The Sport of River Surfing by a Former OBcean

by on September 14, 2018 · 5 comments

in Ocean Beach

Bend Wave Shaper Ryan Richards carving. Perk of the job

A Surfer Anniversary OB Probably Missed

by Seal Morgan

Did you know that July of this year was the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the sport of US riversurfing?

And, strangely enough, it was a San Diego kayaker/surfer working as a Jackson Hole whitewater raft guide back in 1978 who saw the potential and managed to stand up that summer on the Snake River’s Lunch Counter Class 3 Rapids standing wave. Mike Fitzpatrick and two friends admit they didn’t surf it well being as they were far more into kayaking, and they didn’t keep surfing that spot in the years afterward until recently, but Fitz and his friends are no doubt the Founders of US riversurfing.

Ten years after that watershed moment, in early Spring of 1988, this OB-born/Mission Beach-raised surf kid jumped into the 39 degree Snake River that was moving 35mph on a 5’10” twinfin I shaped and glassed at my ding shop on Sunset Cliffs Blvd. I was wearing my O’Neill 3mm zip across the shoulders, turtleneck winter wetsuit, booties, a surf cap, and wetsuit gloves (which didn’t work so I took them off). It was freezing cold! Took my breath away instantly. And I stood up and rode the first smallish early-season wave I jumped into.

Local Bend ripper

Two minutes later my legs were shaking from fatigue and my muscles were cramping. A two minute wave with the entire ocean pounding against you? Exhausting! Exhilarating!

My old surfer friend and snowboard partner DP (Don Piburn from Sierra Mesa) and I saw very few other surfers try their luck there over the next four years of Spring runoff surfing. Less than the fingers on your two hands and almost none managed to stand up.

The nearly weekly (sometimes ditching classes due to high water reports) three hour drives north from Utah State University found us camping and surfing alone at what is now, 30 years later, a world-class, world-famous, popular, and often crowded surf spot. Times have certainly changed!

Riversurfing is a growing world-wide sport with many small local contests and even the World Championship held in Europe every year. Europe also hosts the world’s premier riversurfing ‘zine Riverbreak Magazine, an online publication out of Austria  which is a great source of info about the sport both here in the US and around the world.

Europe has also become the hotbed of riversurfing on both natural and human-enhanced river waves over the last couple of decades. But the US and Canadian river surfers are catching up! Old school surf searches on rivers all over this continent are finding new spots constantly. Many are published by the surfers who found the new waves on the Riverbreak Magazine’s website. From Georgia to Washington State, there are river waves everywhere.

Author Seal surfs Bend wave.

River vs. Ocean Waves

There are a host of important differences between ocean waves and rivers. One that most ocean surfers don’t think of is that they don’t float as well in fresh water. Boards tend to sink more under you, especially on our normal wafer-thin high performance shortboards, and that makes it much, much harder to paddle. Most of the boards being specifically shaped for river surfing are shorter and a bit thicker due to not only the flotation problem but because of the very short turn ratios needed in river waves.

Small boards are definitely necessary on the man-made hydraulic adjustable ‘plate’ waves that are being built. In the US, you see these river boards at the Boise Idaho Whitewater Park, currently in Phase III which includes another surf wave farther upstream, and the Bend Oregon wave that I surfed last October after the North American River Surfing Summit conference that was held in that city. The borrowed twinfin I was on was a 4’3” pig that afforded me a little more flotation, and was short enough to not get caught by the short turn radius needed to ride the wave.

And yes, old guy and Pipeline Master Gerry Lopez lives in Bend and surfs that wave frequently according to the Bend Parks & Rec Wave Shaper Ryan Richards whom I stayed with during the conference. Unfortunately Lopez wasn’t there the day I surfed it but it was October and there wasn’t that much water running through the Whitewater Park needed to create the best wave it can produce.

Local Bend Kayaker woman switches to surfing the Wave

Another difference is that the force of the wave you are riding does NOT diminish. Ever. Think of being caught in the Sunset Beach rip on a big day. You cannot bull your way through the current because it is going to win. You have to think your way out, know the eddy lines and backwater places you can paddle for as you are being swept downstream.

You have to realize that the wave and water flow are backwards on a river! This is because the wave you are riding doesn’t head for the beach. Instead, the wave stays in one place while you get sucked through it and spit downstream at high velocity and you find yourself locked into a raging river current full of whirlpools and rocks that, if you don’t know what you are doing, can land you in a world of hurt and trouble. There aren’t any lifeguards at river wave sites.

River surfers have a brotherhood that has sadly gone missing for the most part in the ocean. They watch out for one another, keep track of who is where doing what, and so do the folks in the kayaks. We all stay aware of one another because trouble happens very fast on a river.

What Is Good Surf?

Like the ocean, the quality of the wave is due to the tides and swell. In this case tides and swell are predicated on the CFS levels the river is running at. Big water makes or breaks a good wave day.

CFS is Cubic Feet Per Second, how much water is flowing, and the higher the tide is the better for most river waves. More water means faster and deeper water over the rocks and shelves that create natural waves like Wyoming’s Lunch Counter or Brennan’s Wave in Missoula Montana. Those are what are called ‘fixed feature’ natural waves where places like Boise and Bend can adjust the plates and actually shape the wave and make it surf worthy even with marginal water flows. Europe has invested big in adjustable waves unlike the US. But we’re learning and many areas are starting to fund drive and plot out a new way to enjoy their local rivers.

Finding a River Wave

Natural bottom formations create surf waves in many places but few have the combination of downstream safety zones and deep water like Lunch Counter. But waves are being found in states all over the US. Here are some tips about surfing rivers.

You have to allow enough time to get out of the water after kicking out or falling on a river wave. Know your get-out! Plan for the worse hope for the best, but PLAN FOR THE WORST. If you screw up, if your leash breaks (more on leashes in a minute) and you are separated from your board; if there is nobody close enough to help you before you get sucked into the next downstream series of rapids, don’t jump in.

You had best be a very strong paddler, have excellent breath control, and hopefully have learned not to panic in dangerous situations before you ever try this sport.


Helmets are being worn by riversurfers at many spots due to the shallowness and rocky bottoms one faces when you fall or get sucked down. Boulders in rivers are rather unforgiving when your head slams into one.

Life Vests

New tech thin-layer inflatable emergency float vests have come onto the scene which allows for much better control while laying on your board paddling compared to the old school wakesurf/water ski vests. They are a bit spendy but eminently practical. Pull a tab when you are in trouble and you will get to air.

When DP and I were surfing Lunch Counter we weren’t wearing life vests due to the inability to paddle and stay on our boards with them on. They were too thick, too bulky, and they tended to roll us right off the board in rough water when paddling. And it was always rough water!!

You cannot swim your way out of a whirlpool or the downstream current of a roaring river. You are a leaf, a twig, swept away by a power you can’t really understand as an ocean surfer who has a wave moving over and away from them. The hold-down current never stops. Think about that for a minute.

Leashes: Positive and Negative

Back in the old days of the late 80s/early 90s we relied on our surf leashes attached to our ankles. Which, as all surfers know, fail from time to time. I personally saved two surfers at Lunch Counter, and one was due to a failed leash. They both were going to drown.

There are few river waves that you really want an ankle leash on anyway. If you get swept around a rock while your board goes around the other side, you will NOT be able to reach you ankle to unhook the velcro. No way no how, not even to cut it with a knife you might carry sheathed on your waist. The river will keep you stretched out like a kite in a high wind and you won’t even be able to bend at the waist much less reach to your ankle. You will drown.

New leash set-ups are being tested where the least is attached to your bicep or to the front of the high tech vests. Others are now hooked at the waist which one can reach even if you are wrapped up by the full force of the river.

The man-made waves are also rather unforgiving to ankle-connected leashes as the cord can wrap around a plate or strut underwater when you fall. I’ll use an ankle leash at Lunch Counter, the water is deep behind the wave and there is much less chance of hooking oneself on a rock. But at the Bend wave I had the leash attached to the bicep (I don’t own one of the new high tech vests) so that if I did wrap up I could yank it. As it so happens I didn’t make it out of the current on my last wave and had to let the board go to take the drop feet first over the next set of rapids. Much easier to yank it off the arm than reach for the ankle! Broke one of the fins off the borrowed board on that drop, too, and that ended my surf that day.

Canadian Jacob & author Seal.

So there ya go, OB surfers. A little how-to on river surfing. In my 3-part free-to-read book ‘The Lunch Counter Trilogy’ about the early days of river surfing, in one of the video segments (3 on a Wave) you can count 35 backside bottom turns to rollercoaster off the top to cutback in three minutes. Try doing that at the OB Pier. Jello legs, boys & girls!

You may never go ride Skookumchuck in British Columbia which is about the scariest and biggest river wave known in North America, but I guarantee you’ll be pleasantly surprised at just how much fun a river wave going 30 miles an hour can be.

Seal Morgan, OB born/MB raised and formerly Seal’s Ding Repair on Sunset Cliffs Blvd. still ocean surfs, 4-wheel concrete surfs, teaches mountain surfing on snowboards at his local hill, river surfs, and wake surfs on local lakes. Read  Seal & DP’s ‘The Lunch Counter Trilogy’ story and watch the oldest known  caught-on-film big wave CFS surfing at Lunch Counter at

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

ObKid September 14, 2018 at 11:21 am

No thanks to rivers or wave pools


Chris September 14, 2018 at 8:47 pm

Rivers are natural unlike wavepools so yes to them.


Don Piburn September 15, 2018 at 12:59 am

Do it all.
Seal and I were a couple of young San Diego surfers and 1970s outlaw skateboarders looking for new ways to have fun, and that attitude helped to pioneer a new sport. ( Ocean surf, river surf, skateboard, snowboard, wakeboard, rock climb, or whatever. I moved to the Hawaiian Islands 25 years ago, and I still ride waves on relative consequence (for a guy in his 60s) on Oahu’s north shore . Seal still rips the tree runs on a snowboard in Eastern Washington. The attitude is the same. Only the medium changes.


Donald Piburn September 15, 2018 at 9:54 am

Do it all:
Ocean surf, river surf, skateboard, snowboard, wakeboard, kayak, rock climb, whatever… Seal and I were just a couple of San Diego surfers and 70s outlaw skateboarders looking to have fun, and that attitude helped to pioneer a new sport ( I moved to Hawai’i 25 years ago and I’m still having fun riding waves of relative consequence (for a guy in his 60s), and Seal still rips the tree runs on his snowboard in Eastern Washington. The attitude is the same. Only the medium changes.
Don Piburn


Jason Carey September 15, 2018 at 3:27 pm

Glenwood springs needs some props too!


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