As the wailing sirens grew louder amid the roar of rushing whitewater, Shannon Thomas knew he only had so much precious time left—but not because he was drowning. He wanted to finish out his ride surfing the Great Miami River’s flood-stage waves as long as possible, before he’d be asked by rescue crews, police and park rangers to get out of the water. Concerned citizens had called 9-1-1 that day in November 2017, to report a person in distress in the river near the Dayton Art Institute; but despite appearances he was contently surfing, with the appropriate safety and protective gear and a fellow experienced surfer standing watch. Even so, the story was picked up by the national news.
“The most common thing I hear is that someone doesn’t understand what river surfing is and that Dayton isn’t really known for whitewater; but now we have whitewater features, and people aren’t used to seeing that,” Thomas said.
“River surfing” is surfing a stationary wave that can occur naturally, but is typically created by a man-made whitewater feature intended for water recreation on a river.
“River surfing is still in its infancy,” Thomas said, “but there are new [man-made] waves popping up all over the country, because if people come into a town to surf or enjoy the river, they’re going to the bars, restaurants and other downtown businesses as well.”
Thanks to economic development foresight like this, Dayton’s three whitewater features were finalized in 2017, as part of a 7-mile stretch called the RiverScape River Run, which begins at Eastwood MetroPark on the Mad River, merges with the Great Miami River downtown and extends to the Carillon Historical Park area. Installation of the Dayton Art Institute whitewater feature replaced a low dam that had previously posed a danger to paddlers.
Dayton’s whitewater features are not without risk, but are safer than natural West Virginian or Coloradoan features, because “ours are just a drop; [the river] is calm before and after,” Thomas explained. However, he stressed that wearing a life jacket is crucial.
After Thomas’ 9-1-1 incident, he created SurfDayton.com as an informational community website to spread awareness of the sport in Dayton. Shortly thereafter he decided to turn Surf Dayton into a surfing and stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) clinics business, along with surfing buddy and Dayton firefighter Jake Brown, an emergency medical technician and former ocean
lifeguard in Santa Cruz, California.
Thomas, who grew up in Kettering, gained his paddling experience from long-expedition canoeing and kayaking. He took up SUP five years ago. He’s paddled through the Little Miami, Great Miami and Mad rivers, as well as Ohio’s 231-mile Scioto River. He then competed as a Badfish SUP-sponsored river surfer and paddler.
“With river surfing, it’s park and play; it’s free, once you have the gear,” he said. “You can go meet a friend or even go by yourself on a lunch break. It’s like an urban adventure, because you’re surfing in the middle of downtown. You don’t have to go way out in the wilderness, like you would for rock climbing or backpacking.”
Since December, Thomas has been designing and making cruiser surf-style skateboards, for sale on the SurfDayton.com online store. Future plans for Surf Dayton include debuting a new website and booking system and hosting pop-up, post-surf jams at the Surf Dayton headquarters.
Ready to surf Dayton yourself? Go to SurfDayton.com to book a river surf, river SUP or flat-water SUP lesson, June 1 through September 29. Lessons include safety, technique, and videos and photos for souvenirs, via email. Surf Dayton provides all necessary equipment—“everything you need to have fun and be safe,” Thomas said. “I want people to know how easy river surfing is to learn and how welcoming the river community is, whether you’re a beginner or a pro. We hope to see you out there!”
“Like” Surf Dayton on Facebook, to find out more about river surfing, including meet-up events that are great for participating in or spectating.