If you have driven along the Turnagain Arm during the bore tide, you have likely seen surfers splashing in the cold water as they ride the waves.
These surfers are among the few Alaskans who ply the changing tides for a chance to ride some good waves, despite the cold water, mud flats, and sea life.
Among them are an up-and-coming surfer named Hailey Driver.
A few years ago, Driver wasn’t sure how surfing was done, but she wanted to learn.
“I would say I’m self-taught,” she said. “I was too scared to get out on the board when I first started. It was just a matter of going out to the parking lot and getting into the water with someone, but I’ve always been very headstrong about learning stuff myself.”
She relied mostly on YouTube videos to help her master the technique and improve her form through trial and error.
“Just recently in Costa Rica was the first time in four years that I’ve had one-on-one coaching, but I’ve mostly just been figuring it out the hard way,” she explained.
She started playing on a paddleboard in the changing tides along the Turnagain Arm, but her activity quickly became an important part of her life.
“It completely changed my life!” Driver said. “From the first time when I was out there I was just addicted to it. I was out there twice a day every day till I couldn’t move anymore. It’s based off the tides so thank goodness I had mandatory rest. The bore tide is so much fun but it’s not the biggest wave out there and the size differentiates from being over your head or just being an ankle-biter of a wave. Once I had a taste for the ones over my head, I just wanted to chase that!”
She has traveled around the country in pursuit of that thrill and to compete in paddleboard racing, which helped her obtain a rare opportunity; the chance to train beginners in Costa Rica in exchange for room and board and one-on-one training to prepare her for competitive surfing.
“My life pretty much revolves around surfing now, and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she laughed.
Though Driver grew up snowboarding, skateboarding, and longboarding, she eventually decided surfing was her favorite sport.
“When you’re going down on a snowboard you’re going down a still mountain, and when you’re scared or uncomfortable you just sit down and you can take a break. On a wave, there is no break. You’re part of this monster and every day you make it out of one you feel super accomplished. The ocean is very unpredictable, every wave and break is different. You’re always learning. My favorite thing is learning, and surfing is never ending with that.”
Surfing is empowering Driver to travel the country and meet people while enjoying the outdoor lifestyle. It’s a great chance to meet a plethora of fascinating people who share the same interests from a broad swath of backgrounds.
But, can other Alaskans enjoy the sport while not leaving the state as well?
Of course! Some precautions are highly encouraged though.
Driver is very aware of the hazards of surfing in the bore tide along the Turnagain Arm, or any location for that matter. The rolling waves can quickly become something from a nightmare if they hold surfers under water. Surfers’ leashes to their boards can snap, leaving them to drift in the water as their boards float away, or they can break their paddle, all things which have happened to Driver.
“When things go wrong, things can go wrong pretty quickly,” she said.
When things go wrong, Driver remains calm, remembering the first time a wave held her under the water longer than she had planned. “I don’t know what would have happened if I had freaked out,” she said.
Driver offers the following tips for beginners.
Like anywhere, the waves can be unpredictable. As such, surfers should expect to occasionally be held under the waves longer than expected without panicking, which will only make it worse.
It goes without saying, but surfing in Alaska is cold business sometimes. During wintertime, waters can drop to 40 degrees in the Turnagain Arm. Surfers answer this dilemma by investing in good wetsuits, booties, hoodies, and gloves. When properly attired, Driver complains of being too warm.
This is Alaska, so wildlife does not end at the water’s edge. Though surfers don’t need to be concerned about bears, wolves or angry moose, they do need to keep an eye out for beluga whales and sea lions. Most of the sea lions are just curious about surfers, but they can be a nuisance due to their size and strength in the water.
Losing one’s board
In the Turnagain Arm, someone who falls off their board will not simply be pushed back onto shore like at beaches. More likely, someone will be washed to the middle of the Turnagain Arm due to the currents, as far away from shore as possible.
Though surfers do not spend extensive time on the mudflats, they are still cautioned against standing in one place for too long, lest they sink into the mud and become stuck.
Those aware of the hazards and who still want to surf in Alaska will have a rewarding experience. Driver recommends taking the following steps to ensure a fun, but safe, outing.
No certification is required to begin surfing. One could pick up a board and be in the water an hour later. Instead of taking this route, Driver recommends starting slowly by purchasing a paddleboard and finding calmer waters at a lake to practice balancing and paddling.
After feeling comfortable with the board, and feeling well-balanced, then it could be time to consider riding waves.
Talking specifically about paddle surfing, Driver said, “Some people I’ve noticed just want to go straight for performance gear before they learn, but if you can’t stand on the board and paddle it around comfortably, you’re not going to catch a wave.”
The important thing for beginners is that they are confident that can paddle back to shore. At first, go with a friend for emergencies as well.
The first item many people think of when considering gear is the board, which can range from $300-$3000. High-dollar performance boards (which are shorter and have fins on the bottom) are not particularly popular in Alaska because of the damage they endure. Inflatable paddle boards are also a good option for those with limited storage space, though they are more suited for creeks and rivers than the bore tide.
When starting out, a longer board is useful for providing more control and balance. Ultimately, it comes down to what board beginners feel comfortable with.
Driver finds that the “Wavestorm” brand is a less expensive option for riding waves and might be another good option for beginners afraid of breaking their board because they are cheaper.
The water in Alaska is, unsurprisingly, chilly. Investing in a good wetsuit and booties will go a long way to ensuring an enjoyable experience. The thickness of the suit comes down to what the surfer will be most comfortable with.
Driver suggests beginners consider suits that are 6 millimeters thick, giving them warmth and buoyancy similar to a lifejacket. Other good options include suits that are 5 millimeters around the body and 4 millimeters around the joints for increased range of motion.
If someone is struggling with finding a good suit at REI, Driver recommends exploring Wetsuitwarehouse.com.
Before May or after August, investing in a hoodie and gloves is also important. These can cost anywhere from $10 at Walmart to $80.
Properly maintaining your gear is critical for maximizing its performance and life expectancy.
Driver said, “Caring for your gear is huge, especially if you’re surfing in the silty water around here. If you don’t rinse out your wetsuit real good and get that out, it’s going to ruin your wetsuit really quickly.”
If someone is going out regularly, Driver urges people to do a deep clean of their gear by soaking it in a bathtub with Dr. Bronner soap and air drying.
If someone tears their suit, he/she should try Aquaseal to patch it before investing in another suit.
A properly maintained suit will last for years and will keep the surfer warm, despite the freezing water during winter. When people ask Driver if she’s freezing, she takes off her glove and shakes their hand to show how warm she is.
What are good conditions?
This varies by location. For surfing the bore tide on the Turnagain Arm, keeping a close eye on the tide book is paramount. Optimum waves are created from tide changes from low tides of 4 feet or lower and high tide of 20 feet or more.
Also, people reading the tide book should remember that the tides in the Turnagain Arm are two hours behind Anchorage’s.
Winds from the east are preferable because they help the waves to peak, whereas strong western wind slows the waves, making it hardly worth the trip in Driver’s opinion.
Other good locations in Alaska for surfing include Bear Glacier in the Kenai Fjords National Park, Kodiak Island and, for the more advanced, Montague Island outside of Seward.
Following these simple steps will make beginner’s first surfing experience a more positive one. The culture of surfers enjoying the bore tide along the Seward Highway is such that many of the surfers are quick to see a novice and casually offer advice as well.
Driver said, “If you’re an adrenaline junky, include surfing into your life. You won’t regret it! Just the feeling of riding nature and feeling it move you is the coolest thing.”
Jamin Goecker: walked onto Angelo State University’s track and cross country teams in 2011 without competing in high school. When his NCAA eligibility expired, he broke the school’s 10,000-meter record with a time of 31:32.69. He has coached numerous teams and individuals and loves answering questions for fitness and competitive-oriented runners. Currently, he is training to run marathons as he works as a licensed realtor. Contact him at Jaminwrites@gmail.com