Yes, It Is Possible to Surf in the Pacific Northwest

But it's not easy

Mar 25, 2016
Outside
Outside Magazine
  • Late season surfing in the PNW is always best. Be it at the tail end of summer, or just before the winter rolls in. It seems like this area is best when making its way from one extreme to the other. My suggestion: surf as often as you can, because you never really know what you're going to get.   Photo: Justin W. Coffey

  • A search for surf in the PNW requires a dedicated interest in the Internet. Wave and weather reports can change before you even arrive. Your best bet? Be willing to wait it out. Or, be on constant lookout for better conditions nearby.   Photo: Justin W. Coffey

  • Downtime is a thing. Make the most of it; the Pacific Northwest has a lot to offer. On the Olympic Peninsula alone, you can hike or mountain bike countless miles where there aren't waves. Or shoot pine cones at your friends!  Photo: Justin W. Coffey

  • Unlike a lot of the west coast, the farthest reaches of the PNW provide unapologetically beautiful evenings well into the winter. If you're willing to brave the colder weather, it's well worth it.  Photo: Justin W. Coffey

  • Surfing in this area requires commitment. Be prepared to wait for waves, maybe even all day; they don't roll in like you're used to. Especially when you're surfing along the Strait. Winter swells, produced by big storms in the Pacific, push in fast and furiously. Timing is everything.  Photo: Justin W. Coffey

  • Unlike a lot of other areas you may have surfed, a "local" in the PNW isn't necessarily local. Be cognisant of the fact that their 30 minute drive trumps your two-hour highway ride, and therefore they're the local and you are the intruder. Be polite, don't back paddle, and make sure you're not snaking someone.   Photo: Justin W. Coffey

  • Fall sessions in the PNW are about as good as they get. The winds blow offshore more often than not, the sun still stays in the sky late in the day and the summer crowds—the kids and family vacations—have come to an end. If a drop in temperature doesn't scare you off, the pot of gold is waiting.  Photo: Justin W. Coffey

  • It won't always work the way you want it to. Some days the waves will be knee high at best. Don't get discouraged. Make the most of what rolls in. Learn to ride a log—something longer than 9 feet. Leave that “Big Guy Tri” at home and stop telling people about your Shred Sesh. Surfing is about catching waves, not looking cool.  Photo: Justin W. Coffey

  • Consider your options: drive a few hours and get skunked, or show up to see this! It's a gamble, but if the alternative involves watching other people plays sports on television...wouldn’t you rather take a chance you’ll see this?   Photo: Justin W. Coffey

  • I wouldn't recommend surfing when it's snowing—the inability to get warm afterward is a major deterrent. That said, the lack of people and the photos you can post to Instagram will make it worth your while.  Photo: Justin W. Coffey

  • Winter surfing requires commitment. You'll need as thick a wetsuit as you can afford, and an even thicker set of gloves and boots. Pack a thermos full of warm water to pour inside your suit when you get out of the water, and be prepared to shake and shiver for 30 minutes no matter what.  Photo: Justin W. Coffey

  • You'll find friends. I promise. People don't want to be rude, but sometimes they are in order to protect a place they feel passionately about. Be polite, take your time and eventually people will notice that you've been surfing the same spot as them for months, and will approach you, curious why you'd want to subject yourself to such a thing.  Photo: Justin W. Coffey

  • Summer in the PNW provides a plethora of activities. The Makah Days celebration is one of my favorites. People from the tribe set up stalls across town, in addition to traditional war canoe races, the aforementioned salmon bake and all kinds of traditional tribal dances, et al.  Photo: Justin W. Coffey

  • If there is a wave to surf, take a picture, but don't tell people where you were...please?   Photo: Justin W. Coffey

  • As I mentioned earlier, a 6mm wetsuit, lobster claw gloves, and equally thick boots are a must if you're planning to surf in the winter.  Photo: Justin W. Coffey

  • A few of the spots you'll surf come equipped with coin-op showers. You'll be surprised how much warm water means after a long day in 45-degree weather, when your hands are shaking and your teeth chattering.  Photo: Justin W. Coffey

  • This is another one of those places I can't tell you about. What I can say, though, is that if you look hard enough, you'll find what you're looking for. Point breaks need a point, south facing coves need a southern swell, and beach breaks need little to no wind to work.  Photo: Justin W. Coffey

  • Someone once told me that surfing is unlike any other athletic activity... it's the only one that you're willing to stare at the playing field for hours on end prior to participation. Imagine a tennis player cautiously observing the court before serving. Unlikely. Surfing, however, involves an intrinsic connection to the ocean, something that is greater than us, something that should be respected. Consider that before you paddle out. Because the ocean doesn't care about you, but you should be cautious of her.   Photo: Justin W. Coffey

IndefinitelyWild

IndefinitelyWild is a lifestyle column telling the story of adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there, and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Imagine you’re a motorcyclist. You love the feeling of freedom, the wind in your hair, and the road beneath your wheels. Now imagine that you’re a four-hour drive and a ferry ride away from your bike. It’s parked, ready and waiting, only you can’t ride it all week because you’ve got one of those nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday type gigs. So, you have to wait until the weekend. And, when Saturday does come along, and after you’ve waited for the ferry, burned half a tank of gas, and arrived at your favorite riding spot, the bike won’t start, and you don’t know how to fix it. That’s the analogy I’ve used to describe my experience searching for surf in the Pacific Northwest, every weekend, come hell or flat water, for four years straight. 

My obsession with the ocean began at a very early age. My father first pushed me into the sea shortly after I turned two. My first wetsuit, which still hangs in his garage, was custom made to fit a five-year old. And, while we visited the coast as often as we could, calling yourself a surfer in Seattle is sort of an oxymoron. It wasn’t until I could drive myself that things changed, albeit slowly. Justifying a four-hour drive for nothing but a maybe is awfully difficult. But, if you’re an addict, someone looking to score the stoke, you’ll sacrifice whatever is necessary to slide a few small waves in. Or, maybe you get lucky, the planets align, and you’re able to grab a few of the big ones. With the wind blowing from the east, throwing a mist of ocean off the top of each one, big Pacific Northwest waves really are a glorious thing. 

Friday nights, we’d load the the boards into or onto the car, pack all our camping gear, fill a cooler full of food and beer, and hit the highway. We’d arrive shortly before midnight, pulling into a campground or church parking lot where we’d spend the night. The next morning, we’d roll the dice. 

There are surf spots in the Pacific Northwest that are pretty well known. Places that, especially on Saturday or Sunday, can be relatively crowded. I like to avoid these places, searching instead for something a bit more private. Half the fun, or so I kept telling myself, was finding something secret. I can’t tell you where those are, but after four years spent finding them, I can tell you they were worth the effort. All of it. The too-windy-to-surf afternoon sessions, the three-hour wait for a return ferry, the rain, the cold, the 40-degree days that make you question your sanity. The entire days spent sitting in the rain, on land, when there weren’t any waves. It all added up to something special. An experience uniquely my own. 

Five years later, and free of my desk job, I paddled out to a well-known break in California, pulled into a little peeler, rotated my pig around, and wandered out the nose. Perched there, I observed a few locals watch in admiration. When I made my way back out to the lineup, a tan man paddled over to me and said: “Nice one, where you from?” To which I proudly responded: “Seattle!” 

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