News & Politics

Hang 10? Surfing the Potomac River

Locals have taken paddleboarding to its next logical destination: river surfing.

Surfing on the Potomac River. Photograph courtesy of Wayne Cohen.

With spring just around the corner it’s time to introduce a new local sport: surfing the Potomac. Yes, surfing. 

It’s the next phase of paddleboarding that’s been taken up by local enthusiasts who use boards specially designed for river surfing. “It’s a booming sport,” says a practitioner, DC lawyer Wayne Cohen, who adds that the Potomac is “fantastic, as good as anywhere in the country for river surfing.”

Where do enthusiasts go to surf? Certainly not on the calm river waters favored by conventional paddleboarders. Because life isn’t dangerous enough, they go upriver—above Old Angler’s Inn, near Mather Gorge and along the Billy Goat Trail—where water races through the rocky gorges. Cohen says he’s been surfing on the Potomac consistently since October. “We’ve been doing it every single month,” he says. “The appetite people have for this is amazing. Just recently there were 50 people on the Billy Goat Trail, watching us surf, with their cameras out. They said it was the craziest thing they’d ever seen.”

So we had to know, what does the National Park Service think? Do they use the word “crazy,” too? Yes, says Cohen, initially. “They looked at us like we were crazy at first, but now they are pretty receptive.” Cohen says he wears a personal flotation device, a safety whistle, a helmet, and a leash that connects him to the board.

We asked what standards govern the sport. “There is no standard, it’s so brand new,” he says. “We start with a paddle and then get rid of the paddle to begin actually surfing.” The best conditions are after snow or heavy rain to the west, in particular in West Virginia, with tributaries that feed into the Potomac and swell its waters. While most of Cohen’s surfing has been in the winter months, he’s looking forward to the fairer—and possibly wetter—spring months. 

Badfish SUP, based in Salida, Colorado, began making river surfboards in 2010. Co-owner Mike Harvey, in a phone interview, said, “We started out making about 20 a year and now we’re selling more than 300. We’ll maybe hit 500” this year. He said the special boards range in price from $900 to $1,500. “Our boards are meant to be used as paddleboards, but they are specifically designed for surfing. You can surf with or without the paddle. It’s up to the individual.” He said the sport got its start in the US in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, but before that it was happening on canals in Munich, Germany.


Watch two videos Cohen posted on YouTube to see surfers on the Potomac.