Beginner's Guide to Surfing the Ottawa River!

Check out our Beginner's Guide to River Surfing in Ottawa!


This Guide is aimed to help cover the basics for River Surfing in the Ottawa River, from finding the standing waves, river safety, the equipment needed before getting in the water and then how to safely catch and exit a wave.


How to Find the Waves?

Visit your local white water or your local Inland Surf Shop (Surf Side) and talk to one of the Board sports specialist who are frequently out on the river. They’ll be happy to share information about where the local waves are, which ones are currently surfable and other tips.


There are 3 main Waves in Ottawa: Sewer Wave, Bate Island Wave and Dessert Wave.


In Ottawa, River Surfing is usually a Winter/Spring sport, running from January – early June depending on the precipitation received that winter, the river’s flow rate and what the water levels are at.


What Waves are in and when?

River Surfers in the Ottawa region rely on the Real-Time Hydrometric Gauge at Britannia to inform us on the river’s water level and flow rate. [1]


Sewer Wave – Is best between 58.6m & 59.1m (Note: there are some surfers who ride it at lower levels but they must always factor in the risk of leash entrapment, impact injuries as well as damaging your board, loosing fins, etc. from shallow water, very large rocks/shelves and logs underwater) Sewer runs usually from January – late May.


Bate Island Wave, Island Park or Champlain – Is surfable above 59.0m but best above 59.2m and as we saw in the floods of 2017 good all the way up past 60m (with a much more difficult swim back at higher levels) Bate usually runs during mid April.


Dessert Wave (advanced surfers/ paddlers only) – Above 57.6 but better at higher levels. This wave should only be attempted by expert surfers since the paddle is approx. 40 minutes at high levels and is best to do with an experienced surfer and never alone your first time.  Runs all year round.


The best way to get familiar with the Surf Spots is to actually head out to the waves that are in at the time and socialize with the local surfers who are out ripping, ask them about the risks and safety issues there are at this wave.


Everyone in our Ottawa/Gatineau River Surf Community is accommodating to newcomers of the sport and is willing to give a few tips, tricks and basic information to help get beginners in the water.


River Surfing Safety

There are no universally accepted safety rules in River Surfing and since surfing is an individual sport, there never probably will be any. However, there are at least 4 tried and tested recommendations that could help make river surfing safer according to International River Surfing Magazine, Riverbreak. [2]

1. Never surf alone

2. Always wear a helmet

3. Always swim behind your board (upstream)

4. Make yourself familiar with river hazards and leash related risks [3]  


Options for Minimizing Leash Entrapment


Use a Waist Leash: A waist leash attaches around the waist with a belt and has an easy to release mechanism that you can reach with either hand in case of emergency. [4]

Don’t wear a Leash: Learn to land on your board when exiting a wave and how to swim downriver to catch your board when it escapes you. You have the most control while on your board and it’s usually the safest place in the river to be.

Wear your leash under your back knee: Attach your ankle leash right under your back knee (at the top of your back calf) and if you get caught up you should be able to release the leash with your back hand

Never put your feet down when floating down river. If you are floating down stream do not stand up. If you have to stand up, swim against the current to slow yourself down as much as possible before standing.

Wear a knife: If a surfer’s leash gets caught then you may be able to cut their leash with your knife unless you are too far away, the river is too fast or you left your knife onshore because you never use it. [5]


What Equipment is needed for River Surfing?

As a starter, here’s a basic list of River Surfing gear that everyone who river surfs should own before entering the water: Surfboard, Helmet, PFD/ Life Jacket, Waist Leash, Neoprene suit and accessories.


River Surfboard

Your board is one of the most important pieces of your kit, simply because if you don’t have it you can’t surf and having the wrong size board could make or break your day at the Wave. Firstly, Surfboards used on the river are usually classified as boards that have more volume than standard sized surfboards and as a beginner you’ll want a board that has enough volume to float your body weight.

Secondly, you’ll need to make sure that the board’s length will fit into the pocket/ wave you are surfing.


At Sewer Wave you can ride anything from 5’0 to 8’0 depending on your surfing ability, but like the ocean, you will have more success and be more stable on a board with higher volume and has a little bit more length. (Surf Side has a Catch Surf 6’6 Rental board)



Every extreme sport has its own protective gear and River Surfing is no different. Most river surfers always wear a helmet because even the smallest mistake can potentially be fatal. If you were to get hit by your own surfboard or if you hit a rock underwater you could loose consciousness and drown. But if you were wearing a helmet then you could help prevent head trauma and thus loss of consciousness.


There are 3 types of Whitewater helmets; Half-cut (Half-shell), Full-cut (Full-Shell) and Full-face helmets. To date, there are no helmets that are specifically designed for River Surfing. However, water helmets certified for use while Kayaking, Wake-boarding or Kite-surfing can be used for River Surfing. Some brands found Locally are: Sandbox, Pro-Tec, Bern, NRS and WRSI. (Surf Side stocks a variety of Sandbox water certification Helmets) [6]


PFD/ Life Jacket

Personal Floatation Device, these will help you save energy while paddling in between surfing. They’re also helpful because in the worst-case scenario that you need to be rescued, it will keep you floating above the waterline while providing your rescuer with something to safely hold onto. (Impact vests are another option for more experienced surfers but they do not guarantee floatation like a PFD/ Life Vest)



Leashes should only be used under one condition: They need to be attached to a quick release of some kind. Otherwise leashes can be a death trap, leading to leash entrapment or potentially getting pinned by your board or snagged by a low hanging sweeper. Before heading out to the River make sure you’re familiar with all aspects of leash safety. (Refer to “Options for Minimizing Leash Entrapment”) [7]


Neoprene & Accessories

Depending on what time of year you’re going out, will be the deciding factor of what thickness of suit and accessories you’ll be wearing. For surfing in the Ottawa River, surfers are wearing suits as thick as 6/5/4mm during the winter months (January-Late May) and weather depending from then on, surfers will be wearing 4/3mm, 3/2mm and even 2/2 Shorty Suits.  


During the winter months you’ll want to be wearing between 5mm and 7mm boots and gloves to fully ensure warmth and longevity of your session. There are many different styles of booties, gloves and mittens to choose from, including round toe neoprene boots to ninja turtle style finger gloves but at the end of the day, it will be your own personal preference, in addition to the experiences of others, that will help influence your decision. (Some boots come equipped with thicker tread to protect your feet from the river’s bottom but sacrifice board feel)


Catching a River Wave

Catching a wave is the hardest part of ocean surfing and the same can be said about river surfing. In the river there are a few techniques that vary depending on which wave you’re trying to catch and now since you’re fully equipped and have a good sense of river safety it’s time to get into the water!


Tow In/ Rope In - (Sewer Only)

The white water community’s least favourite way of entering a wave, towing in using a water ski or wakeboarding rope. Sewer Wave is the only wave in Ottawa that you can Tow-In to.


Steps to Tow-In…


1. In order to do this safely you’ll need to walk in the water about 6 feet from the shore (while avoiding large rocks underwater) to the metal post where the Rope is connected. Use your board to scoop under the rope and lift it up above your head, tossing it into the calmer water so that it doesn’t get tangled in the current. (other surfers paddle through the current’s eddy to grab the rope, we don’t recommend this practice)


2. Now grab the rope in your right hand and start walking downstream to create tension on the rope. Next, now that you’re all the way at the end of the tense rope you can move over to the edge of the current and get on top of your board.


3. Once on you’re on your board with the tense rope in your right hand, you put your left hand on the left rail of your board and lean your body weight into the river, this will help get you over the water ”ledge” and into the pocket/ Wave.


4. Now that you’re in the wave you want to stay as close to shore as possible (while still inside of the pocket) because this is where the water will be the fastest, use this spot as your “Sweet Spot” or “Safety Spot”. 


5. Once you feel comfortable in the Sweet Spot and you feel like you’re not actually using the rope then you can toss it out of the pocket, or just let go. 


6. You are now body surfing! From this position you can body surf around to get the feeling of being the in the wave and when you’re confortable you can try to pop up to your feet.


Dropping In/ Paddle In(Sewer, Bate & Dessert)

Dropping into a river wave is the closest feeling to paddling into an ocean wave. In order to do this you will need to enter the river some distance upstream from the wave. Jump into the river with your nose pointing upstream and start paddling up river to make sure you position yourself with the pocket of the river wave. Once you feel yourself drop into the pocket while continuing to paddle up river until you feel your board catch the wave. (Tips: Giving a couple kicks before dropping into the pocket can create a little more “White Wash” to help catch your board in the wave. Also when you feel that you have “Caught” the wave slide your board more forward to help Body Surf)


Jumping in from the side(Sewer & Bate)

To jump in from the side of the wave you’ll need to position yourself next to the wave on some of the larger rocks or just standing in the calm water. Make sure you have a solid foundation to jump from and that you are facing up river next to the wave. Hold your board how you would in prone position and glide out into the wave, nose pointing upstream while taking 3-5 decent paddle strokes to ensure that you catch the wave. Once caught, prone pop-up and start ripping! (Sewer & Bate)


Exiting the Waves

There has been much debating over how to properly exit a wave, but much like the leash debate, there are only tried personal experiences that have proven to work over the years at our waves here in Ottawa.


Sewer Wave – There are typically 2 exits:

#1.This route is used when you’ve fallen close to shore, leave your board, lay flat and swim quickly along the top of the water to help ensure that you do not connect with any underwater dangers. There’s a lilac tree on shore that you can use as a reference of where you need to exit before coming in contact with the large underwater rocks. (You will not enjoy this at lower levels)

#2.If you’ve fallen to the inside of the river or have chosen to take a more controlled route, then you will end up taking this route. Find your board, get onto it, stay calm and float downstream while avoiding the large white pocks of water (with rocks closely lingering underneath). Another technique some use is flipping over your board to try and save the fins, stay as flat as possible while on a flipped board and make sure to grab your leash (waist or ankle leash). There are multiple exits once you pass the large white water/ cheese grater rock section. [8]

Once you’ve exited at Sewer, you just walk back up shore, get in line and keep ripping till you can’t anymore!


Bate Island – Similar to Sewer Wave, there’s only 2 ways to exit:

1.As soon as you fall, leave your board and swim as fast as you can directly towards the wall until you get into the eddy and can stand up safely. Now get back on your board and paddle up the wall to get back into the line-up.

2.If you’ve fallen more to the inside of the river or took and un-wanted bail then just find your board, get on top and point back upstream (towards Bate Island) and paddle out of the current. Eventually you will hit the eddy and it will be easier to paddle back up river to the line up.


Now that you have the essential basics of river surfing you can get out there! Remember to have fun and stay safe out on the water, everyone is there to have a good time and enjoy surfing!


River Surfing Accident Database

To help make river surfing safer all over the world, Surf Anywhere [9] has created a public River Surfing Accident Database to record the details of all river surfing accidents and near misses. By collecting the details of accidents in on place so everyone can understand the actual dangers of our sport while possibly avoiding future dangers. Currently the 2 biggest dangers are ankle leash entrapment and getting pinned by your surfboard. Accidents are entered via a form and the database can be viewed online. Please share and enter any past or present surfing accidents. [10]



This is a modified version of the Ottawa River Surfing Association’s “Key River Surfing Resources” [11], cross referenced with key points from the Alberta River Surfing Association and multiple Riverbreak Magazine’s articles on River Safety, Leash entrapment in addition to the helmet buyers guide. (see Reference List below for more info)


This is merely a set of guidelines and tips to help inform beginners before getting into the water, in no way are we trying to govern the way people surf or tell you what you should be doing. This is what works for us and hopefully it works for you!


If you’d like to join the Ottawa River Surfing Association then simply search the group’s name on Facebook or click the link below. [12]



Thank You for reading this Guide and we hope it helps!

Steven Perrault

Driftwood Canada & Surf Side

Reference List

[1] Gov. of Canada, Britannia Gauge -

[2] Riverbreak, River Safety  (

[3] Riverbreak, Leash Safety  (

[4] Trailhead, Waist Leashes – ( )&

[5]Riverbreak, Surf for Beginners - Alex Mauer

[6] Riverbreak, Helmet Buyers Guide -

[7] Riverbreak, Elijah Speaking on Safety -

[8] Brendan Hoar, Sewer Exit diagram (2017) -

[9] Surf Anywhere website -

[10]Surf Anywhere’s, Accident Submission Form -

[11] Micheal Billinger, Key River Surfing Resources (2016) -

[12] Ottawa River Surfing Association -