How to SUP: Surfing Freighter Waves

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The crew from Seattle’s Surf Ballard, watching a fast-moving freighter and gauging a potential 300-yard ride. Photo: Rob Casey

How to SUP: Surfing Freighter Waves

When ocean waves are a distant dream, some standup paddlers will go to great lengths to improvise worthy rides. SUP magazine contributor Rob Casey shares a few tips from his experience watching, waiting for, and ripping the elusive freighter-generated waves of Washington’s Puget Sound.

Most wave riders think of freighter- or tanker-wave surfing, they think of the guys in Texas featured in the surfing movie, Step Into the Liquid. On the Puget Sound near Seattle, however, we've been surfing freighter and tug waves for nearly a decade in sea kayaks, and have recently begun to surf using standup boards. For our small core of dedicated wave hunters, the coast is three long hours away, while the boat wakes are a mere five minutes from home. We surf the coastal tugs, which typically create about three very steep waves in the deep water in the middle of the sound. These waves require speed to catch as well as a long paddle to where they're breaking. A long, fast board is required to drop in—the Bark 14 Expedition is an ideal example.

For freighter, tanker, and cruise ship waves, study marine charts to determine where the main flow of shipping is, and whether the waves from those boats will reach specific beaches that resemble good surfing breaks, whether it's a point, beach, or reef break. Lower tides are often your best bet at most spots with little wind or tidal current. In some cases the waves are just as clean and well formed as the best coastal surfing spots. I've had 300-yard long rides and overhead faces. And there's never a lineup as shipping traffic is infrequent, and even the slightest variation in wind or current can flatten an incoming set. Patience is paramount—one has to be willing to wait for up to an hour for a set only to get skunked. (In simply finding the waves to film this short video, it took me over a month to get enough footage to work with.) But the convergence of a proper tide, weather conditions, and certain fast moving boats make it all worthwhile.

Marinetraffic.com can help track shipping movements. This website provides information on the type of ship, its speed and destination. Like all real-time sites, it tends to be slow at times, so plan to carry a good pair of binoculars to scan the horizon. We also rely on local Web cams to check tide and wind levels, as well as to confirm the location of ships if possible. If you have to travel considerable distances in open water to catch a wave, make sure to wear a leash, to dress for immersion, and to understand your local boating right-of-way regulations. In most cases, standup paddlers don't have right-of-way over larger ships, and getting caught in front of a fast-moving boat is, well, not recommended. —Rob Casey


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