Surfing the St. Lawrence
Catching Montreal's new wave
Gen-X athletes in bikinis and wetsuits lounge beside the water, their colorful boards lined up behind them. In the shallows, surfers prepare their gear and wait to ride the rushing wave. Maui? Malibu? Guess again. An hour-and-a-half north of Burlington, they're surfing in Montreal.
Hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean, and practically in the shadow of the city's skyline, this seems an unlikely site for an active surfing scene. But Quebec has something they can only dream about in California or Hawaii: an endless wave.
Imagine a 6-foot wave that runs forever, a wave you can slice and grind until your legs give out. It's a surfer's wet dream, and a reality for those who surf the St. Lawrence River. River surfing is still in its infancy, but the sport is growing. They're catching waves on the Eisbach in Munich, Germany; the Mascaret in Bordeaux, France; the Margaret in Perth, Australia; the Zambezi in Zambia; the Willamette in Oregon; and the Nantahala in North Carolina. The best river wave in the world, though, is said to be in Montreal.
Unlike ocean waves, which move towards the shore and crash, river waves remain in one place and never break. Like artificially generated "swatch waves," they form when a current in a rapid drops over an underwater ledge. The water flowing at the surface moves faster than the layer below, and when they try to equalize, a wave forms. The drop on the down-river side of the ledge, coupled with the "jacked-up" water, forms the face of an endless wave. Most of these are tiny, but some are large enough to surf, and a rare few rival ocean waves.
Montreal's surfing community hangs dix behind Habitat 67, the stacked-boxes apartments designed by Moshe Safdie for Expo '67. A well-worn path runs along the crest of the high riverbank to the site, where steep trails down the embankment allow surfers access to the water. The path also provides a grandstand from which spectators can watch the action on the wave.
The scene here is relaxed; all adrenaline seems reserved for the ride. Spectators wander in, mingle, stay a bit and then move on. Conversations ebb and flow between French and English, with a good measure of surfer jargon thrown in. A reference to a "360" is comprehensible even to an outsider, and an "aerial" is pretty easy to envision. But other terms require explanation. "Going green," for example, is a euphemism for surfing this particular wave that references the point at which the swell changes from a bluish-green-gray shade to a rich, dark, jade color.
Compared to the years of practice required to become a half-decent ocean surfer, mastering the river is relatively easy. Case in point: Hugo Lavictoire. He looks like a pro, confidently positioned on his board and even taking photos of the other surfers while he rides the wave -- but he only started surfing at the end of last year. Like many other Montreal surfers, he owes his accelerated entree to river-surfing guru Corran Addison.
Addison is a world authority on the sport, as well as a champion kayaker who holds, among other distinctions, the world record for the highest waterfall run. It was he who discovered the waves in the rapids of the St. Lawrence, in the late 1990s, while training for the world freestyle kayak championships. He was also the first to surf them. Today Addison, who grew up in South Africa, designs river boards for the Italian company Drago Rossi, and teaches surfing classes in Montreal.
River surfing is a lot easier to get the hang of than the ocean variety, according to Addison. One major reason: time. "On an ocean wave," he explains, "an experienced surfer can expect a 15- to 30-second ride; a beginner, perhaps five to 10 seconds. On a river wave, an experienced surfer can ride for an hour or more." Do the math and the efficiency of river surfing is even more impressive.
"You must spend two hours at the beach to catch 60 seconds of surfing, while two hours at the river provides about 10 minutes of ride time," Addison calculates. "A 10-minute ride on a river wave equates to catching about 20 ocean waves, about a week's worth of beach time. When one river ride equals a week's worth of ocean time, a single month on the river is therefore equivalent to more than a year in the ocean. And," he concludes, "as any athlete knows, the more you practice, the better you get."
Time is on the river surfer's side in other ways as well. As an ocean swell rolls in, the surfer must paddle towards shore to match its speed, then catch the wave, stabilize the board, balance, and move to a standing position before he or she can even begin to ride the wave. All this must be accomplished within a matter of seconds -- a daunting proposition.
On a river, the process is much more relaxed. The surfer first floats downstream, then paddles upstream to slow down, matching the wave's speed by backing onto it. Once the wave has been caught, the beginner has plenty of time to practice stabilizing the board, move from prone to upright in comfortable stages, achieve balance and get comfortable with the wave action. The learner can practice surfing for as long as he or she likes, and is even able to choose when to dismount and end the ride.
"The learning curve is tremendous," states Addison. "You don't need to be young or an athlete, but you need to be a decent swimmer and not be scared of the water or being thrown around."
The predictable nature of river waves helps, too. Swells coming from the deep ocean aren't uniform, and a surfer must learn to "read" which ones will develop into desirable waves. And small changes in the angle of the swells' approach alter a beach's profile, differing the waves' forms from season to season. In contrast, a river wave is stable: the volume of water remains fairly constant, the flow doesn't change direction, and the river's underwater topography is generally immutable.
That hard environment can be hazardous, however. Andre- anne Dumas, who began river surfing in May, is nursing her foot, bruised from striking a rock. She seems undeterred by her injury, though. The water is low now, she notes, and wearing a wet suit helps. Why doesn't everyone wear helmets? Sometimes Dumas wears one and sometimes she doesn't. "It's a judgment call. When the river is moving fast, you sort of skip when you hit, but today I'd probably hit bottom."
When you're wearing a helmet, "You don't take a good picture," jokes another woman with a heavy French accent.
"I've seen a couple of guys come out bloodied," adds Lavictoire.
The presence of rocks requires river boards to be tougher than their ocean-faring cousins. They're made from either heavy fiberglass or fiberglass and carbon fiber, are shorter, and have heavier rails than the sleek, Califor- nia-style boards seen in old surfer movies. Stubby rear ends make it easier to back up onto the wave, and triple fins improve stability. Ankle leashes ensure the boards won't float away down the river.
Is pollution a concern? "I try and keep my mouth shut," quips Addison. "Occasionally you see a condom or something, but I just came back from the Amazon, surfing the Pororoca tidal bore, and when you lose the wave you're up to your neck in dark brown water filled with piranhas, crocodiles and anacondas, hoping the pickup boat will be quick. This is tame."
The St. Lawrence isn't the only river in Quebec you can ride. A wave forms in the Chambly rapids on the Richelieu River between mid-April and mid-May -- but that's cold surfing. Another can be found on the Gatineau River near Quebec City. Then there's the Maverick in the Lachine rapids of Montreal, but locating it in the massive white water is nearly impossible, and it's incredibly dangerous. "The consequences of a mistake are dire," says Addison. "There are bad whirlpools, underwater caves you can be swept into, re-circulating hydraulics, no landmarks, and it's 500 meters from shore."
The Habitat wave is the largest and the safest in the province. Plus, it forms all season long, near the shore, and is easy to reach. And considering that 10 minutes from the water you can be sipping wine in an Old Montreal cafe -- who needs palm trees?