Riding the Lachine Rapids offers ultimate challenge to professional kite surfer
'It's a pure joy that can kill me,' says Julien Fillion, who designs and tests surfing gear
On a list of the world's best-known surfing spots, Montreal is likely nowhere near the top. But professional surfer Julien Fillion moved here over a decade ago for the challenge of riding the Lachine Rapids.
Able to surf there all year round, the rapids put his skills to the test like nowhere else can — he not only navigates the rocks and rough water, but commands a kite at the same time.
Fillion said kite surfing on the rapids is extremely dangerous, and that he only attempted it after years of surfing the rapids and kite surfing elsewhere.
"At one point you don't see it as an extreme sport anymore, until the rapids remind you," said Fillion, who designs and tests kite surfing equipment and surfs in promotional videos.
"Then one day some weird whirlpool in the water will pull you down.… I highly discourage any kiteboarder to go there," he said.
"It was a huge beast to overcome."
Fillion uses a kite to stay out in the water instead of having swim out to the next wave.
"That's where the magic happens. You can ride those waves for hours using the power of the kite," he said.
"You're not going anywhere, it's just the water rushing underneath your board … with half your brain thinking about not crashing the kite."
But it requires skill and lots of practice to keep the kite in one place while surfing — and there's the risk of getting tangled in rope if the kite tumbles to the water.
"The moment your kite hits the water, it's over," he said.
The lines form a kind of "massive spaghetti" in the water, forcing him to swim underneath so he doesn't get caught.
Fillion uses prototypes while he's out on the water so he can figure out how to make the latest and greatest gear — and the unpredictability of the St. Lawrence River pushes it to its limits.
"To me, the river has always been the ultimate test. The river doesn't lie," he said. "If it works in the river it most likely works anywhere else."
Fillion kept the fact that he was surfing on those dangerous waters a secret for years.
But as drone technology became more advanced, it became easier to shoot video of his time on the rapids.
Fillion works with surf companies — Liquid Force for the last 15 years and now Ride Engine — and clothing company Patagonia. He said they formerly used helicopters to shoot promotional material, but it was very dangerous because the draft created by the helicopter blew the kite around.
A drone can get close — once the surfer and pilot are comfortable with each other.
He travels a lot for his job, to kite surfing hot spots in Hawaii, Europe and New Zealand, but he says the Lachine Rapids offer a unique challenge.
It's hard to gauge the wind from shore, so you have to guess what size of kite you'll need and adapt while you're out on the water.
With the water levels changing, the waves are always different, meaning he has to watch out for rocks.
So Fillion always uses the same path out to minimize the risk of breaking his board.
At this point, riding the river is no longer a great challenge, rather "a pure joy," he said. "But it's a pure joy that can kill me," so it's always important to move defensively.
His latest interest is hydrofoil surfing, where the surfer rides a board hovering above the wave, lifted by a mast and carbon wings underneath.
It allows him to surf in less popular spots, and opens up waterways with small waves to surfers.
"I went from chasing the biggest waves in the world to chasing the smallest waves in the world," he laughs.
"It's the closest feeling to flying that there is, but it's also dangerous."