The Weird Ones
By Dylan Graves and Illustrated by Alex Balosie
SURFING IS WEIRD.
People invest absurd amounts of effort, money and science to put people upright on moving bumps of water. But once hooked, any surfer would bend over backwards to find their perfect conditions. Yes, surfing is weird, and that’s what we love about it. It’s different and unique every time you paddle out. Even if you surf the same wave everyday. It’s a box of chocolates out there.
When I was a kid, I landed my first air on a novelty wave near my home in Puerto Rico. The wave was this tricky sideways refraction wedge that was hard to calculate. But over years of trial and error, it led to one of my biggest surfing breakthroughs. From that point forward, novelty waves were synonymous with progression—you can’t tap into something new by doing the old thing. Novelty surfing makes me feel like anything is possible. No time to think, you just react. It’s jazz.
Another thing surfing offers is the ability to travel around the world and tap into unique communities that organize themselves around waves. It’s like a not-so-secret society that you can always find if you’re looking for it, whether it’s a surf shop, or group of locals or just one single surfer. They are usually the highlight of any trip (weird wave or not) when you see someone or, in some cases, an entire community interacting with surfing in their own way. In June 2014, I went on my first inland surf trip to a river wave near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, called the Lunch Counter. It was one of the most refreshing surf trips I’ve ever done. Being able to be on a “surf trip” in the middle of the U.S. completely blew my mind. The sites, the surfers, the waves, and, specifically, the vibe, all made it clear to me that surfing had been quietly blossoming in places nobody suspected (or maybe it was just me).
This was essentially how the series Weird Waves was born.
Over the last four seasons of filming, we circled the world documenting the strangest wave phenomena known to man. These liquid curiosities, I have found, fall into several categories… which in turn attract several categories of humans. Let’s geek out.
- Severn Bore, UK
- Seven Ghosts, Sumatra
- Silver Dragon, China
- Amazon River
This is how we surf a river. An hour before the wave arrives, some forty people converge in a remote parking lot. There’s a fidgety buzz as we all wax boards, wriggle rubber and strategize our approach. The territorial “my wave!” vibe endemic to coastal surfing does not exist here. We’re all here to share one wave. For a long time.
Tidal bores occur when large tidal events force water backward up a river. The opposition of flows running over an angled river bank creates a wave that runs upriver. These big tides are caused by big moons (typically full and new), so surfing a tidal bore is a lunar ritual. There’s usually just one rideable wave, so everyone shares it. And because of these elements—the moon, the wave, the whole surfy circus of it— tidal bores take on a festival feel.
You see the wave coming from way up the river. It surges over the banks and roughly shoves everything wrongways: foliage, animals, flotsam and jetsam. Everyone enters the ebbing river and assumes their post. Waiting. Different boards, different strategies, different skill levels, all poised together. Then you paddle paddle paddle as the tidal tsunami surges upon you—this big, backward party wave. Some of these waves run for miles upriver, so you actually have time to think about it, to look around and sightsee a bit. You pass through an ancient Chinese city (Silver Dragon), or along quaint English countryside (Severn Bore), or between panoramic Alaskan ranges with bald eagles swooping by and grizzlies gaping from shore. On some of these waves, you might even fall off, then use a follow-car or a support-Jet Ski to catch up to the surge and try again.
Afterward, people celebrate. Everyone just shared this experience together, so they’re oddly bonded. In England, after we rode the Severn Bore many miles through the country, we went out to breakfast with 40 other surfers. Can you imagine that happening after an intense session in the ocean?
- Eisbach, Germany
- Bend, OR
- Boise, ID
- Zambezi River, Zambia
On the other end of the river-surfing spectrum, a standing wave just stands there. Like a public skatepark or a backyard mini-ramp, a fixture of its environment. Surfers arrive in shifts. The before-work crew. The afterschool kids. Mid-day rinse. Sunset beers. Spotlight ninjas. They show up, wait their turns, get their fix, and return from whence they came.
A standing wave is essentially formed by two main ingredients, water flow (water traveling in one direction) and bathymetry (either deep hole, rock, or combination of both). For example: When flowing water (a river) plunges into a deep hole but is suddenly thwarted by a boulder. The resulting backflow recirculates against the river’s topflow and forms a wave that never moves. Gurgling in place. It is nature’s FlowRider machine.
Just like a skate ramp session, when you’re not surfing you’re watching the other riders. Cheering for them. You want to see them succeed. To do something cool. People take turns, trade boards, socialize. There’s no competition. No limited resource. No weather issues. And thus, no localism. Bring your coffee. Share a six-pack. Loan your board. Sometimes a random kayaker will float down the river, shred the bowl for a minute then continue on downstream. Or maybe a pack of inner tubers floats by just tripping out on the whole scene.
The standing wave in Eisbach is one of the sport’s original weird waves. There are city-funded standing waves in towns like Bend and Boise. And there are remote, hike-in waves like Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Africa’s Zambezi river, where it’s more like a surf trip. Zambezi is actually a proper wave, with a big, intense wall, crocodiles, and downstream whirlpools that have swallowed boats whole. And each year, when the local kids dig out the Waimea River on Oahu’s North Shore, the resulting standing wave becomes a social media darling.
The ride is funny. More snowboarding than surfing, perhaps. Like balancing against an upward rush or water without the hurtling momentum of true surfing. But once you recalibrate to this feeling, master the drop-in, your exit, and learn to traverse the sections, the experience becomes quite surfy. And if you need more practice, you know exactly where to find it.
- Lake Tahoe
- The Great Lakes
- Baltic Sea (not a lake, but same phenomenon)
For waves to exist—like, actual surfable waves—you need wind to blow over water for an extended period of time, and then you need that energy to carry over (preferably) a long distance, called fetch, which allows the chaotic storm energy to organize itself into traveling “sets” of waves. Wind + Water + Fetch = Waves. Bathymetry is obviously in the mix somewhere too.
By that calculation, if a lake or sea is big enough, long enough, deep enough, then it has potential for waves—as long as it gets exposed to a proper storm at the proper angle. Which is exactly what you find in places like the Great Lakes region of the United States, or Lake Tahoe in California (not to mention certain landlocked seas like the Mediterranean or the Baltic). The waves aren’t typically very good, which may in fact be why the surfers in these regions are the nicest you’ll find anywhere. It’s that big asterisk next to the word “surfing,” so no one takes it too seriously.
Wait, I shouldn’t say that: The so-called “locals” at these lakes take their surfing plenty seriously. But they don’t tend to take themselves equally so. No one’s making the world tour out here. Full-on Jamaican bobsled vibes. I guess this makes me realize they might actually be more true to surfing than ocean surfers.
By ocean standards, the waves are mostly small, choppy and gutless. It’s so hard to score any decent conditions in a lake that when people encounter other lake surfers, you’re instantly bonded. Like, “Hey, you’re crazy, too! I love that about you.”
And sometimes, every now and again, it really, actually does get good. It pumps. And then, well, all their surfy madness suddenly makes perfect sense … if only for a few frothy hours.
- Galveston, TX
- Portugal’s “gasoline”
Flooring a Tic-Tac size boat towards a giant tanker ship in the distance, you hear Captain James Fulbright say things like: “We’ve got a 900-footer coming outbound at 20 knots, so that’ll hit the point at about 9 o’clock today.”
Tanker Waves are formed when a large, heavy cargo ship or ferry boat passes through a shallow, narrow channel, pushing and displacing water over bathymetry to the degree that its wake becomes surfable. It’s complicated, unnatural, and a little yucky, but it’s also surfing. Along certain wave-starved coastlines (like Texas), it’s the best thing going.
Tanker surfing is tactical. To score, you’ve gotta combine your knowledge of boat schedules, boat cargos, underwater sandbanks, tidal fluctuations, and the ins-n-outs of boat channels (not to mention coast guards, harbor masters, and boat captains). The waves are formed by a complex confluence of factors including the speed of the boat, the weight of its cargo (sometimes 200,000 metric tons), the shifting sand-bottom bathymetry of the channel, and a certain amount of refraction from the channel walls. Lots of layers of information, all conspiring towards some long, gentle cruiser waves. In simpler, surfier terms, think of the set-up at Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch, where a big plow is pushing a wall of water across a sloping bottom surface—that’s how tanker waves work, too.
In general, you can’t just show up and understand this language. Guides get involved—like Captain Fulbright, who runs Tanker Surfing Charters in Texas—and these guides own Jet Skis, fishing boats, and coolers full of beer and fresh fish. They know the wave math, but they also know the local nightlife and the harbor cops. And when you’re riding a single wave for ten straight minutes in the middle of a vast, 30-mile long shipping lane … you need their help. After 300 straight cutbacks, leg cramps are inevitable.
In Portugal, at a different type of “motorpowered” wave known as Gasoline in the city of Barreiro, everyones surfs the crowded morning and afternoon commuter ferries … same concept but a little more user-friendly as it’s a smaller version, both in motorpower and sandbar layout (breaks right off the shore). In all three places I’ve been to, if the captain makes any effort at all to assist with either going a little faster, or closer to the bank, it results in a significant upgrade in wave quality and height. Pro tip: frequent bars near docks, find/meet captain(s), buy beers.
- Calving Glaciers, Alaska
- Funky Wedges, Shhhhh
- Wave Pools, In Process
- Madmen & Visionaries, Everywhere
The holy hallelujah of wave weirdness has got to be surfing the waves made by calving icebergs in Alaska. So remote and absurd. Like traveling to another planet. Pure novelty and spectacle. You have the option of travel by seaplane or boat to wait on the frozen rocks until a Grand Canyon’s worth of ice cracks and topples into the ocean like some almighty arbiter of global warming, and then you toss aside your Oreos and whiskey, leap into the frozen, iceberg waters, and paddle out with no freakin’ clue when or what or where a wave might be coming.
But a wave does come. And sometimes, every rare now and again, a human is there to meet it.
To be in such a forgotten place and ride such an odd, natural creation … well, I’m just glad we caught it all on film.
But I’ve also loved just seeking out strange ocean wedges, which create their own little fractal societies simply because they’re just so tricky to succeed at. Or the whole wave pool explosion that’s going on these days. Or following these old guys I found in California who focus entirely on riding the smallest waves they can find. Or night surfing. Or virtual reality.
Did you know that, on several historical occasions, surfers have even managed to ride tsunamis?
In the ocean, the actual moment of riding a wave is just a few seconds. And yet, surfers take weeks off work, circumnavigate the globe, endure harsh conditions in remote locations … just to experience standing atop that moving bump of water. But the more you do that, the more you realize the wave itself is just the cherry on top. A fraction of the total experience.
Non-ocean waves have taught me about all waves: the forces that shape them, the communities that form around them, the things we’ll do to ride them. Scarcity creates competition. Common adversity forms a community. Necessity is the mother of invention. And the journey—despite the terrible cliche of this statement—really truly is the destination.
Check out the brand new season of Dylan Graves’ “Weird Waves” on the Vans Youtube channel.