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Originally published May 15, 2012 at 9:01 PM | Page modified May 16, 2012 at 9:29 AM

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Surf's up! If you follow tugboats off Seattle

OK, they're not boards, and it's no ocean. But these dudes are catching waves just off the Seattle shore — riding the wake of tugboats.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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To be a surfer dude in Seattle like Rob Casey, you gotta be innovative.

In Malibu, one can catch that perfect wave on the edge of the neighborhood.

Here, well, the ocean is 130 miles away. Seattle is definitely not prime location for "The Endless Summer."

So you make do.

You find a tugboat. Yes, a tugboat; because it rides deep in the water, and it has massive twin engines that each put out 2,500 horsepower. All of that combines to make nice, big waves of about 6 or 7 feet.

You then paddle real fast as the tugboat goes by, catch that wave, and, hey, you're riding it right in Shilshole Bay.

Let's go surfin' now, everybody's learning how, come on a safari with me ...

Of course, traditional surfers will look down on you.

You won't be on a board, but inside a 17- or 18-foot sea kayak, because only in such a craft can you paddle fast enough to reach the tugboat's wave.

In the surfing world, traditionalists aren't much for the various kinds of surfing that have appeared in recent years, from kayaks to stand-up paddle surfing. What? Using a paddle instead of your arms? No way.

But to a guy like Casey, 42, a professional photographer out of Ballard who also runs a paddle-board and kayak school, "It doesn't matter what kind of craft you're on. It's all about having fun."

He grew up in Seattle and came to surfing in the late 1990s when he took up sea kayaking and found that a sea kayak at some point has to cross the surf, and he really quite enjoyed that experience.

In 2005, Casey says, he began figuring out that catching boat waves wasn't a bad alternative to a long trek to the ocean. He was tired of those long day trips to a place like Neah Bay at the northwestern tip of the state.

Yes, there is ocean surfing in the Northwest. You just have to invest in really good neoprene suits.

"You wake up at 5 a.m. and take the Kingston ferry, and then drive to Port Angeles, and then Neah Bay. It's like five hours one way," he said.

And then it all might be for naught.

Websites rate surfing conditions at various locations around the world.

"For us, it always seems to be wrong," Casey said. "You keep driving back and forth on Highway 112 (along the Strait of Juan de Fuca) and the water is flat, flat, flat."

But at Shilshole Bay, a five-minute drive from his home, Casey says, he could experience five, 10 minutes at a time of waves created by everything from small power craft, yachts, the occasional tugboat and even container ships.

With the latter, he can even estimate when they will be going by Shilshole by looking them up on a website that tracks their whereabouts.

But the container-ship waves are too shallow and too fast for best surfing in open water. It is the tugboats that put out primo waves, and Casey started figuring out that a couple of them had a Wednesday schedule, coming out of the Lake Washington Ship Canal at about 1 or 2 in the afternoon.

The other thing that happened is that, as Casey went surfing at Shilshole two or three times a week, he came across a handful of other surfer guys who had figured out the same thing about riding boat waves.

One is Todd Switzer, 47, an oceanographer who conveniently also lives in Ballard.

He is married; Casey has a girlfriend. Switzer describes how his wife deals with his surfing: "tolerant."

Switzer grew up in San Diego, where, as he explains, "you can surf 200 days a year."

He says about surfing tugboat waves, "A tugboat is like a brick in water, it displaces so much water. It's made for power and towing. It creates a fairly steep swell."

What happens when his flat-bottom kayak starts to surf a tugboat wave — as would happen with an ocean wave — "you start to lose control ... the waves control and they're suddenly providing the propulsion, like something else has taken over," Switzer says.

It is, he adds, explaining the obvious, "a good adrenaline rush."

About a year ago, Casey remembers, somebody on a tugboat that came out of the Ship Canal yelled out, "What size wave do you want?"

About 6 feet, Casey replied. The boat turned around and gave him that size wave.

"It was a dream that surfers have," Casey said.

The tugboats are part of the Ballard-based Western Towboat, started in 1948 by Bob Shrewsbury Sr. and passed on to his family.

The two tugs that leave on Wednesdays first head to Harbor Island. There they each hook up with a barge loaded with everything from modular homes to refrigerated food containers, all destined for Southeast Alaska.

It's two worlds: the five-man crews on the tugs, starting their week-and-a-half round-trip treks, and the surfers below.

The crews don't begrudge the surfers.

Andy Beeler, 26, is chief mate on the 108-foot Western Titan, and never has surfed.

"I wish I was surfing, when we see those guys doing this," he said.

On sunny Tuesday afternoon, with temperatures hitting 72 degrees, guess what Casey was doing.

He was at Shilshole Bay, surfing.

When he's in the water on a day like that, he says, he does think about you people in your offices.

"I think a wave is worth skipping work for," he said.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237

or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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