Dan Lay hollered as he revved up his wake boat and steered it up the Willamette River under Portland’s Broadway Bridge.
“Here we go!” he yelled.
Behind the boat, Anthony Tashnick used a tow rope to pull himself up on a surfboard. Then he dropped the rope and started surfing on the boat’s 3-foot wake.
Lay queued up The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A.” on the speaker system and laughed as the boat buzzed by city buildings about 80 miles from the ocean under a drab, gray sky.
“I wish it were sunny out,” he said.
Lay learned to wake surf on the river as a kid and now works as general manager of Active Water Sports, a company that sells wake boats in Portland.
“Wake surfing is really fun,” he said. “Anyone can do it. The difference between ocean surfing and wake surfing is the wave is endless on a wake surf board. You can go for miles if you wanted to.”
But critics say that endless wave is hazardous for other people on the river.
As more and more people are recreating on Portland’s Willamette River, those critics have gotten louder and more numerous.
For a long time, the city’s stretch of the river was a dumping ground for sewage and toxic waste.
But it’s a lot cleaner now and safe enough for all kinds of recreation. The city boasted last year that the river was free of sewage overflows for a full 16 months.
As it gets cleaner, the Willamette is an increasingly popular place for swimmers, rowing teams and sailing clubs, and in the warmer months it’s full of recreational paddlers as well as motorized boaters towing tubes, water skis, wake boards and, yes, even surf boards.
The result, especially on summer weekends, is congestion and conflict.
Kaspar Murer was paddling with a dragon boat racing team that got swamped by a wave from a wake boat while they were practicing near downtown Portland in 2017.
“All of a sudden there’s this wall of water coming over our shoulders,” Murer said. “And the boat was half full of water — probably 500 gallons of water within just a few seconds.”
Murer said in recent years he’s counted more than 100 instances of boats getting swamped by wakes, capsizing and even breaking in half.
“We have the paddlers, people on the stand-up boards. We have the swimmers. We have the floating homeowners,” he said. “People started to complain and say, ‘Hey, this is dangerous. We can’t deal with these big wakes.’”
He and thousands of other river users pushed the Oregon State Marine Board to pass new rules this year. They ban wake surfing and other towed water sports like tubing and water skiing on a crowded 3.9-mile stretch of the river from the Hawthorne Bridge upstream to the Waverly Marina.
From May through September, all boats may pass through the zone without slowing down, but they are not allowed to tow water skiers, wake surfers or other devices. Personal watercraft like jet skis and wave runners are only allowed to pass directly through the area.
The rules also create new buffer zones around docks and boathouses from the Waverly Marina upstream to Willamette Falls, where no wakes, water skiing or towed motorsports are allowed.
“People don’t like it when they get told to go play in another sandbox, but sometimes that’s just what has to happen if you want to prevent serious accidents,” Murer said.
Lay says the new rules funnel all wake surfers into a section of the river that’s windier and not ideal for surfing. The same kind of restrictions already limit the area available for wake surfing above Willamette Falls in a stretch of the river known as the Newberg Pool, and he’s worried that more rules could eventually ban wake surfing altogether.
Earlier this year, lawmakers considered a bill that would have effectively banned wake boats from that area.
The environmental group Willamette Riverkeeper petitioned the state to prohibit wake boats altogether, arguing large wakes can erode the riverbanks and put juvenile salmon at risk of being stranded on shore in addition to posing safety risks to people and property.
“It seems like there’s always someone else coming up with another reason to try to ban wake surfing specifically,” Lay said.
But Lay contends that people who want calmer water for paddling can find it in a lot of other places besides the Willamette River, while wake surfers have increasingly limited options. Lay said he’s noticed a lot more people using stand-up paddleboards on the Willamette without life jackets, which puts them at risk if a big wake comes their way.
“There’s a large group of people who just want to be out there and they don’t understand that it can be dangerous,” he said. “If you take your canoe out on a Saturday in July or August, it’s going to be dangerous. It’s like playing in traffic, you know?”
Sgt. Nate Thompson with Clackamas County Marine Patrol said his unit put in hundreds of hours on the water this summer and gave out only four citations for motorized boaters who repeatedly violated the new rules. They notified 51 motorized boaters of violations and found many boaters didn’t know about the rules.
Thompson also compared the crowded river to a highway where he has to be on the lookout for safety violations from both motorized and non-motorized river users.
“The increase in congestion is a big safety concern for us,” he said. “When you have a highway that’s being used by vehicles at a fairly high rate of speed and then if you just threw in, you know, another 500 walkers and bikers in the middle of that, like we do on the river, congestion really becomes a problem.”
Thompson said he’s seen a dramatic increase in the number of people paddling, especially on stand-up paddle boards that are now easily accessible and inexpensive.
“There’s a lot of conflict on the water between different user groups and there’s a lot of frustration from boaters,” he said. “A lot of it is really just trying to educate so that we can keep the powerboats and the non-power boats in safe areas so that everyone can enjoy the waterway.”
An Oregon State Marine Board survey of the new rules that ran from May through September this year found the most common violation of any rules on the river was actually non-motorized river users without life jackets on board. The random survey found 45% of all non-motorized river users were missing the required personal flotation devices.
The survey found about 30 motorized boats breaking the new rules limiting towed water sports while about 100 non-motorized users didn’t have life jackets.
But that survey only captured a fraction of all the violations on the river.
The “pass-through” zone on the river below Willamette Falls where no towed water sports are allowed includes a stretch of the river where Renee Morgan lives in a floating home near Portland’s Sellwood district.
Morgan founded a group called the Calm Water Coalition to fight for the restrictions.
“It makes me very emotional thinking about it now because we won,” she said. “We did it.”
She said the rules have already cut down on the wakes that have damaged her property in the past, cracking the walls, straining water pipes and moving the floats that keep her house perched on the water.
But sitting on her deck in July, the house rocked back and forth when boats passed by towing people on tubes and water skis.
“You’re seeing a few violations,” Morgan said. “What it would be without the pass-through zone would be every third boat would be towed sports.”
Then, a wake boat passed by blasting music.
“I know that guy,” Morgan said. “He’s doing that on purpose. … It’s authentic anger. These wake boats are $150,000, and they’re huge investments for people. I don’t blame these people for bringing their boats out here.”
Morgan and her husband take photos of boat registration numbers so they can report violations, but their mission this year was to raise awareness of the new rules.
“This first season we didn’t expect too many folks to be cited or anything,” Morgan said. “It’s really more of an education thing.”
Lay said education is needed for all river users.
“I think that there should be more education,” he said. “I don’t think there should be more rules.”
Lay said he’s worried about more rules banning wake boats from the Willamette altogether and ruining his family’s wake surfing tradition. He’s already taught his daughters to surf on the same river where he learned.
“When these rules passed, to me, it was just the beginning,” he said. “I fear that there won’t be a Willamette River for my kids to teach their kids on.”
Michael Pouncil, who chairs the Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group, said as more people pile into the Willamette and fight over recreation space, low income communities and people of color have been left out.
North Portland is a more diverse neighborhood with more pockets of poverty. It’s also a place where industry dominates the waterfront and contaminated beaches still need to be cleaned up. Pouncil is pushing for a cleanup at Willamette Cove, which he said could be a great place for people in North Portland to get into the river.
“This is about equity,” he said. “Southeast and Southwest, there are many spaces where people can get into the river now. I understand that they may have their issues with, you know, overcrowding. But we have no access to the river here.”
Pouncil says more cleanups and more access points could offer more space for everyone.