By Rob Casey
In the early 2000’s, another friend and I were having fun surfing recreational boat wakes on Seattle’s Shilshole Bay. One day we saw a huge tug without a barge go by throwing off a huge peeling wave. Naturally, we had to surf it. Nearly 20 years later, we’re still surfing those tug waves. On a good day, the waves can be surfed for a half mile across the bay to West Point Lighthouse. Further if we wanted to, but we have to paddle back.
And they’re not just any tug. The best waves are from the ‘Titans’ from Seattle based Western Towboat Company. The 120 foot long blue-yellow coastal tugs have a horsepower and RPM of 5,000 / 1600 which when running casually put off three 6 foot tall peeling waves and a lot of whitewater behind the stern. Once a friend’s Fitbit heart rate hit higher than his usual race start levels just watching the tug come towards us
When we catch the waves, we are on the tug’s first hour of a two week trip to Whittier, Alaska and back to Seattle. Their dock is on Seattle’s Ship Canal. They then ‘lock out’ from the Chittenden Locks then enter Shilshole Bay where we meet them a half mile off-shore. After we surf the waves, the tugs head to Seattle’s Harbor Island, pick up a big barge and head north by early evening. The boats are on a Wednesday and Friday mid-day schedule so we know where to be and when tracking them on the app Marine Traffic. And sometimes they just cruise by when we’re out paddling.
We’ve found that the waves are like wind waves often surfed by downwinding. They’re big but not powerful like a coastal wave. Yet, when a set is coming our way, they’re make a loud crashing sound and certainly look like an ocean wave or sometimes a freight train with tug’s smokestack headed our way. Like catching a downwind wave, boats 14’ or longer are best to gain enough speed to ‘drop-in’ on the wave face and stay with the wave for its duration.
We first surfed them on sea kayaks. Then I went through a decade long SUP focus. Years ago, I saw a friend fire down a wave face with a lot of speed and control on a surf ski. I knew then that was the ultimate way to surf these waves. Recently getting back to sitting down and with a new Carbonology Sport Cruze surf ski, I’m catching longer rides easier than ever before.
Tips for Catching Tug Waves:
These boats come out of the Ballard Locks on the above mentioned weekdays times, and other times as well. It does help to have downwinding or coastal surf experience to catch the waves as they can be quite large and steep. We drop in then turn down the wave face to avoid ‘pearling’ or wiping out by diving the bow into the wave.
I always wear a leash and vest life jacket for safety. Bright colors are smart to stand out and so the tug can see you as well. You should be able to paddle 3-4 miles as you’ll be paddling that distance back after surfing, sometimes in wind.
Avoiding crossing in front of the tug as they may not see you and take a while to slow down. If you surf alongside them, wave and let them know you see them. They’re used to paddlers cutting across their bow in summer months. Be willing to wipe out so dress for the water temps.
As a safety note, some hear about us surfing tug waves and imagine us right next to the tug. The whitewater by the tug is so much it pushes everything away. The good waves build about 25 feet from the hull and push in a ‘V’ shape behind and away from the boat. Our rides take us away from the boat unless we surf back towards the hull on purpose.