How to Surf Skook in the Winter
Photos by David and Eli Spiegel
The standing tidal wave that forms in the Skookumchuck Narrows, BC, is one of the world’s premier big wave surf spots for kayakers. It also happens to be one of the most logistically simple big waves to catch. Although it is traditionally a summer destination, paddlers who plan a winter trip to Skook will be rewarded with short lines, sunrise surfs, and phenomenal wildlife viewing. This was my second trip to Skook in the fall or winter off-season and it’s quickly becoming my favorite time to visit.
Grab your passport and head north of the border for the play boating trip of a lifetime!
Shelter from the storm: Early tides in the winter require pre-dawn starts from the marina in Egmont. Whenever the tides get fast enough, the wave forms. In the winter times, these fast tides happen early in the morning and require “alpine starts” in typically rainy weather. On the positive side, you’ll witness beautiful sunrises and your paddle strokes will stir up glittering bioluminescent organisms as you glide across the pitch black water.
To make these predawn starts easier, I recommend renting a small cabin at Backeddy Marina near the town of Egmont. Split it five ways and check for reduced off season rates. They even have a heated work room where we were able to dry out gear over night.
Know your knots: After a 20 minute paddle through the inlet, arrive at the wave and watch it grow from a small ripple to a glassy standing wave! Check Sechelt Rapids tides to plan the dates of your trip far in advance. Check sunrise times to make sure that you will have sufficient daylight to surf while the wave is “in.”
The wave starts to form approximately 2 hours before max flood, so make sure to factor in sunrise times before you drive up for a specific tide. I find that it’s light enough to start surfing about 40 minutes before the official sunrise.
Check the tide charts for “max flood” numbers. The wave is surfable at 11.5 knots or faster, but it really gets steep at 13 knots and becomes huge above 14.5 knots.
Although Canada has a reputation for being a frigid wasteland in the wintertime, coastal BC is mostly just damp. Temperatures at Skook are typically in the 40s. You’ll stay plenty warm through the exertion of surfing. On this trip we had sun breaks every morning and, on the last morning, we had completely clear skies.
Skookumchuck is more than just surf spot. The Sechelt inlet is a beautiful place with stunning wildlife viewing. Although the wildlife is always amazing, wintertime seems to be the best time to view the sea lions and eagles as they hunt salmon downstream from the wave. Sea lions will often surf waves in the tidal rapid while you’re out there.
Meet the “locals”: Arrive at the wave early to sea the tidal creatures that cling to the rocks before the current raises the water level. The wildlife are the real locals here. Good footwear will keep you from cutting your feet on sharp barnacles.
Take it slow: At slower tides (from 11.5 to 13 knots), the wave is retentive, smooth, and relatively user friendly. It’s the ideal place to learn new playboating tricks or just front surf to your heart’s content. Bring a solid roll with you, but the rapids behind the wave doesn’t really get hairy until faster flows. Winter is great for learning new tricks because you won’t sit in a long line every time you flush. We pretty much had the wave to ourselves on this trip, and that is typically of wintertime trips to Skook.
If you’re not feeling comfortable with fast tides, you can still surf near the beginning and end of the wave’s cycle when it is slower and smaller. Bring some snacks, warm layers, and a camera to keep yourself occupied while you enjoy watching the local shredders tear the wave apart.
As the tide gets faster, the wave gets larger and so do the tricks. The wave also gets more dangerous. As the tide pushes over 14.5 knots, the rapid behind the wave turns into a Class V maelstrom of crashing waves and sucking whirlpools. Prepare to “go on tour” if you fail to catch eddy within a hundred yards of the wave. You’ll spend about 20 minutes paddling to the end of the current and riding the eddy back up to the wave—think twice about catching a wave during a fast tide because swimming on “the tour” is nasty business. Everyone takes the tour at some point during the trip. It isn’t the end of the world, but it’s definitely a “no swim” kind of place and you’ll come back exhausted after fighting the boils.
Don’t blow it: Bring an implosion resistant skirt and/or and over-thruster. It’s easy to have a skirt pop when you crash on the wave or get sucked down by a whirlpool.
When the tide peaks over 14.5 knots, the wave will become completely glassy and the rapid behind the wave should be considered Class V.
Teamwork makes the dream work: If one of your teammates swims on the tour, use two safety boaters to empty the boat and get your friend back in the cockpit midstream. This is far easier than towing your buddy’s boat and making them swim all the way to shore.
The wave forms for approximately 4-5 hours per day when the tides are right, which means that you’ll have a lot of downtime after surfing in the wintertime. After the tide slows down, walk back to town or paddle back up the inlet to the marina. Either way is beautiful! There is a boat rack at the wave, so bring a bike lock if you plan to walk back and forth each day after the tide.
R&R: If you surf for 5 hours a day and sleep for 8, that leaves 11 hours of free time for rest and relaxation. Bring some beers, a good book, and download some music in advance because connectivity is extremely limited in the town of Egmont, BC. When it’s cold and dark in the evenings you’ll definitely appreciate having rented a cabin at Backeddy. Egmont does have a pub, but it’s often closed in the winter. If it is open, make sure to stop in for a big ol’ plate of Canadian poutine.
Plan ahead: Buy your beer and groceries before you cross the border. Check the Canadian Border Patrol’s list of items that you can’t bring into Canada. Beverages are expensive up north of the border! And, speaking of the border, don’t forget to bring your passport.
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