Waking on Water - Q&A with Matt Robertson

Matt Robertson is an Albertan and avid surfer–  an unlikely combination.

During September in 2014, Matt heard a CBC interview that piqued his interest: people were surfing on the Bow River under the 10th Street Bridge in Calgary.

Less than two years later, Matt is one of the key players in the Calgary river surfing scene. From organizing events to shaping surfboards in his basement, his passion for this emerging sport continues to grow. Quadrants magazine caught up with Robertson recently to hear about his passion for surfing.


HAWK: How long has river surfing been a thing?

MATT: People have been surfing standing waves on rivers for roughly the past 30 years. The Flosslaende wave on the Iser River in the heart of Munich was the first river wave to be surfed – that was 1975. Within months, people were travelling from all over Europe and America to experience surfing on a never-ending river wave.

The realization of surfing on standing waves in rivers had surfers checking out their own local rivers for potential waves. Calgarians have been surfing the features built by kayakers on the Kananaskis river for the past 10 years and building surf waves there for the past eight years. Urban river surfing was born in Calgary when a standing wave formed under the 10th street bridge. Due to it being centrally located in Kensington, river surfing has quickly grown in popularity and become a spectator sport.

   Photo:    The 10th Street wave is the hub of river surfing in Calgary.

Photo: The 10th Street wave is the hub of river surfing in Calgary.

HAWK: How did you discover river surfing in Calgary?

MATT: I discovered river surfing by hearing an interview with Calgary surf guru Jacob Kelly on the CBC. The next day I was in the water at 10th street. This began my love, passion and obsession with river surfing. I was not new to riding a board ‒ snow, skate, wake.

I had experience ocean surfing, but like most people born in the prairies, I had only a handful of experiences in the ocean. I was far from a competent surfer. Despite my past experience riding boards, nothing prepared me for the river. The 10th street wave is a shitty, slow, small, unforgiving wave that requires dialled precision. But if you learn to surf it, you can surf anything. I spent the next six months struggling to find my balance, perfect my pop-up, find my footing and finally stand and surf. 

HAWK: How does river surfing differ from ocean surfing?

MATT: The biggest difference between ocean and river surfing is the direction the water moves. On the river, the surfer is stationary with the water moving toward you. Gravity’s pull matched with the lift of the board causes the surfer to plane over the surface of the river. In the ocean, the surfer moves with the water propelling the surfer forward down the wave. River surfers essentially surf an endless wave making the time you can actually stand and surf endless. A breaking ocean wave is finite and loses energy as it moves toward the shore. 

HAWK: Is there any crossover between them?

MATT: Both ocean and river surfing require similar skills - catching the wave, popping to your feet, balancing by staying in the wave and co-ordination to carve the face. Learning to surf river waves has improved my ocean surfing ability and made me comfortable and competent at riding ocean waves. In a typical river session, I get between 30 and 40 surfs that range between one to two minutes each.

Each surf requires me to successfully catch the wave, balance on my stomach, pop to my feet and begin surfing. This repetition of movements mirrors that of surfing ocean waves. Although I may be a competent river surfer, the ability to read and predict ocean waves is still a skill that only comes with time spent in the ocean. 

HAWK: When did you start shaping surfboards?

MATT: Shaping river boards came out of a desire to make a high volume, high performance, short board that was able to withstand impact from rocks in shallow water. Typical ocean short boards have less fiberglass – which means that contact with a rock can severely damage the board. Ocean boards often have less volume and can be more difficult to surf on slower waves.

I started shaping surfboards in 2015 when I felt that my quiver of surfboards was preventing me from performing the tricks and turns that I wanted to. Two of my surf buddies and I have a weekly shaping night where we share knowledge and stoke for shaping surfboards. Shaping is addicting. It’s all I can think about sometimes. We are working on perfecting our craft and making our surfboards as strong and suited to waves in Alberta as we can. 

HAWK: How big is the river surfing community in Calgary?

MATT: Anywhere from 20 to 200. It depends on the weather, the wave, the event and the day of the week. A beautiful summer day at 10th street can bring anywhere from 10 to 20 surfers. The annual Wave Raiser – a fundraiser for building waves – draws crowds of about 100. Slam the Kan, which is a weekend event held in Kananaskis, draws crowds upwards of 200 surf-minded people.