‘It’s trippy’: Surfers in Turnagain Arm catch the country’s longest wave

A person with a surfboard walks into the water.
Surfers wade into the shallow water of Turnagain Arm on Monday. (Dev Hardikar/Alaska Public Media)

Twice a day, the normally calm waters of the Turnagain Arm surge upwards, creating a wave known as a tidal bore, a rare tidal phenomenon that surfers like Pete Beachy can ride for a very long time. 

“We’re pretty lucky that we get to measure our waves in terms of miles,” said Beachy, who lives in Girdwood. “We might only get two waves a day, but we might be able to ride for four or six miles.”

Beachy is part of a tight-knit group of about a dozen local surfers who head to the waters off the Seward Highway almost every day to surf the country’s longest wave. He’s been doing it for 12 years. But it’s not just Alaskans drawn to the long wave — surfers come from all over the country to try it. Beachy started a guide company in 2015 to help teach surfers experienced in other waters the intricacies, and the dangers, of the bore tide.

“It is tough to learn, but once you learn how to catch the wave, you’re able to be on the wave for minutes,” Beachy said. “A lot of places, you catch a wave and you stand up for a few seconds and then you kick out. So in terms of time on the wave, you can get a whole month’s worth of board time in one wave.”

A man in a wetsuit and beanie stands next to a van, holding a towel.
Pete Beachy and his van at a pullout off the Seward Highway. Beachy comes to the area, just south of Bird Point, almost every day to surf the bore tide. (Dev Hardikar/Alaska Public Media)

On a recent sunny afternoon, Beachy was preparing to take seven surfers out into the water. They were pulled over on the side of the highway, just south of Bird Point, donning wetsuits and waxing their boards.

Joe Sullivan came from Hawaii with his daughter Pueo to surf the bore tide. He’s been here for two weeks, and said it’s like nothing he’s ever done before. In other places, the longest waves he’d surfed were under a minute. But here, at Turnagain Arm, the ride can last five to 15 minutes, and if you paddle out far enough, it can be up to an hour.

“This is way longer for sure,” said Sullivan. “And you can feel it. You can feel it in your legs and you feel it in your mind. You’re like, what is happening right now? It’s trippy.”

The bore tide is caused by the extreme 40-foot difference between high and low tide. Every 12 hours, when the tide comes in, the shape of the channel funnels the water into a wave that runs all the way up the Arm. There’s not many places where tidal bores happen. The Cook Inlet is home to the only regularly occurring bore tides in the United States — in Turnagain Arm and Knik Arm.

For Sullivan, it means his Alaska itinerary revolves around catching the Turnagain Arm wave every time it breaks, twice a day. He lives what he calls “mini days.”

“Where everyone else is living 24-hour days, we live 12-hour days,” he said. “So you wake up, you surf, you eat, you sleep and you wake back up and you surf and you eat and sleep.”

Nearby, Cory Johnson and his family, visiting from Carlsbad, Calif., were preparing to surf the bore for the first time. Johnson said he’s used to warmer water, shorter rides and more waves, but he couldn’t wait for the new experience.

“I’m excited,” he said. “I don’t like the idea of you only having one chance. You don’t have a whole lot of time to learn the wave.”

A group of people in wetsuits smile and do the "hang loose" gesture.
Cory Johnson (second from the right) and his family are visiting from California to surf Alaska’s bore tide. (Dev Hardikar/Alaska Public Media)

As the group stepped into the water, Beachy warned them about one of the dangers of surfing in the area: the mud flats. The mud is like quicksand, and the tide rises extremely fast.

“It’s a deadly area to play in,” Beachy said. “And that’s what I try and teach people out here, is how to do it safely, how to be respectful of the waters.”

Beachy got himself stuck and demonstrated how to escape the mud by throwing his arms wide and slowly working his legs out one at a time.

Then it was time to paddle out. But there were no waves to push through like in ocean surfing. There was just the one on the horizon. It was barely visible, but you could hear it coming.

A group of people stand in shallow water with surfboards.
Cory Johnson (right) and his family get ready to paddle out. (Dev Hardikar/Alaska Public Media)

And then it was finally here. The line of surfers jumped on their boards as the bore tide hit them.

The ride lasted almost four minutes. All seven of the surfers caught the wave. Pueo Sullivan even had time to hop from Beachy’s surfboard onto her dad’s.

A line of surfers catching the same wave.
The Turnagain Arm wave was about waist high, and carried the surfers for nearly four minutes. (Dev Hardikar/Alaska Public Media)
Two people ride on the same surfboard. One is giving the "hang loose" sign.
Joe Sullivan flashes a “hang loose” sign after catching the Turnagain Arm wave with his daughter Pueo. (Dev Hardikar/Alaska Public Media)

It dropped them off right where they launched. They peeled off their wetsuits under the hot sun.

Beachy said the day’s ideal conditions spoke to the group’s wave karma.

“Everybody was happy, everybody had a good time,” he said. “So I can’t ask for anything more than what we had today. It was perfection.”

He’ll be back out again tomorrow for the next wave.

A man with a beanie, no shirt, and a wetsuit tied around his waist stands in a body of water.
Pete Beachy described the day as “perfection.” (Dev Hardikar/Alaska Public Media)

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Turnagain Arm’s wave as the only surfable bore tide in the United States. There are two surfable bore tides, one in Turnagain Arm and the other in Alaska’s Knik Arm, both in Cook Inlet.

Dev Hardikar is Alaska Public Media's 2023 summer news intern. Reach him at dhardikar@alaskapublic.org.

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