Surfing the St-Lawrence river in Montreal, 400km away from the nearest surf beach
If you like water sports and are visiting Montreal, you would love river surfing. Montreal is an island about 400 km away from the coast and is surrounded by very playful waves, for both beginners and intermediates.
How is it possible?
Montreal is set in the middle of the “Rivière St-Laurent”, a river so huge it is responsible for draining more than 25% of the earth’s fresh water! As thousands of square meters of water go from the Great Lakes into the Atlantic Ocean, the water flow drops drastically at certain spots, due to an important drop in the bottom. The high-velocity water first goes down and then back up, creating endless standing waves for surfers to ride! (Photo below: surfer at Guy’s wave by Paul Villecourt)
There are a few surf spots around the island, but the two most user-friendly are Habitat 67 and “Vague à Guy”, or “Guy’s wave”. If you are new in the area, we highly suggest sticking to one of these spots, as the other ones can be quite dangerous even for the most experienced surfers (they are surrounded by whirlpools and caves, and not knowing where to go could mean getting pulled underwater for extended amounts of time…).
Vague à Guy:
“Guy’s wave” is the most beginner-friendly wave. It’s knee-high and less than 10 meters from the shore (the sometimes annoying thing about river surfing is the “paddle back” after the wave, but when surfing at Guy’s wave, it will take you just a few seconds to paddle back to the shore). It’s located in Lasalle, 20 minutes south of downtown Montreal, and set in a beautiful nature park.
You can get a lesson from our friends at KSF, a surf shop and school located a short walk from the wave. (Photo below: surf classes at KSF by François Haché)
This is the wave that put surfing in Montreal on the map. One of the reasons why it got so popular is its location: literally 5 minutes from downtown Montreal, behind the iconic building of Habitat 67. The other reason is that it’s a better wave than “Vague à Guy”. It has more power and it’s actually easier to catch than “Vague à Guy”, which can be a frustrating wave as it is small, weak and hard to catch.
At Guy’s wave, surfers need more volume, and it’s much easier to “stick” on the small wave with a longboard. At habitat 67, surfers can ride all sorts of surfboards including performance shortboards, because the wave provides enough power. Here, you can perform more advanced manoeuvers like cutbacks and top turns, but you can also learn to surf if you already are a decent swimmer. (Photo below: Nuka floating over the foam at Habitat 67, photo by Mike Hitelman)
So why would people even consider surfing “Vague à Guy”?
Well, it’s no different than any other surfing destination. Quality comes with crowds.
Habitat 67 is a highly consistent surf spot. It doesn’t depend on tides or winds. It’s shoulder high, very fun and literally 5 minutes from the center of the second biggest city in Canada. There’s usually only 1 wave that is working over there. You can imagine that on a weekend in July, there would be a line-up. There’s a “non-written rule” that surfers shouldn’t stay on the wave for too long, but that doesn’t help much when 30 people are waiting in line for the same wave.
Another thing to consider is that the wave at Habitat 67 is much further out from the shore than Guy’s wave (a good 4 to 10-minute paddle back, depending on your skills and knowledge of the currents behind the wave). For people who aren’t in good shape, it can be very demanding. Even if you have a bit of experience in surfing, taking a surf class here will help you learn how to paddle in and out of the currents, because you can paddle against currents for long periods of time without really going anywhere… Having someone
The “Vague à Guy” spot can also be crowded, but that is usually with a majority of beginners practicing, so the average ride is just a few seconds long. You get your shot at surfing more waves here. Plus, this wave stays practically the same, no matter the water level. Habitat is a higher quality wave, but when the water level is too high, or too low, the wave can turn into nothing but white water, or a green shoulder so flat that no one can catch it.
There are two waves at Habitat, one further out (commonly called “the main”, and one closer to the right, usually called “right side”). Both can be really fun on the right water level. The “right side” works better when the water level is higher, while the main gets fun at a lower water level. There is usually something to surf at Habitat, but the quality can vary considerably, depending on the water level. You can read comments in some Facebook groups about surfing in Montreal to try to see if the wave is “good”, but in even riding a white-water wave in the middle of the St-Lawrence river is quite a memorable experience. (Photo below: Hugo Lavictoire at Guy’s wave by Paul Villecourt)
Can you “really” learn to surf in the river, even if you are standing still?
Yes*. While you surf on a river that drains thousands of litres of water under your board every second, you don’t feel like you’re standing still. You get a very similar feeling to riding an ocean wave.
Surfing in the river will help your ocean surfing for many reasons:
- You use the same equipment. You are surfing the same boards you would ride in the ocean. This is not the case for most people riding behind boats for example. You get to really feel your surfboard, learn how to turn it, etc.
- You need to paddle. You need to paddle to get into the wave, and you need to paddle to get back to the shore. Paddling is a major part of surfing, and river surfing will help you get in shape and develop your paddling technique, which is very useful in the ocean.
- You can surf for minutes… Or hours! On most days you won’t be alone in the water, so you will need to get off the wave and let somebody else surf it. But even if you get to ride for one minute, that’s still the equivalent of about 5 to 10 ocean waves. In our opinion, you can actually progress faster than in the ocean for the first days or weeks, practicing things like your take off, your stance and even some turns for longer periods of time.
*There are things that you won’t learn in the river: how to duck dive, how to generate speed on a moving wave, how to do more critical manoeuvers using the curl, etc.
Most importantly, you won’t learn how to read the ocean, which is a major part of surfing. So you can’t just rely on surfing the river if you want to progress as a surfer. Below is a video of our good friend Oli, who was one of the first to surf the waves in the St-Lawrence and has combined ocean and river surfing in his practice.
For many years now, it has been a dream of hundreds of surfers in Montreal to “create waves”, by sinking blocks at specific spots in the bottom of the river. This wouldn’t require a huge financial investment (nothing compared to a wave pool), plus, it wouldn’t require any artificial energy, the river has been flowing for thousands of years and will keep doing so! It would be possible to create waves of different sizes and shapes, etc.
Unfortunately, until now, the city and the government haven’t pushed the idea very far. There are incredible tourism opportunities and revenues that could arise from such an amazing project.
If you want to book a lesson, check out our friends at the KSF surf school, they have a professional team ready to show you both these beautiful spots. They also offer kayaking and Stand Up Paddle courses and rentals. (Photo below: Renaud at Guy’s wave by François Haché)