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World's First Category Four River Kitesurfing

Apr 2, 2010

Author: Words by Darren Edwards / Photos by Corran Addison

In order to  kitesurf this class 4 rapids, the wind needs to be perfectly North-East,  but since there is no wind near shore, Julien had to launch from rocks  in the middle of the river mouth.

“A simple pull down into one of the many seams behind the wave would tangle him irrevocably in his lines, and impede his ability to swim towards the surface. All too often he had been pulled down into the deep blackness of Mavericks’ anterior room, silent, crushing, black.”

Let me start off by saying, this is not a typical article, set in a typical place, or a typical wave, in a typical environment. Or by any means, was this ridden, by a typical rider. First, the place: the Lachine Rapids, on the St. Lawrence River. Picture 2.6-million gallons per second of water pouring over a series of shelves, reefs and rocky outcroppings. This drops 45 feet in less than a 3/4 of a mile creating a series of thunderous, awe-inspiring, chill-inducing river rapids, which definitely would be the last place you’d want to take a kite. But Julien Fillion is probably one of only two or three people in the world with the kite skill and whitewater experience to handle such a gnarly environment.
    Dreams. We all have them, and we all work towards them. For most of us, our dreams are based on something that we’ve seen on TV, in a movie or magazine. But for Julien Fillion this dream was something that no one else had done, and no one else had, to his knowledge, even thought of.
    From an early age Fillion used the waters of the St. Lawrence around his childhood home in Hull, Que., as a place to grow his water roots. What Fillion didn’t know was these experiences and skills were helping him prepare for his future dreams.
    “Two years ago, in order to take my goal to the next level, I teamed up with Corran Addison, one of the godfathers of river surfing,” Fillion said. “Together as a tow-in team we’ve mastered the Lachine Rapids using a Jet Ski to tow into waves just like I do in Hawaii during winter to tow into big outside reef waves, and we have learned as much as you possibly can about these rapids.”
    Addison has been tow-surfing the river waves of the Lachine Rapids in Montreal for the past eight years and has over 30 years of whitewater experience under his belt. Addison is no stranger to firsts either; in the late ’80s he held the record for highest waterfall drop in a kayak at 101 feet, a record that stood for nearly two decades. And his extensive knowledge of river waves in a whitewater setting helped the Addison/Fillion team to test and design boards to surf the river waves.

In order to  kitesurf such a crazy spot,  Julien designed a new kite which would be  the lightest, quickest, most  stable and easiest to relaunch kite that  he has ever built. The new  Liquid Force Envy was the result of all the R  and D work. It comes in  one pound lighter than traditional SLE kites.
    “The Lachine Rapids, and specifically the river wave called Mavericks, is a unique environment to surf. It’s big, pushy and dangerous,” Addison says. “The converging currents create whirlpools and thick seams that pull downward towards the river bottom 30 or 40 feet below. The bottom is littered with underwater caves, and probably shipwrecks from the late 19th century. Thirty-second pull downs are common when surfing Mavericks. And I’m just talking surfing, not kitesurfing where you have other things like lines to worry about as you’re getting tumbled below the surface.”
    Fillion’s and Addison’s convergence of river surfing passions meant two years of tow-in sessions.
    “We would surf one, two, sometimes three times a day. I had to log endless hours or river surfing in small and big waves like Mavericks to gain the confidence I needed,” continued Fillion. “Just understanding what happens when I crash in fast currents was an invaluable lesson that I needed to learn.”
     April 16th, 2009 started off like any other day for Fillion. “I went to the coffee shop, opened my computer, and checked my e-mail. Then I checked the wind for the day” he says. “The wind wasn’t particularly strong, maybe 12 knots, but the arrow for the wind direction was pointing NE.”
    It was the moment Fillion had been waiting for. He immediately placed the necessary calls to Addison and Yanick Larouche, fellow river surfer and kiteboarder. They would drive the Jet Ski and work safety. The best winds looked like they’d come right before dusk, and so it was planed for late afternoon.
    “It was such a surreal day. The sun was shining and the wind was the perfect direction. That almost never happens,” Fillion says.
    As the crew assembled, Fillion had the greater part of the day to gather his thoughts and focus on the task ahead. In moments like these, it’s almost better to dive in and go without too much reflection or consideration for the consequences. These thoughts are distracting, and counter-productive, but the human mind works this way, and Fillion inevitably began to consider all that could go wrong.
    A simple pull down into one of the many seams behind the wave would tangle him irrevocably in his lines, and impede his ability to swim towards the surface. All too often he had been pulled down into the deep blackness of Mavericks’ anterior room, silent, crushing, black, all thoughts to remaining calm, and go through the rehearsed motions: reach down for the board leash, pull in the board, angle it upwards and hang on and ride the rocket to the surface.
    But this was not going to be possible. All efforts have to go into keeping the kite flying. A flying kite was a kite less likely to tangle around his body in the water, but this also meant the “lifeboat” to the surface was not going to be there; there would be no way to grab the board and ride the train to the top.
    These thoughts are followed by deep anxiety. What if? Gloom, despair, and fearing the worst. Family, loved ones, and commitments all swirling about in your head begin to enter the consciousness. What will they think of this? Will they see it as young folly, or understand the pursuit of a dream, and quest for life on his own terms?
    “I had to clear my head, and concentrate on the task at hand,” Fillion mused, as he turned and looked out into the distance, as if taking stock of all the puzzle pieces that lay interlocked behind him, his journey down the path to this moment.  
    Addison and Larouche mounted their Jet Ski with Fillion following on his own, and made their way out into the thunderous rapids.
    “There is no wind onshore, so we had to launch my kite from a small rocky outcropping in the middle of the river,” Fillion pointed out. “Using a Jet Ski is the only way to reach these rocks, and the driving is very technical.”
    After manoeuvring his way to the rocks and anchoring one of the Jet Ski’s Fillion launched and made his way into the rushing current. As he crossed the first series of boils and seams, he knew that this challenge was going to be just as much a mental game, as a physical one.
    “As soon as I hit the current I realized that all my preparations I’d done were going to pay off. It was like nothing that I had ever done before. The current was so strong and moving in the opposite direction as the wind,” Fillion recalls. “Everything seemed bigger and faster. Going upstream and downwind requires constant down-loops and small direction changes, but I was also going to have to adjust things on the fly.”
    Fillion down-looped his way upstream, picking his way through wave trains and seams and arrived at an area known as the pick-up spot.
    “I watched Julien hit the pick-up spot just behind Mavericks, where we grab each other after falling when surfing. It’s a giant flat boil in the middle of chaos,” Addison pointed out. “Fillion charges hard in everything he does, but there was an almost imperceptible pause here as he made a last-minute decision. This was it. Go, or no go. I’ve been here enough times in my life to know what this moment is. Complete and total commitment from this point on is vital. It’s not an easy thing. I don’t care who you are, and what you’ve accomplished before. At these moments, your heart skips a beat every time, and for a brief instant, you feel like you die.”
    That moment passed almost unnoticed, and the game was on. With a down-loop of his kite, and a determined drive of the board’s edge into the current, he almost leapt forward as he headed straight through the last set of waves and dropped into Mavericks.
    “As I pulled in for the first time I had another moment of realization,” Fillion says. “This wasn’t like dropping into an ocean wave with the wind and waves basically going in the same direction.” What Fillion suddenly had to compensate for was the fact that the wave itself doesn’t move in relation to its geographical location, but the wind wants to pull the rider upstream and slightly right of the wave.
    “I had to instantly adjust and learn to fly my kite backwards in the window to keep it from pulling me off the wave,” laughs Fillion. “But once I’d done that the real excitement kicked in.”
    Addison and Larouche watched as Fillion dropped in deeper and deeper and started to get a rhythm going on the wave face, increasing the amplitude and power of his turns. “Julien is probably the only person I know that could combine the skills of a kitesurfer, whitewater kayaker and surfer to pull this off,” Addison adds energetically. “It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.”
    Fillion was starting to enjoy the moment as he became more comfortable with the wave, riding hooked then unhooked, laying down deep laid out carves, lip smashes and huge snaps. But then in the middle of all the excitement and the relaxation that comes with comfort, the inevitable happened.
    “I was really having fun when I dropped in and did this deep laid out lip smash that felt really good. But Mavericks is a strange wave and in that instant it doubled up on itself, and jacked up to almost twice its usual height,” Fillion says. “The fins broke free, and I went over the falls, landing with both feet planted squarely on the middle of the board. There was a sudden powerful shock up through my legs and knees as I impacted the rushing green water below, and then everything went black as I broke through the board, snapping it clean in two.”
    Now, normally in kite waveriding you just power up your kite and continue along body dragging to safety. But this is a totally different environment; the current is pulling you in opposite direction that your kite wants to go. The farther downstream you get the lower your kite gets. Eventually it ends up crashing.
    But Fillion was faced with another problem as the wave wasn’t finished with him yet. That blackness was soon replaced by blinding light as he was pulled up and over the falls, once, twice and then, darkness. Crushing, terrifying, silent. Almost loud, booming with total silence.
    “I was shooting pic after pic and at first I didn’t think anything was wrong,” Addison recalls. “But then I noticed his wingtip getting closer to the water.” Fillion was being thrashed around and being rolled in his lines. Right before he disappeared from view, pulled under, I saw him reach for his back lines, and the kite climbed up into the air. But Julien was gone, pulled down into the Green Room.”
    Larouche had the Ski down onto the collection zone in seconds, surveying the position where the lines entered the water. “I just kept calm and thinking to myself, keep the kite up, keep the kite up,” Fillion says. “If it stays up I’ll be OK.”
    About 15 seconds after he’s been pulled under, Fillion broke the surface, hands still on the bar, the kite still overhead. He flashed a quick “OK” hand signal to the Ski crew, who moved out of the way giving him room to untangle himself from the lines just in time to stop the wingtip clipping the water. The ski picked up Fillion, who sat on the back flying the kite back to the rocks where the second Ski lay anchored.
    There he sat contemplating leaving it at that. Addison and Larouche sped away to retrieve broken parts of the board, and get the backup board from shore a mile away. Much like the mind games that had played with Fillion before going out, so new ones evolved. These could develop into unreasonable, paralyzing fear, or be channeled into useful information and a learning curve.
    Fillion took it in stride. “The lull gave me time to sit and soak it all in. After coming to grips with what had happened, I was ready to get back out there. We’ve broken boards in this wave before because when you fall on it the water below is so hard and fast you hit with a terrible shock, so I wasn’t surprised that it broke when I landed on it like that.”
    The learning experience of that first ride, and all the new variables that were thrown in with the kite that he hadn’t dealt with before while surfing the wave over previous years showed immediately, and each ride after that was better than the one before.
    “We were sitting on the left of Mavericks, in the base of the wave just inches in front of the growling, rumbling pile about as close as I could get the Jet Ski to the critical part of the wave. I could see Julien’s kite heading down the line towards the wave, but I couldn’t actually see him,” Larouche recalls. “But all of a sudden, he exploded off the top of Mavs and dropped back in. As a kitesurfer and a river surfer myself, it was a moment that I’ll remember for a long time.”
    With each ride the carving turns became more dynamic, explosive, and Fillion’s true colours as surfer and kitesurfer shone through.
    As the threat of darkness encroached, Fillion dropped in one last time. He rode for about a minute, doing a few small turns and some long drawn out carves—more of an encore than the climax to the day, until finally he looked up at the crew on the Ski, gave a small wave, and pulled off the backside of the wave and headed back towards the moored ski.
    As they headed back to the docks, one can only guess what it must feel like for Fillion to drop that last piece of the puzzle into place, step back and look at it complete for the first time.
    “When I got home I showered, got dressed and sat in my living room for I don’t know how long,” Fillion says quietly. “I didn’t even turn on the light, I just sat there soaking it all in.”

A moment for  reflection on the way back home.

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