Point Break: Surfers take to Pittsburgh's three rivers (really)
August 14, 2013 12:00 PM
Ben Calik of the South Side surfs as Peter Barbee of Los Angeles watches.
Steve Ford guides his board through the wake created by his boat on the Ohio River.
Ben Calik of the South Side body surfs a wave behind the Surf Pittsburgh boat.
Peter Barbee of Los Angeles, California, rides a wave created by the Surf Pittsburgh boat as Ben Calik of the South Side watches.
Tyler James of Nashville, Tennessee, loses his footing and falls into the water while surfing with Surf Pittsburgh on the Ohio River.
Steve Ford pilots his Surf Pittsburgh boat.
Steve Ford of the South Side, the owner of Surf Pittsburgh, throws back a tow line after getting up on his board on the Ohio River.
Peter Barbee holds onto a tow line while moving into the correct position to surf a wave on the Ohio River.
Jessica Maros of Nashville surfs on a wave off the Surf Pittsburgh boat on the Ohio River.
By Dan Gigler Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Under an azure sky scattered with a few cotton ball cumulus clouds, the golden rays of a 76-degree day shimmer off misting water splashing up at Steve Ford as he rides a wave on an O'Neill surfboard, an angular silhouette cutting through the water with ... the Downtown Pittsburgh skyline as his backdrop?
That is correct. The man is surfing. In Pittsburgh. Not Web surfing, channel surfing, crowd surfing or couch surfing. Actually surfing, on a board, in the Monongahela, the Allegheny and the Ohio rivers, without a rope (after a minute, anyway).
As the riverfronts continue to transform, add surfing to a list of river adventure sports that already includes kayaking, parasailing and paddle boarding.
"This river lifestyle -- there's so much cool stuff to do," Mr. Ford said. "More people need to take advantage of it."
To that end, this summer Mr. Ford, and friends Doug Pritts and Ben Calik, all of the South Side, started Surf Pittsburgh, chartering trips on the rivers in a new Centurion Enzo wake boat, teaching people how to surf the rivers. Call it the Point (State Park) Break.
River surfing is popular in a few other spots around the country and world, but it's typically done in a stationary fashion on a man-made wave or naturally occurring eddy. This is a little different. While a Dick Dale record appropriately played on the boat's stereo, Mr. Ford gave a mini-tutorial from the waters near the confluence.
"Lay on your back in the water. Hold the rope. Put your feet heels down on the top of the board. And just relax. You don't do anything until the boat starts moving. When the boat starts going, you push your heels down.
"Then the water goes under the board and all you have to do is pull yourself up with the rope and stand up like you're getting up out of a chair. It's a simple, fast motion and it happens all in a few seconds," he said snapping his fingers.
"Once you're up, you hold the rope and come out to the side that the wave is on. It takes a few seconds for the boat wave to set up. And then you can surf up into the wave."
The boat generates the wave via propellers underneath the vessel, strategic weighting and a device called a switchblade that churns additional water. But then there's the final crucial part: throwing the rope back into the boat, and riding the wave for as long as possible.
After a few false starts, Mr. Ford is jokingly implored by his sister LeeAnn on board to "Do it for the Duchess!" the eponymous Gateway Clipper boat paddling by with onlookers checking out the scene below.
The wake boat's engine whirs, the wave is churned and Mr. Ford is quickly up and moving. After a moment he tosses the rope aside and follows behind the boat, propelled by the wave for a good 1,000 feet, at one point hot-dogging it with one hand down on the board and a foot in the air as Heinz Field whizzes by in the background, before eventually tumbling into the Ohio.
He said his personal record is from the area under the Birmingham Bridge to near Sandcastle, a distance of roughly three to four miles.
Mr. Ford developed a passion for surfing while living in Southern California for a few years, regularly hitting Huntington Beach. He moved back to Pittsburgh to open Decade, a clothing boutique on East Carson Street, in 2006, but never lost his zeal for the water that dates back to his days as a whitewater guide in Ohiopyle in the late '90s.
He bought a small water ski boat last fall, and he, Mr. Pritts and Mr. Calik spent the winter and spring surfing the rivers guerilla style, in wetsuits.
"We had the boat loaded up with all of our old gym weights, water jugs, a waterbed mattress filled with water -- anything we could find to fill it up -- because you have to load the boat down in a certain way so it sits sideways, and that creates the wake behind the boat," Mr. Ford explained.
"We had so many problems on the other boat, but had so much fun on it, it's like in 'Jaws,' 'I think we need a bigger boat,' " he said. "But they're expensive so I had to decide what it was gonna take to afford it."
Hence, Surf Pittsburgh was born. They charge $125 an hour for tours with instruction, for up to 10 people.
Mr. Ford said that he recently took a bachelor party group out and initially most of the group was more interested in cruising the river and drinking beer, until they gave it a try.
"Ben did a little demo, and next thing you know they barely wanted to do any drinking. They were surfing the whole day. It's awesome. It's an amazing experience to catch the wave and get pushed by the water, and you don't have to hold the rope. It's exactly the same once you're up as it is surfing in the ocean," Mr. Ford said.
Jon Growall of the South Side was the groom in that group and called it "one of the coolest things" he has done anywhere.
"It absolutely blows me away that I can walk or bike a few blocks from my home wearing a bathing suit and be surfing the Mon five minutes later."
"If we can take people out and teach them what we love to do, fantastic. We win both ways," Mr. Ford said. "I think most people will think its just holding on to a rope on a surfboard. I don't think most people realize once you get up with that rope, after a 20-minute lesson, you're going to surf without it."
Such was the case for visiting Los Angelino Peter Barbee. Looking every bit the part of a California surfer boy with a shock of blond hair, Mr. Barbee got the hang of it immediately, even though it was his first time surfing.
"The fact that we're surfing past the Pittsburgh skyline and the Steelers stadium and there's a barge going past makes it strangely better," he said.
Mr. Barbee's friend, Tyler James of Nashville, took a little longer to get the hang of it, but when he did he joked that with his long hair and shaggy beard he might've "looked like Jesus walking on water."
But consider that a generation ago the notion of surfing, or many activities now common, on Pittsburgh's three rivers would've sounded like nothing short of a miracle.
Surf Pittsburgh: 412-720-1677; surfpittsburgh.com; on Facebook, Surf Pittsburgh