How to SUP: Tidal Rapid SUPing

Exploring Seattle's SUP-friendly tidal rapid

A few friends and I recently decided to try our SUPs in the tidal rapids at Deception Pass State Park, about 1.5 hours north of Seattle. 'DP' as we call it is a geological bottleneck where two narrow channels of saltwater run between vertical rock walls below a 1930's Civilian Conservation Crops-era bridge 100 feet overhead.Two large bodies of water squeeze into the bottleneck, which during daily tidal exchanges, creates swift tidal rapids in the channels. Currents get up to 7 knots, half that of Skookumchuck, the notoriously big standing tidal wave north of Vancouver, B.C. But 7 knots is still enough to create turbulent Class II whitewater with large whirlpools, boils, standing waves, and eddylines that will flip any unsuspecting paddler.

Our crew consisted of Naish team rider Beau Whitehead, myself, and Necky Kayaks R&D guy, Tom Swetish. I had been wanting to try an SUP on whitewater, and knew that the rapids at DP weren't as shallow as most rivers and didn't have the sketchy river features such as strainers, undercut ledges, or re-circulating holes. Plus, because tidal rapids change directions four times a day, logs and other debris usually get flushed out.

After checking the current tables for that day, we decided to paddle at Canoe Pass, the smaller of the two channels during the ebb. The ebb is not as strong as the flood at DP but would still offer clean eddylines and less whitewater to contend with—ideal for our first time there on boards. Two of us had river kayaking experience, so it would be a matter of learning to transfer those skills to the SUPs.

Tidal currents start at slack, a calm period which only lasts a few minutes, then begin to increase over a period of approximately three hours to a maximum flood speed, then decrease for another three hours to slack again. The direction changes and the cycle starts over again.

We used the slack tide to paddle into the pass from the west facing Bowman Bay to avoid having to fight opposing currents. You can get caught on one side of the pass for several hours if don't plan around the currents.

As the ebb current began to build, we began to practice our skills at a lower current level before it got too fast. We worked on crossing the channel using ferrying techniques, and peeling in and out of eddies to go downstream.

We started out in an eddy, which is a calm area behind an obstruction such as a rock. Downstream current wraps around the rock creating re-circulating current flowing back upstream. An eddyline is formed in this case from the tip of the rock protruding into the current. Eddylines are areas of unstable water where the downstream current collides with upstream eddy current.

Our goal was to get to the other side of Canoe Pass through the main flow of moving current by doing a ferry. To do this, we had to paddle hard toward the top of the eddy and begin to turn slightly into the eddyline. Crouching and in a surfer's stance, we angled the board's direction into the current at 80 degrees, while simultaneously raising the upstream rail. While paddling hard on the downstream side, we crossed the eddyline and entered the moving current. By keeping our eyes on another eddy across the channel, we paddled directly to it.  We entered the eddy by raising our rail on the downstream side while still crouching and continued paddling until we felt stable and could rest.

After ferrying across the channel a few times, we began to feel more comfortable with our boards. We also practiced peeling out of eddies to go downstream. Using the same method of crossing eddylines as we did in ferrying: We paddled hard to the top of the eddy, raised our upstream rail while crouching low and in surfer's stance, but instead, angled our board direction at about 45 degrees and letting the current swing the nose downstream. We continued paddling to stay stable during the turn, and then while in the main flow of current paddled hard toward another eddy across the channel. We again re-entered the eddy by crouching and raising our downstream rail while continuously paddling until we felt stable.

The key to paddling in rapids on a SUP is to stay low for more stability. Corran Addison uses what he calls his 'kung fu' stance, with feet under shoulders and one foot slightly back, while others use the pure surfing stance. A leash should never be attached to your ankle but instead connected to a quick-release strap on a rescue PFD. While some standup paddlers are against using PFDs, they are required by the Coast Guard in non-surfing areas. In tidal rapids where the water can be very cold, PFDs provide insulation, and a way to carry extra safety gear such as flares, a whistle, a signal mirror, an energy bar, a VHF radio, knife, and possibly a hydration bladder.

Gloves and booties help protect your hands and feet against the barnacle-covered rocks when climbing out of the water for breaks. Paddling in fast-moving currents requires a lot of work, so I always bring along water to stay hydrated. Some wear motocross shin pads in shallow whitewater rivers, but Canoe Pass was deep enough that we didn't need them. We did wear helmets to protect ourselves from our constant falls until we got our sea legs. —Rob Casey

Information on the Deception Pass:

DP Dash:

Deception Pass:

Current Table:

This article is based on material from Rob Casey's forthcoming book, Stand Up Paddling, to be published by the Mountaineers Books in spring 2011.