Why you should care
These freakishly powerful river waves sweep inland for miles.
Who would want to surf a wave that once killed 19 people in a single day?
To be fair, those killed by the wave known as the Silver Dragon in Hangzhou, China, weren’t surfers. They were spectators, among 86 swept away by what they’d gathered to gawk at on Oct. 3, 1993.
One more clarification before we explain why anyone would want to surf such a lethal beast: The Silver Dragon isn’t an ocean wave; it’s a tidal bore, formed when a powerful incoming tide meets the outflow of a river — in this case the Qiantang River, one of a handful of such waves that attract surfers to the potentially deadly novelty of riding a freakishly powerful river wave, often for miles.
Tidal bores are born in shallow water where a funnel-shaped river mouth confines tidal currents to a relatively narrow space, amplifying the force of the incoming water (they can also generate freight-train decibels audible from 10 miles away). When there is an exceptionally high tide, the crest of the swell moves faster than the trough and the breaking wave sweeps upriver, carrying awesome force, often crashing onto shorelines and sweeping away whatever happens to line the river — be it tall trees, parked cars or gathered spectators.
One of the most unique and craziest things you could ever do in surfing.
Alex Gray, pro surfer
It’s no surprise that Silver Dragon is open to pros only — athletes skilled enough to cope with a litany of hazards in addition to the challenge of riding a potentially 20-foot wave traveling 25 miles an hour. Among the perils: river barges, piers, bridge abutments, remnants of roadworks, sand bars and pollution. (It looks like a long swath of chocolate-milk foam.)
The Silver Dragon is “one of the most unique and craziest things you could ever do in surfing,” says Alex Gray, who’s ridden big waves in Hawaii, Fiji, Indonesia and Tahiti. He’s also a frequent competitor in the annual Qiantang Shootout, the only government-sanctioned opportunity to ride the Chinese tidal bore, and where surfers are judged on their tricks and maneuvers — cutbacks, bottom turns, carves, noserides and the like — after being towed into position by jet ski. It’s a short performance: The brutal leg burn of staying upright means that “three or four minutes is all most athletes can handle,” explains Glenn Brumage, the American surf promoter behind the pro event, which takes place September 26–30 this year.
The attitude is decidedly different on the Severn Bore in Gloucestershire, England, arguably the original tidal bore surf wave (a British soldier first surfed it in 1955), and one where distance is coveted. In 2006, surfer Steve King rode it for 9.25 miles in an hour and 16 minutes.
It’s also a far more democratic wave. “During big tides, it’ll draw 10,000 people from all over the world,” says Steve Potter, who has surfed it for 20 years and helps maintain the Severn Bore website. “There’s a real sense of camaraderie. You’ll often see 20 or more bore riders shoulder to shoulder cruising up the river,” which adds collisions to a hazard list that includes debris, hapless livestock, rocks, mud flats and whirlpools. Savvy Severn surfers use car shuttles to link together sections of the river — theoretically 20 miles. The wave occurs on high tide most months of the year, though it’s strongest in spring and fall.
The other renowned tidal bores, Pororoca (on the Araguari River) in Brazil and Bono (Kampar River) in Sumatra, Indonesia, are in much more remote settings, creating logistical challenges but plenty of allure. “It’s every surfer’s dream to ride an endless wave,” says filmmaker Bill Heath in his documentary Pororoca: Surfing the Amazon (Pororoca translates as “big roar” or “big destroyer.”) Surfer Serginho Laus once rode it for more than 6 miles (33 minutes), despite the presence of piranha, crocodiles and floating tree trunks. “The difference between surfing in a river and in the ocean is that in the ocean, we surf waves that last seconds, and in the river, we surf waves that last minutes or hours,” says Laus in the film.
Which is certainly true of Bono, also known as Seven Ghosts, another tropical bore that Severn record holder Steve King once surfed for 12.8 miles in 1 hour and 4 minutes. In an interview afterward, he noted the obvious difference between his native river in England and the Sumatran jungle bore: “Crocs … you certainly don’t see them in the Severn.”