the timing doesn’t matter as much. Since the wave is generally staying in place and continuously breaking if it’s breaking, you can pop up more slowly so long as you’re keeping your board stable.
Carving is Different
Once you’re up, you’ll notice that you have a lot more weight on your back foot and you’re controlling the board a lot more with your back foot than you are on the ocean. This takes some getting used to, but the other elements of controlling the board are the same. Stay low, uses your fins and your edges, and carve away.
Falls: Treat it like Reef Surfing
Most river waves are pretty shallow, since it’s the river’s interaction with the bottom of the river that forms the wave in one way or another. It’s a lot like surfing a shallow, exposed reef break. If you’re surfing something other than a really deep wave (>5’ of water under the wave) with no rocks in the area, wearing a whitewater helmet is mandatory. Brain surgery is expensive.
Also be sure to keep you arms tucked in close to your body when you’re falling. It’s easy to strain or break a wrist if you fall on it wrong.
Fall flat when you fall, and if at all possible, fall onto your board.
Learn to Read the River
Finally, when you started surfing someone probably tried to drill the idea into you that when
you surf a new spot, you should take some time to study the break to figure out how it works. Where are the waves breaking? Where are the currents taking you? Where is the easiest place to paddle out? What is the wave interval and what do the sets look like? Are there any cleanup sets?
Because river forces are generally constant, rather than intermittent like ocean waves, the process of reading a river is a little easier but no less important. Is one side of the wave stronger or weaker? Does it surge?
Pay attention to all of the currents. Are they particularly strong anywhere? Pay special attention to eddies – the areas where water is actually flowing upstream. Once you’re washed off the wave, do you want to swim to one eddy versus another? Which one is stronger and is more likely to deliver you back to the wave? Will any recirculate you somewhere you don’t want to be?
Also pay close attention to worse-case scenarios. If you smash your head and go unconscious, what will you be washed into downstream? Is anything a strainer that will hold you underwater? Are there shallow rocks you should be careful not to catch your feet on?
Reading the river right away and paying particular attention to how the wave works, how the eddies work, and what dangers are out there will make your session safer and more fun.