By Rob Casey
If some Seattleite told you they chase tug boats wakes out on the Puget Sound and surf head-high peeling waves for up to a half mile, you might think they'd consumed too much craft beer and espresso. But that's just what I've been doing for ten years both in sea kayaks and on SUPs. Local surfer, kiter and paddler Erik Sandstrom said his jaw dropped when he saw it for the first time. "I thought you were full of it until I personally experienced it," Eric remembers. "No one gets it until they go and have a good sesh."
It all started around 2005 when neighbor Todd Switzer and I were paddling our sea kayaks on Shilshole Bay and came across a set of large breaking waves about five feet tall. Being kayak surfers, we naturally spun around and dropped in for a pretty sweet ride down the faces of the waves. After a good surf, our adrenaline was up and we were hoping for more, but it was flat after the set. Curious where the wave came from, we did some research. We cancelled out the possibility of swell coming down from the Strait of Juan de Fuca as it's geographically impossible. We were stumped. Weeks later, we saw a large coastal tug nearly three stories tall chugging past, throwing off a killer wave behind it. Problem solved. The tug was the Titan from Western Towboats, built locally in our neighborhood of Ballard. At 120 feet long with a draft of 20 feet, the Titan cranks out up to 5,000 RPM and can do 360-degree turns under full power.
In time we figured out the tugs run on a weekly schedule, and we began showing up at specific times to surf. The wave occurs on Wednesdays during the middle of the day, so we never have a line-up, just a few dedicated kayakers, a prone paddler and an occasional surf skier or OC paddler. As SUPs became common, some started surfing it standing up.
Tug waves are difficult to catch. Each tug only creates one set of three waves. That's all you get – miss it or wipeout and your session is over. Even in a fast boat, if you're paddling against the current or wind, it's difficult to catch. Unlike ocean swell, which travels a long distance to arrive at shore, the tug waves are just boat wakes and don't pack a lot of power. The waves are similar to wind waves; if you want to catch it, you need to add power to gain speed and drop down the face. It's a lot easier in a sea kayak, surf ski or a SUP longer than 14 feet. Once you gain momentum, you can get glides as long as the wave lasts, which can be a few miles. Since I don't want to paddle a few miles back home I cut the ride short where it jacks up into a fun beach break. Wave size can vary from three to six feet high.
When the Seattle Times covered our tug surfing in 2012, many expressed angry comments stating that our surfing was dangerous in that we could get sucked into the prop or that the waves are a hazard to boaters. We actually have a relationship with the tug company. I contact one of the guys on Facebook prior to each surf session to check their departure times. On the water, they usually give us a little gas to jack the wave up. If other boats are around, they will not fire it up for us and instead decease their cruising speed even more. As for being sucked into the prop, wakes move away from the boat, not into it. All of our rides are a hundred yards or farther from the hull of the tug.
Despite the challenge of catching these waves, it's a great wave option in a region where our closest coastal surf is three hours away.
Since becoming aware of the waves we've learned to surf other boat wakes and have figured out how to catch freighter waves, which break regularly in the summer in Seattle.
–Author Rob Casey offers tug and freighter wave classes for experienced kayakers and standup paddlers through Salmon Bay Paddle.