The man who surfed 100 river waves

November 3, 2020 | Surfing
Jacob Quinlan: the man who surfed 100 river waves | Photo: Kokemor

In early Spring 2019, Jacob Kelly Quinlan completed his goal of surfing 100 river waves around the world.

His years of surfing rivers have allowed him to connect various international groups, develop course curriculum, deliver presentations and surf some of the most remote river waves discovered so far.

While reaching the 100 wave mark is a huge accomplishment for the Calgary-based wave rider and a sign of where the sport of river surfing is and how far it has come.

"Teetering on the brink of mainstream, the only thing holding back the world from surfing in their local river is the development of standing waves like skateparks," says Quinlan.

"I started my mission in the hopes of learning about river waves and potentially finding the perfect wave. I wanted to put that knowledge towards building these waves in communities around the world."

"So that others could have the same opportunity I did, to surf where they call home".

Though Quinlan acknowledges that numerous working models for manmade river waves exist around the world, he wanted to use his journey as a learning process.

"I want to use this knowledge and experience to build artificial waves in communities around the world. So that others can have the same opportunity I have, to surf where they call home," he added.

Jacob Quinlan: a passionate river surfing promoter from Calgary, Canada | Photo: Dowsett

Rivers vs. Pools

Jacob kicked off his adventure ten years ago with the mission to show the world oceans aren't the only place to look for waves and that surf can be as close as your nearest river.

But as it turns out, it is not the wave engineering that is holding the world back from building river waves everywhere.

Jacob goes on to say that something else must be holding us back because wave science has already been developed, and a handful of working models exist around the world.

"It seems so strange that surf culture, which I grew to know as being environmentally responsible, is moving toward surf parks that uproot natural landscapes," he notes.

Quinlan's artificial wave vision is not only driven by adrenaline but also a desire to do better.

"They require huge amounts of carbon emissions to generate waves every day when the key to surfing inland can be crafted in a river for 1/10 the cost to build and zero cost to the environment to operate."

River surfing: Canada has a strong community of river surfers | Photo: Bishop

Spreading River Wave Culture

Jacob is currently working with a local nonprofit to build a world-class wave in his hometown of Calgary, Alberta.

He also has a consultancy company - Surf Anywhere - with his business partner Neil Egsgard which offers tools and resources to other interested surfers looking to develop waves in their neck of the woods.

Together with Nico Walz, Jacob released "The Wave We Choose," a short film that documents the journey of surfing 100 different remote river waves.

From the glacier runoffs of the Rocky Mountains to the streets of Munich, Germany, to the uncharted rivers of Afghanistan, Quinlan and Walz learned and connected with different cultures and communities and formed new friendships along the way.

"When I set out to surf 100 river waves, the biggest challenge was I didn't know if I had what it takes," concludes the Canadian wave rider.

"Right up until the last moment, I found myself frozen in fear, still with doubts. But then, I remembered why I set the goal in the first place. In the end, it all comes down to taking a leap of faith."

River surfing: only thing holding back the world from surfing in their local river is the development of standing waves like skateparks | Photo: Egsgard

The CEO of River Surfing

Jacob Kelly Quinlan says his "passion and pass time is river surfing." Actually, he is also a board member of the Alberta River Surfing Association.

Like most Rocky Mountain surfers, he learned to surf in warmer waters and came home looking for its closest next relatives.

He tried snowboarding, longboarding, SUP, and slackline, but nothing seemed to scratch the itch. The only thing that would light up his soul was trips to the coast.

Over time, river surfing consumed all that.

In 2015, Quinlan was on a flight to Montreal when he realized river surfing had taken over his life.

No one ever traveled for river surfing back then; it was just something fun to do in your hometown until the next ocean trip.

Fellow surfers asked why on Earth would he get on a plane to surf a river instead of Hawaii or California.

"Inland surfers have a game we like to play. Book a trip for two to six thousand dollars, make the best predictions based on swell and season, then either score or be skunked," says Jacob.

River surfing is seen as a pale comparison to surfing "real" waves, but 30,000 feet in the air, traveling across the Canadian plains, he smiled, knowing that the wave he was traveling to would be perfect.

Unaffected by swell or weather, it stands head high and glassy green. He wouldn't need to wait for the set or put himself in the right place at the right time to catch it when it breaks.

The rhythm of the ocean is replaced by the relentless power of the St. Lawrence.

It offers a surf experience that lasts eternally longer than the leg-burning sensation that kicks in after about five minutes of shredding.

For over a decade, Quinlan's love for river surfing brought him around the world.

He delivered presentations, took part in competitions in Europe and the US, and discovered new waves never before touched by a surfboard.

Jacob helped build new river waves and fostered river surf communities in places like Austria, Idaho, and Ontario.

In 2018, he started a river surfing film series with a few friends called "Unsurfed."

Together, they were the first in the world to make an expedition to a completely unknown country and find river waves.

"Unsurfed Afghanistan" was a huge success - online and offline.

In his home province of Alberta, Quinlan introduced hundreds of people to the river through one of the world's first lesson programs and the efforts of the Alberta River Surfing Association.

He raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the local community and played his part in building the world's first government-approved, community-built river wave in the Kananaskis.

In 2017, Jacob brought the North American River Surf Championships to this wave called "The Mountain."

Quinlan lives for sharing his love of surfing and bringing it to places no one ever thought possible.

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