One of my favorite all time places to paddle is in the tidal rapids of Deception Pass State Park north of Seattle. With two ebbs and two floods per day there’s plenty to play with. Read on to learn about surfing Deception Pass.

Locals who peer over the railing of Deception Pass bridge 150 feet above think of it as a swirling cauldron of chaos and whirlpools. For us, we understand when to be there and how to read the water and make smart decisions thus leaving us off the evening news.

But few know that Deception Pass isn’t just a whitewater destination but also a surfing spot. There’s several standing and progressive wave surf spots on both tidal directions. And boat wakes jack up when opposing the current and can build quite large.

What is a tidal rapid?

When saltwater flows through a constricted area and/over a reef, rips, waves and/or whitewater can be created.

Ever heard of Skookumchuck in British Columbia?  Friends from the Inertia just got back from a filming session up there in 16 knot currents and head high standing waves. It’s an epic place with fun to super gnarly conditions, especially if you fall off the back of the wave and endure the ‘tour’ through big whirlpools and waves.

There’s also several other fun tidal rapids in British Columbia such as Surge Narrows, Malibu Rapids and others. In Washington we also have Cattle Pass in the San Juan Islands and a few other lesser swift tidal streams.

Types of Waves in Tidal Rapids

Progressive Waves – These are the same as those in Hood River where the waves move along as you surf on top. In the case of DP, wind that goes against tidal current builds waves. But the waves are pushed up current by the wind. So you surf up current, then drift down to your starting spot, then surf up again.

The waves in the video are progressive waves in Canoe Pass. I regularly take students in there to show them how to read the water, run rapids on a SUP and surf the waves there.

To get the waves seen in this video, the effect is a strong 15-30 knot westerly wind against the ebb.  The strong W wind kept us in place without having to paddle hard/fast.  Ocean swell from the Strait of Juan de Fuca doesn’t have this affect here as the wind does.

The Pass can get as big as Hood River in spots such as under the bridge in the main channel or between Deception Island and West Beach.

Standing Waves. These are waves generated by an undersea obstruction like a rock or reef. When currents flow over the obstruction, a wave is created – but it stays in one place.  The wave size only changes when there’s less or more water or if wind is introduced.

Boat Wakes at DP.  When a boat wake collides with tidal current, the wave often builds up.  A ‘normal’ recreational boat wake may be 2-3′ high. In the Pass, they can build chest high.

What do you need to know to paddle in the Pass?

River SUP Skills.  Give me a holler to learn how to paddle and surf in the Pass. These waves occur in a variety of spots both on the ebb and flood throughout the year.  Class Details

Gear We Use in the Pass:

  • All leashes are on our waist PFD side straps on a quick release system to prevent issues of feet getting caught in kelp or rocks during wipeouts (easier removal). Check out the coiled NRS leash.
  • Vest life jackets for protection from falling on boards, easier to swim in aerated water, and warmth. I use the MTI Cascade and Vibe PFDs. NRS has great designs as well.
  • Paddling Helmets. Helpful for falling on gear, gear falling on you (from bridge), and shallow water in eddies.
  • 4/3 and 5/4mm RipCurl Flash Bomb wetsuits, NRS Freestyle Wet Shoes, NRS Mavericks Gloves and hoods.
  • GoPro in mouth mount (breathing sounds removed). Recommend a tether to your PFD or board.
  • NRS deck bags to store extra gear on our boards. You’ll lose stuff from bungees.
  • Surfco Superflex 9″ fins which are great for rocks and going through thick kelp beds.
  • Standard Horizon hand-held floating VHF radios on a tether.
  • Stable surf style boards are fine for beginners learning the basics there, but my more experienced students prefer hard and inflatable 12-6, 14′ and longer unlimited length boards for more speed (more waves) and to transit between the shore and the pass.  A few companies make 14′ and longer inflatables sups. 

Related Posts:

Tips for Paddling Race Boards in the Surf

Learn the SUP Flip Rescue

SUP Guide to Racing Smarter

Check out My Intermediate SUP Online Course



About Rob Casey – Named a pioneer in the SUP industry by Stand Up Journal, Rob is the author of “Stand Up Paddling Flat Water to Surf and Rivers” and “Kayaking Puget Sound and the San Juans, 60 Trips.” Rob owns SUP school Salmon Bay Paddle in Seattle. He also runs several paddling races throughout the year.
Disclosure: This post may include affiliate links, meaning I get a commission if you decide to make a purchase through my links, at no cost to you.


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