Sea Kayaking Vancouver Island Tidal Rapids ~ Coast Mountain Expeditions

Sea Kayaking Vancouver Island Tidal Rapids and Performance Sea Kayaking British Columbia, Quadra Island, BC

Sea Kayaking Vancouver Island Tidal Rapids

Tidal Rapids near Quadra Island, British Columbia


Sea Kayaking Vancouver Island tidal rapids around Quadra Island, British Columbia, is an exciting way to experience whitewater and extreme (high performance) sea kayaking near Vancouver Island. The rapids contain paddling classes I through IV. There are two great sets of tidal rapids near Discovery Islands Lodge on Quadra Island: The Upper Rapids of the Okisollo near Cooper Point, and the secondary tidal passages of Surge Narrows. Both offer exciting Vancouver Island kayaking opportunities.

Except at slack tide, tidal rapids are similar to rivers. However, tidal rapids are produced by the movement of the ocean tide. Rapids build from dead calm to speeds of up to 13 knots within 6 hours, generating heavy tidal overfall. They are site specific, usually confined to areas of a few hundred meters. The features they generate grow in size and diminish more or less predictably throughout the tide, allowing the novice to build confidence. If the overfall becomes difficult to manage, kayakers can sit out the maximum current flow then re-enter after it begins to subside. For the whitewater kayaker, tidal rapids are especially appealing in the summer months, when Vancouver Island river levels are at their lowest.

Disclaimer of Liability
Tidal Rapids are Dangerous

The Tidal Rapids of Quadra Island and the Discovery Islands of British Columbia, are the most powerful in the northern hemisphere. They have been known to capsize and submerge commercial fishing vessels and tugs. Except for advanced sea kayakers and whitewater kayakers with well developed skills and intimate local knowledge, paddlers should remain well clear of these features. Like powerful river currents, they can overpower and drown any kayaker with insufficent skills and good judgment. The Upper Rapids of the Okisollo (the Okisollo wave) and Surge Narrows passages have been paddled extensively and much is known about them. This article offers a limited amount of knowledge to assist the paddler in having a exciting and safe experience. Even so, kayaking tidal rapids is a serious, potentially life threatening activity. Nature is unpredictable and information is no substitute for experience. We cannot guarantee that this information will keep you safe. Therefore, neither the author, the company, or it’s employees can be held accountable for any injuries, death or lost equipment arising from using this information. When paddling these rapids without a guide, YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN! DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF THESE RAPIDS!

Surge Narrows (Class I-III)

Tidal-Wave-Kayak-Tour4The secondary tidal passages of Surge Narrows are a great, relatively safe place to learn basic whitewater and sea kayak skills in moving water. These rapids are a good place to learn to ferry across current, cross eddy lines, and surf small standing waves in a sea kayak. The best sites are located within an area locally known as Canoe Pass, along Quadra’s east shore, but there are others. These are fun for beginner to intermediate paddlers. You will need an 8 knot or greater tide for it to be worth paddling.
For the sea kayaker, use the sites mentioned above but limit activities to tides not exceeding 6-7 knots. Sea kayaks are easy to surf on smaller waves. Another great spot for sea kayaks is a major back eddy on the north west side of Sturt Island near a small island locally known as Hairy Island, thus named because of the thick brush growing on it.

Regardless of the style of boat you want to paddle, stay away from Beazley Passage, It is the primary passage for power boats and It is not an interesting place to paddle. Canoe Passage is sometimes used by local small boat traffic. Be sure to keep an eye out for fast boats when paddling there.

How to get to Surge Narrows

You can get to the Surge Narrows Rapids by paddling about 3/4 km from the public access at the end of Surge Narrows Road, on Quadra Island or from Discovery Islands Lodge (35 minute drive from Heriot Bay). Note: At the public access, do not drive down to the ocean. The road is very steep and barely 4-WD accessible. Park at the top and carry your boat down.

Upper Rapids, Okisollo Channel (A.K.A. the Okisollo Wave)

Class III-IV Whitewater Kayaking and Extreme Sea Kayaking
The Okisollo Rapids are located 9 km by water, north of the end of Surge Narrows Rd. on Quadra Island (you can’t drive there). They are adjacent to Quadra Island’s east side quite close to Cooper Pt., 1 km north of the Octopus Islands Marine Park .These rapids consist of one large, leading (2-3 M) standing wave, with several successive smaller, standing waves behind it. The largest waves are produced on a flood tide for several days every two weeks. Daylight tides producing good waves begin as early as March and end in mid September.

The Okisollo Wave (the main wave)

At maximum flood on a big tide, the first, or northerly most wave has a face reaching up to, or exceeding 3 meters, It is an intimidating feature for all but the best kayakers. It is technically an “explosive wave”. Unlike Skookumchuck which is basically a reliable and fast moving foam pile, the Okisollo wave is part foam pile and part steep green face which collapses periodically, reminiscent of breaking ocean surf.

The main wave (the Okisollo Wave) is a feature about 50 feet (16 meters) wide. It is formed when water pours over a shelf at ever increasing speeds, at ever increasing depths. Current speeds range from 0 (low slack) to 13 knots at max flood on a big spring tide. At higher speeds (above 9 knots) the green face of the wave builds higher and higher until it collapses with a thunderous clap. Behind the wave there is a tremendous release of energy creating significant turmoil, including small, but scary whirlpools. Whether you are whitewater or sea kayaking, don’t bother to come out unless you have a solid roll–you’ll need it!


Thi photo shows a paddler in a whitewater boat surfing the main wave in the best possible location on the wave–on the edge of the foam pile just a head of the face.

If you plan to surf the wave, allow two days. You will need one day learn to drop onto the wave in the right spot and to keep yourself there. Allowing time to “figure the wave out” is important. Paddlers who are experienced on the wave can surf it for up to 15 minutes at a time (or until someone gets really pissed at them for hogging the wave), but regardless of your paddling skills, don’t expect this your first time out.

Behind the main wave there are secondary waves which average about 1 meter (3 feet) in height. These waves are less intimating, so if the main wave scares the crap out of you, you can still have lots of fun on the secondary waves pictured below.

How to get to the Okisollo Rapids

Whitewater-sea-kayaking7You need to arrange boat transportation to get there or bring your own power boat. If you’re really cheap and really tough, you can kayak up with a sea kayak, towing your whitewater boat behind.

From the end of the road, the distance is 9 km up the north Quadra shoreline. You can also bring your own power boat. There are launching facilities 30 km south at Heriot Bay, and at Browns Bay, north of Campbell River on Vancouver Island). It may be possible to arrange boat transportation, a support vessel and guide with Discovery Islands Lodge , (250.285.2823) There are other water taxis as well. Because we are closest to the wave and paddle it regularly, we are probably your best, least expensive resource for accessing the wave. Regardless, if you need help planning a trip, we are usually good for some help or advice.

Once there, you’ll find good camping right at Cooper Pt, overlooking the rapids. If you decide to go, pick 2 or 3 days of big tides and play around. Remember to bring drinking water.

For White water boats–Class III-IV

If you plan to paddle a white water boat, higher volume kayaks will stay on the wave better than smaller play boats but both will work. Having a small power boat nearby for support is nice, especially if swimming is a likelihood.

When to Go:

Current Tables: Predicting the tidal rapids.
The best time of the year is any daytime tide with current speeds over 9 knots. This typically occurs between April 1 and Sept 15 with the best tides beginning in late May, through to mid August. The faster the speed the better but also important is the depth of the tide. A current speed of 10-11 knots with a corresponding tide depth of 1-2 ft usually produces good results, however southerly gales or strong westerlies will also affect how the wave sets up.

To predict the movement of the rapids, you’ll need the Discovery Passage and West Coast of Vancouver Island (Volume 6) Tide & Current Tables. Use the Beazley Passage Current Tables to predict the current speed for Surge Narrows and its secondary passages. Use Hole-In-the-Wall (best) or Seymour Narrows current tables to predict current speed of the Okisollo Rapids. For whitewater paddlers, the hour before and the hour after maximum current offer the best paddling. During these 2 hours, the current runs at 90-100% of it’s rated speed. You can also phone us for helpful information.

For High Performance Sea Kayakers On a big tide (above 9 knots), the best sea kayak surfing starts about 1-1/2 hours after max flood current, when the foam pile disappears and the wave begins to “green out”. By this time the current speed is down to 8 knots or less. You can also paddle the wave on any flood tide which reaches 7-8 knots. This occurs often throughout the Spring, Summer and Fall. Sea kayakers have many more paddling dates available than do white water paddlers.