Welcome to a brand new world of possibilities created by the Chattahoochee River Park and the new urban whitewater course that opened in late May.
It isn’t Malibu, Calif., but a small pocket of surfers — river surfers — is developing in Columbus. Locals such as Dare O’Ravitz and Jake Koehler have been surfing the Chattahoochee since the Eagle & Phenix Dam was breached a year ago and the new whitewater course began to take shape. Give or take, their group numbers about a half dozen.
“The last thing people in Columbus think about is river surfing,” O’Ravitz said.
Few people in Columbus may be thinking about it, but last month the local surfers got a visitor from the Pacific Northwest. Elijah Mack, a 44-year-old barber who has pioneered the sport of river surfing in the United States, flew into Columbus to ride the Chattahoochee wave.
“You guys have what the surf world wants, but the surf world doesn’t know that you have it,” Mack said.
What Columbus has, even at low flow, is a consistent wave that surfers can ride year-round. The swell that has attracted surfers and their boards is at the end of a man-made wave just below the Eagle & Phenix powerhouse, about 50 yards below where an industrial dam was breached in 2012.
O’Ravitz, a Fort Benning Infantry officer enrolled at Columbus State University, learned to surf off the outer banks of North Carolina. He moved into the Eagle & Phenix Apartments earlier this year, only to discover he was walking distance from a surfable wave.
“I had heard of river surfing, but I had never done it,” O’Ravitz said. “I was down at the river and saw one of the engineers of the whitewater project, and he had a surf board and was surfing the wave.”
It didn’t take O’Ravitz long to figure out he could do that, as well.
“I did it all summer,” he said.
And with the help of a wet suit, O’Ravitz and his friends are surfing into the winter months.
The river is different than surfing in an ocean, O’Ravitz said.
“The main difference is, in the ocean, you are riding a swell that has traveled potentially thousands of miles,” O’Ravitz said. “That energy has been moving through the water for a long time. You are trying to hop on that wave and move with it. In the river, you are surfing a fixed wave and the water is coming at you.”
There are three primary factors critical to ocean surfing — size of the swell, wind direction and tide.
“In the river, the wind doesn’t matter because the water is moving so fast,” O’Ravitz said. “You have high and low tide in essence based on how much water is being release from the dam.”
It’s a little like surfing on a treadmill. And it is a big workout, O’Ravitz said.
“It’s more of a workout than kayaking,” he said. “There is a lot of swimming. It is also a core and cardio workout. When you get flushed out of the wave, you have to swim back upstream, so that is more of a core and shoulder workout.”
A few months ago, O’Ravitz went surfing at Panama City Beach, Fla.
“My fitness level was awesome,” he said. “I wasn’t tired. The reason for that was the river surfing.”
Mack, who came in from Oregon to sample the Chattahoochee wave, compared it to one in Missoula, Mont. He predicts a surfing community will develop in Columbus.
“You have one right now — but it is fairly small,” he said. “I promise you will have a bigger one and it will be grown locally. You will also have people coming in from the Atlanta area. You already got guys coming in from an hour away.”
Don’t start thinking Malibu, but those involved in the Chattahoochee whitewater project are embracing the possibilities of more surfers sharing the waves with kayaks and rafts.
“This is not exactly what we were thinking, but it is kind of cool,” said John Turner, the Columbus businessman who was the driving force behind the $24.5 million whitewater project.
Richard Bishop, president of Uptown Columbus Inc., which manages the Chattahoochee River Park, said surfing is just another possibility for new recreational activities in the rapids.
“What this feature creates for us is an opportunity to grow the surfing community locally and to expand it outside of this region and bring more people into Columbus,” Bishop said.
People like O’Ravitz are leading the way to developing that community, Bishop said.
“Dare is absolutely a great ambassador for the Chattahoochee River Park and the Columbus wave,” Bishop said.
Getting a stamp of approval from surfers like Mack is also important, Bishop said.
Mack also predicts that there will be a surf shop in downtown Columbus.
“I am telling you, there will be a surf shop here within five years, because there will be a larger surfing community here,” Mack said.
O’Ravitz also sees that as a possibility.
“I went to Missoula and they had a surf shop downtown,” O’Ravitz said. “It looked like a surf shop from the ocean had been dropped in the mountains. Their wave is good, but it is not as good as ours. As far as a surf shop in Columbus, I think it is a possibility.”