Surfing Tidal Bores – Nature’s Wave Pool
No, I’m not talking about pigs! I’m talking about waves. River waves, to be exact.
Last week, Dylan Graves posted a video on Instagram of him riding the Bono, or more commonly known in surfing as the 7 Ghosts.
What is a Tidal Bore?
It’s a phenomenon known as a “tidal bore” that occurs during extreme undular tidal shifts where a fast-moving surge of water travels up-river against the natural current. As the opposing currents meet they form a wave. Sometimes, it only forms a single wave, but in others, it’s accompanied by secondary waves called whelps.
Frequently, the waves that a tidal bore squeals into existence are a sloppy mess. But, sometimes, they’re perfect.
The 7 Ghosts that Graves is surfing has a singular wavefront and is most commonly accompanied by six other whelps (though there have been up to 20 accompanying whelps on occasions) for a total of seven waves, hence the name: 7 Ghosts.
Where do tidal bores occur?
Usually, they’re found in rivers, but have also been recorded in narrower lakes and bays.
The largest tidal bore, measured by the sheer volume of water, happens on the Qiantang River in China, where the wave can reach nearly 30 feet in height, span 3 miles wide, and travel at speeds upwards of 20 MPH.
This particular bore is known as The Silver Dragon.
Here’s a video of Jamie O’Brien and crew surfing a Red Bull contest at the Silver Dragon in 2014. Surfing this bore is illegal and requires special permission from the Chinese government.
The 7 Ghosts happen deep in the Sumatran jungle of Indonesia on the Kampar River. During the biggest tides of the year (usually in Spring), the bore subsists for as long as six consecutive days. It’s so named because of the ghostlike way the whelps appear, then vanish.
In 2013, Englishman Steve King set a world record, surfing the Bono for 12.8 miles. The ride lasted him sixty-four minutes. King broke his previous record of 7.6 miles on the Severn River in Bristol, UK in 2006.
Other Notable Tidal Bores:
The Benak Tidal Bore
Located in Batang Lupar, Malaysia, this bore culminates each year in October around a two-day festival and celebration. Ranging anywhere from 3 to 12 feet in height, this is one of the friendlier tidal bores on the list.
Turnagain Tidal Bore
On the edge of the Arctic Circle in Turnagain, Alaska, we find this picturesque bore surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Reaching up to 10 feet in height, the biggest deterrent here is the frigid Arctic waters. You’re going to need a wetsuit or two.
The Pororoca Tidal Bore
Translated to the “Great Roar”, this bore is found deep in the Amazon of Brazil. It rumbles to life twice a year in late Spring, and holds the title of the longest wave on earth.
The Baan Tidal Bore
Named after the high-speed German expressway, this bore occurring on the Hooghly River in India is known for its speed. It can get going upwards of 25 MPH. This is the only bore I’ve found that even slightly compares to the wave-shape of the 7 Ghosts. Still, it falls short.
Compared to these other bores around the world, the 7 Ghosts is unique by nature of the wave that it creates. It’s cleaner than the other bores around the world. When it’s banging on all cylinders, the Bono creates a perfect, barreling wedge that looks like it was made in a lab.
Are tidal bores nature’s wave pool?
Perhaps, but they don’t come with a jacuzzi and a cold Modelo waiting for you after a ride.
In 2011, Tom Curren led a team of Rip Curl comrades to Sumatra to surf the phantasmic whelps, capturing on film the first ever tube ride on a river wave.
How do you surf a tidal bore?
As you can gather from the video above, the Bono is a chaos machine. It’s not so much the actual surfing that you’re doing on the wave that’s difficult – though it’s not easy. It’s the entirety of the endeavor. It’s the many elements that go into making the enterprise come to fruition in a successful way.
You can see how seriously the Rip Curl team took the planning of the excursion. Even with a detailed scheme, state-of-the-art equipment, and experienced crew, the Bono was still flipping boats, eating Jet-skis, and wreaking general havoc on them.
One man was almost decapitated by the propeller of a boat!
For one, the water is moving so fast. To catch the wave alone, you need a Jet-ski at the very least. Multiple, really. If you fall (or when you fall), there’s so much powerful, turbulent water moving that you can very easily and quickly be swept into a dangerous situation if there’s no support to bring you in safely.
Even rivers not overcome by this tidal phenomenon are speckled with with dangerous undertows. Summoned by the power of the moon, the opposing currents of a tidal bore, and its resulting many breaking waves, creates a mean, gurgly undertow that can trap a surfer in a washing machine purgatory often filled with sharp debris.
In the wrong spot, you’re getting sucked down into a whirling pit of brackish water like Wesley and Princess Buttercup into that quicksand hellhole depicted in The Princess Bride.
Consider that it’s literally changing the directional current of an entire river. And not just for a moment or even a single day, but six consecutive days most often.
Simpler even, you’re surfing a TIDAL WAVE.
Each year, though I can’t find an exact figure, the Bono, and tidal bores in general, claim the lives of many. Remember back to the Silver Dragon in China. It’s illegal to surf because of this very fact.
Then, there’s the perils that come with being deep in the jungle. Logistics, alone, comprise a long list of deterrents – namely, time and money.
The remoteness of the journey make injury and illness both more likely and doubly perilous. Crocs, in particular, present an issue. Big crocs with sharp teeth and bad attitudes, I’m sure.
What would compel someone to take on something like the Bono? Here’s where we can really start to get philosophical, but the answer is simple. The allure of a novelty wave on such a scale will always beckon surfers like the call of a Siren. It’s rare, terrifying, dangerous, and beautiful. It can lead to ruin, but also glory.
More than that, however, it’s draws surfers in because it’s fun.
Dylan Graves said it well in his post.
“It was one of the funnest and longest rides I’ve ever had, over 5 minutes of not 1 but 7 wedges!”