Published on November 29th, 2016 | by Jacob Kelly QuinlanPhoto by Justin Gullickson @justingullickson | 0
River Rescues With Jet Ski Legend Eric Chretien
When I introduce Eric Chretien to people in the river surfing community I always introduce him as Monkey and then proceed to tell them that Monkey is the world’s best jet ski support driver for any river. Eric, being the modest person that he is, corrects me and and says, ‘actually it’s Eric, and he’s just joking’. Joking or not, Monkey’s resume is world class and when talking river surfing he stands above and beyond anyone else as the man you can trust with your life.
Monkey grew up on the St. Lawrence river in Montreal, Quebec. Home to the rapids that ended the journeys of Canada’s early explorers. After losing his entire fleet of ships Samuel de Champlain said you would have to be mad to go back in those rapids (in french of course). What would scare the pants of an average river surfer is the wave playground Monkey calls home. Enter the jet ski. Monkey probably has as many hours on a ski in the St. Lawrence as he does on a surfboard. The ski was the best way to access the most gnarly surf waves and he would trade turns with his surf partner at the time, Jean-Louis St Arneault. Basically if you wanted to surf, you had to learn how to drive ski.
The ski is a game changer when it comes to safety.
2005 and 2006 were milestone years in river surfing. The WRSA (World River Surfing Association) was in full swing as Elijah Mack traveled around the world connecting the river surfing communities. New videos were popping up weekly on a new video sharing website called YouTube. In the rapid explosion and progression of the sport all eyes were on Montreal. The Goon Posse showed off a badass aggressive style similar to the FUS Crew in Munich but they were surfing monster waves that no one even knew existed in rivers. Their use of jet skis and giant bulky underwater housings was iconic to their big water scene and unmistakable up against the other communities the search results would render.
Fast forward more than 10 years and the rest of the river surf scene is just now starting to catch up. Jet Skis allow surfers to access not only the biggest green face waves but are primarily there as rescue support in what is sure to be a treacherous swim behind. Monkey now joins us at Skookumchuck Narrows as a friend, member of our crew, but more than anything else as jet ski support. The Sunshine Coast is far from home but not the first time Monkey has been hired to lead the rescue team (including surf icon Donavon Frankenreiter). Justin Gullickson, a river surfing veteran of Alberta, bought the ski after a couple trips to Montreal to surf with Monkey, realizing how much the ski is a game changer when it comes to safety. Justin is learning to drive support for the other traveling surfers: Neil Egsgard, Tristan Gaudet, Ryan Richard, Brittany Parker, Luciano Mariani, Matthew Robertson and myself.
Photo: Luke Morstat | @outlier.riversurf | www.outliersurf.com
Skook is a crown jewel when it comes to river surfing. Found in an ocean inlet, it is the tide rising and falling that runs salty water over underwater bedrock much the same way a river would. This rare synergy between saltwater and standing wave is far different from the one you and I are used to finding in mountain fresh rivers. The sea lions and jelly fish make it feel even more dream like. As the moon circles closer to the earth and the inlet exchange grow larger between low tide and high, the water rushing over the drop reaches speeds of 14 knots and faster. The 40 foot spread of whitewater loved by the world travelling kayakers greens out to form a clean, glassy head high wave. It’s hit its “peak” and the kayakers, no longer able to paddle into the green wave, sit back in their boats and wait for the foam pile to form again on its way down. Luckily for us surfers, the jet ski can drop us in the sweet spot and Monkey is fired up and ready to show off his moves.
When I’m on his ski, he is in charge of my life.
The whirlpools and huge crashing waves at Skook are enough to make any one of us seriously consider getting in for another run but when Monkey is on the ski he is fearless. Surfing waves with the “bike” as he calls it, dodging hazards and throwing this weight all over the ski to balance as he launches 10 feet into the air. He does it all with a sense of style and comfort that allows us to rest easy and put our life into his hands. “Ok Jacob, when I say go, you go.” Monkey explains there’s no room for hesitation. When I’m on his ski, he is in charge of my life. “Three! Two! One! Go”. I release from the sled and sling shot down the giant green face. The wind blows the tears out of my eyes and stretches my smile from ear to ear. What was once an uncatchable wave that we gazed at with awe was now under my feet and it’s all mine.
I caught up with Monkey after the craziness of Skook settled down to ask him a few questions about how the jet ski fit in with surfing back home, his experience with safety, shaping boards and some of the stories from his time in Montreal.
Hey Monkey, first off thanks for taking the time to share some thoughts with the Riverbreak audience. You’re a legend in the scene and most don’t know your story so it’s cool to get a few words from one of the original gangstas. First just introduce yourself. When did you start surfing?
Ok, my name is Eric Chretien, AKA Monkey (that’s my nickname from when I used to break dance). I started surfing in late 2005, 2006. Jean-Louis St Arneault got me into it. Back then he was a rafting guide and one time in a bar I heard he was surfing and I was like ‘yo! I’ve been wanting to do that my whole life’. He was like, come next time and I was like, when’s next time. Tomorrow. Yo, I’m there. He hooked me up with a terrible Budweiser display surfboard all taped up with duct tape so it could kind of float. And that was it man, I was hooked. Snap.
We didn’t know what we were doing when we started. First Jean-Louis used to do it boogie boarding, with the fins, and would climb up on the board. There wasn’t many of us in the beginning, maybe seven. We didn’t know how to catch a wave, we figured it out. Didn’t know where the rocks were, figured that one out too. And now it is what it is today.
When did you start using a jet ski in the river?
I was using jet skis in the water way before we used them for surfing. When I grew up on the St. Lawrence my family, my father, was part of a motorboat club, VMBC, so I was raised on those waters but never in the rapids. The rapids were strictly forbidden. My first jet ski was a stand up jet ski. I explored the river but stayed away from those rapids. Rapids were for rafting not jet skiing, you know? The surfing came and I guess that brought it to another level.
Photo: Justin Gullickson | @justingullickson
We didn’t put the two together right away. At the start we would kick it old school and paddle in, the jet ski would just be there for you when you would fall. It would bring you back up to the wave but it was more for transportation. Then we started to tow into the wave using a rope. And this one time we were using Bob’s standup jet ski and I was surfing in the wave and Jean-Louis brought the rope back into the wave and then I would tow out. That was pretty cool back then, when we didn’t have to paddle at all.
After being in the scene for more than ten years, you’ve seen a lot happen in your local community and around the world. Do you see the jet ski as a tool that can be used in our sport?
A lot of times you don’t need the jet ski. Like normal waves. Like if I go to your place Jacob, I don’t need a jet ski. If you go to Ottawa river, I wanted to bring it after I had been but it’s reserved for the pretty hardcore. Like Skook, you end up getting pushed so far from the wave, in the middle of nowhere. There is a danger to that. Like, sea lions, do you know for sure they aren’t going to bite you? And then what? Without some way of reaching your friend, you’re just on the side with your surfboard wondering what’s happening to your buddy. In the Ottawa, the recovery time is short so it’s like a lot of places, you don’t need a jet ski.
Can you see the jet ski as a tool for new wave exploration?
It’s important that the people are already comfortable with a jet ski before taking it into rapids. Anybody can just hit the throttle and drive a jet ski. It’s easy to drive a jet ski but if you go in the rapids that game is changing. It’s like driving a jet ski in the ocean with good sized waves. You gotta learn how to drive or you’ll get pounded. Same thing in the river. If you fall, you’re going to fly off and you’re crashing that bike. I mean, I’ve seen bikes go down, like expensive jet skis, washed down river and showing up in the next town days later. It’s more of a luxury than a tool to have and if you’re dealing with big waves you gotta familiarize with the area. Like my first day at Skook I’m being cautious. You know, I’m taking big circles, I’m getting familiar with what’s happening in that water. You can’t just jump into a river, you could hurt yourself.
If you fall, you’re going to fly off and you’re crashing that bike.
When you talk about it being like a tool to unlock some big wave, you’ve got to be careful. Cause that thing you unlock… it could be bigger than you thought. There’s some big scary stuff out there, trust me. And sometimes it’s best to be left alone. Like I remember I dropped Jean-Louis into Monster wave and all I can remember is how tight I clenched my butt hole, Haha, like ok, we’re scared. And for good reason, he got beat up. I was right there to grab him as soon as he fell but he got beat up. He would have loved to have one of those Spare Air things. He was like, no way I’m doing that again, haha. It is what it is, there’s some nasty stuff out there.
There’s so much out there to explore. You don’t need a jet ski, you just need to explore more. Me and Jean-Louis, we loved to surf big stuff but we would surf the smaaaallest thing. And we would stay there until we surfed it good. Like we did a trip to St. Catherine’s, where Jeff Brooks is, there was a canal there. I don’t know how far, it was like six or seven hours, like stupid ridiculous. And the wave wasn’t surfable. It was so trashy and small. But we spent the whole day there. We didn’t surf once but you know we had to do it. We tried paddle in, we tried acid drop, we tried with the rope. We filmed it, we got a video up. That’s good because everybody puts up their best stuff but some time you have to put up the sh*tty stuff. It was a great trip but we didn’t surf.
There’s lots of stories like that. Tiny waves. Some of them on private property too. We did it because we wanted to be the first people to surf that wave. We surfed a lot but there’s still so much that haven’t been surfed. There’s still more to find.
So the jet ski is supposed to be used for safety but does it present any of it’s own safety risks? For example have you ever crashed?
Haha, I crashed today! It was big one too! It’s like a fire truck – It’s made to save people but if you don’t look before you cross the street you could run somebody over.
The river is always going to be the boss. The river is very unpredictable. If you lose focus you’re going to do an edge cut. An edge cut is when the edge of the jet ski hits the current in a way that instantly flips you and sends you to swim with the fishes real quick.
The approach on a rescue needs to be practiced a lot. There are certain ways to approach the surfer needing rescue. You don’t go straight for the person. It’s a pick up not a run over, haha. The jet ski could fall on your head. It could hit other surfers. Best example, when they do tow in on big waves in the ocean, it’s life and death. As we bring the ski into the river the risks are the same.
The approach on a rescue needs to be practiced.
I have a story. One time we were towing with the rope (before we knew any better). Something you have to watch for is if you pass over the rope with the ski it can get pulled up into the engine. Well that happened and the turbine is pulling in the rope AND my leg! So I got pulled under the jet ski and the engine is still running. If the throttle was engaged it would have squeezed my leg like a yogurt to go. Luckily I was pulled away from the controls my leg tied up in the rope was enough to stall the engine. If things were different one way or the other I wouldn’t be surfing today. And hold up! That’s not all, then I’m floating down into the rapids tied up under a jetski. I fought to pop my head above water to get air meanwhile working at my leg. I managed to pull my leg hard enough to loosen the rope and unwind it from my leg. I had Jean Louise there to help. It took 45 minutes to get through that one.
Jet Ski will definitely save you time if everything goes good. But if something f*cks up…. Ooooh Boy! It’s going to be a very long day. Just like at Skook, right Justin Gullickson? And a long evening.
It’s a tool. It’s not a toy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lot of fun but sitting in that driver’s seat comes with a big responsibility. It’s like the river, don’t underestimate the Jet Ski. Know your limits. Respect.
I understand you are also shaping boards now, that’s awesome. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Ehhh, f*cking shaping. Uh. Haha. I shape because I love it. That’s about it because it’s not about the money. There really isn’t any money in it. I put so much work and so much time and so much love into what I do that at the end, it can never sell for the price that it costs. And everyone wants to get a deal but I don’t think they see everything that goes into a labour of love like that.
Photo: Luke Morstat | @outlier.riversurf | www.outliersurf.com
I still have a lot to learn. There’s a lot that goes into it with all the different techniques and materials but I know what works when I surf it. It makes me smile when people surf my board and say it’s their favourite shape. It’s a big thank you. It makes my day, when I build something that people enjoy. When you look at boards, you know you see that slick design or those flashy colours but then you look at the line it makes in the water and it sucks… I don’t care how many kitties are on that board if it sucks. If you want to make something for people to enjoy, you have to enjoy doing it. Not for the money.
Do you have any advice for the next generation of river surfers? Maybe the young groms starting out or anyone else new to the sport?
First off, rule number one is to have fun. The surfer having the most fun wins.
If you look up to an older surfer, he will look out for you. Like if you come out to a wave and try to act like a know it all, it comes off being disrespectful. Especially if you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll look like a damn fool. I have a hard time with telling people about ropes but instead of hearing me out they think they know everything. It’s a lot different when I’ve seen people held under until they turn blue or come out of the water crying because of ropes.
Ask questions and show respect to the people at the wave. If you show them that you want to surf they’re going to give you tips, they’re going to warn you about things, they’ll tell you unwritten rules. It’s about respect. If you respect that, you’ll get their respect.
What the f*ck, baby Jesus. But I didn’t stop, I wanted to surf!
The older guys there may not really want to talk to you at first but keep giving them that respect. They have so much knowledge, they’ve seen a lot. Basically, stay humble, surf as hard as you can and the more heart you show the more respect you’ll get. In the river, if you don’t swim hard, you’ll have to swim even harder later. Trust me.
Another thing about surfing hard. At some point it does get easier but it’s hard in the beginning. And if you want to give up right away, I’m sorry, go back to badminton or go snowboard. Catching the wave… it is a logic. Practice swimming, swimming equals surfing. Learn how to actually swim. I remember the first time I went to Habitat, the current took me back and forth and all over the place. If you pet the water (like petting a cat or something) trust me, you’re not moving. You gotta get in there. If you dig in your hand and paddle like you want to get somewhere. My first time at Habitat, I wanted to die coming to shore. I was like what the f*ck. It was like ten minutes and I’m floating further and further but not going anywhere. Spinning through whirlpools and thinking, What the f*ck, baby Jesus. But I didn’t stop, I wanted to surf. It took me three days of intense swimming just trying to figure it out but I wanted to surf. At some point you build your back like an ox.
The most important rule is to have fun. If you lose sight of that, you lose everything.
Fun Monkey Surf Edit
Monkey would like to do a shout out to all the Goons: Jean-Louis St Arneault, Alexandre Ouimet, Jeff Mackay, Dave Short, Daniel Castillo, Étienne Lavertue and Elijah Mack.