Roaring and Screaming: The Science of South Swells
The Roaring Forties, the Furious Fifties and the Screaming Sixties. As wave-riders, these enigmatic markers play a vital role in our summertime enjoyment. Summer is a time of long days and warm, trunkable water. When massive storms rumble through the Southern Ocean, swell can reach everywhere from Tahiti to Chile to Hawaii to California to Alaska. In this article, we’ll analyze how our summertime south swells are generated and how they impact waveriders in the Pacific.
The Roaring Forties refers to the area between 40 and 50 degrees latitude south with the Fifties and Sixties below. Famous for relentless winds, unruly seas and treacherous navigation, this area is unique on our planet because there is very little land. The 60th parallel south passes through nothing but Ocean. Because there is little or no land to slow the flow of air, winds here whip around the globe unimpeded. These winds are aided in their westerly flow by the rotation of the Earth, known as the coriolis effect.
During the Southern Hemisphere winter, there is a great imbalance between the steady solar energy reaching the equator and the absence of energy hitting the Antarctic. Warm tropical air rises, moving south while the cold polar air sinks and moves north to take its place. This is convection: the constant effort of the atmosphere to equalize temperature and pressure. Cyclogenesis is the development or strengthening of low pressure systems in the atmosphere. This happens when a warm air mass collides with a cold air mass. The atmospheric pressure drops as the warm air rushes upward. Air flows into the low pressure area from surrounding areas of high pressure. The lower the pressure the faster the wind. The faster the wind, the longer it blows and the larger the area, the bigger the swell.
In the Southern Ocean, large lows form below Australia and are driven to the east by the prevailing westerly flow. As these storms move into the South Pacific Ocean (SPAC), they enter the swell window for Hawaii and California. Even though the storms can be enormous, our south swells are generally smaller and less consistent than our winter time west and northwest swells. Because south swells travel between 4,000 to 7,000 miles to reach our shores, their energy decays and becomes less consistent. While our winter swells only travel 500 to 3,000 miles with much less deterioration. Because of their long range travel, significant south swells approach our coast with very long periods in excess of 20 seconds.
The trajectory of south swell storms is very important in determining the quality of our surf. Storms that stay near the 60th latitude decay more as the swell moves through the Ocean. Storms that track to the north and strengthen near New Zealand in the Roaring Forties produce stronger, more consistent surf for California. These swells also have more west in their direction meaning that they can impact more surf spots. Straight south swells from around 180 degrees move past or are shadowed from large swathes of the California coast. Because of how steep these south swells approach our coast, they are often walled and closed out. The addition of local NW windswell is important to break up the walls and provide better shaped waves.
The amount of ice around the Antarctic continent influences the size and strength of Southern Ocean storms. The area of fetch is larger when there is less ice. There is more water for the wind to blow across and transfer energy. During May and June, in the austral fall, ice is minimal and the storm track is coming alive. Many of our largest south swells materialize in the early summer.
In the 1950’s and 60’s, Dr. Walter Munk of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography studied the propagation of swell energy originating in the South Pacific Ocean across the whole of the Pacific Basin. His team discovered that a large storm near Antarctica will create swell energy that eventually reaches the shores of Alaska. This research was vital to our understanding of how swells travel. Now we hope for strong activity in the Roaring Forties. We anxiously watch swell models, hoping for purple blobs to grow and spread across the Southern Ocean.
Salty Fins: Robin Mohr
We were ducking what seemed to be the hundredth set by Scripps Pier when Kyle pointed to the Cove. Whitecaps touched the cloudy horizon, something we had both seen only in pictures. Each caught our last waves to the sand and darted to The Cove.
The word was out. Bodies lined the cliffs, all clamouring for a clear view of the breaking waves. There were two guys who weren’t interested. They were running, literally running down the cliffs with fins in hand. On first sight, Kyle and I exchanged raised eyebrows. It seemed evident these guys were making a big mistake. The older of the two wore a wetsuit that looked to be of the 90’s and their fin of choice was a short pair of Hydro Techs. Furthermore, they were running the wrong way. Making their way back up the hill, we hesitantly pointed them to the entry spot. They thanked us with a heavy South African accent whilst disappearing down the hill. His grin nearly curled behind his ears, and that is how we met Robin Mohr.
Bloemfontein is a small town landlocked in South Africa. His family would vacation at the beach in Capetown where he became enamoured with the ocean. He’d play in the waves with a joy he recounts readily. Robin took to surfing as he did other pursuits that make the heart go thump. He dedicated much of his efforts at a young age to running marathons, but due to unfortunate timing his campaign to compete on the highest level for his country was impossible.
The life of an athlete is structured. Each meal carefully constructed and each beer a challenge to your resolve. For Robin, bodysurfing is a counterbalance to the years of careful calculation. “I don’t want to hear another whistle or see another stopwatch,” he stated with his ever-present grin. Robin speaks warmly of his time as a runner and the camaraderie of running with companions. Due to his slight frame, he earned the name “Wednesday Legs” as in When’s they legs gonna break? Robin still pushes that frame, only now he does it in the water.
Robin began bodysurfing after a surfing injury. He waded into the shallows with old diving fins returning with one. Each time he swam back out he tried something new and each time his bodysurfing becoming more sophisticated. He moved from shorebreak into bigger and heavier breaks. Robin noticed that as the break became heavier the crowds became more respectful and so he found himself drawn to bodysurfing the heaviest spots he could get to. Eventually his horizons expanded beyond his local shores and he took to the sails. Scouring GoogleMaps he picked a point in Costa Rica that looked like it would have an amazing wave. After a few phone calls he found someone willing to trade an empty room for work. It was in this place chosen by providence and secured through Robin’s charm that he met his wife, another gift from the boundless Ocean.
Robin’s penchant for heavy breaks has landed him in hairy positions. The most humbling of which being his session at Dungeons. He sat in the boat for hours watching some of the world’s best big wave riders trade waves. When one of them finally offered him a lift to the take-off it was too late for second thoughts. He had planned a perfect entry, but his ski driver (a big wave legend with a concussion unbeknownst to the rest of the crew) was sure he had the best spot for Robin. After staring down the cliff of a wave he swam into, Robin left that session like any other session, exhilarated and a little wiser for the next go round.
Robin talks about riding giant waves with reverence. The moment you exchange looks with your buddy and he knows exactly what is happening. The time-warp you experience as your life depends on each and every breath. The wave riding experience, enhanced by the magnitude of your own situation. He’s found some comfort in it all despite what others may think. Turns out that day we saw Robin, amped and ready to throw his body into the roaring Pacific, we weren’t the only ones who were skeptical of his ability to navigate the line-up. The lifeguard tried to talk him out of taking the plunge, warning that he’d have to pull him off of the rocks. Robin smiled and told him to make it interesting. He scored amazing waves and won a burrito dinner that night. His deep connection with the Ocean never ceases to reward.
Special thanks to Anthony Fox for providing the photographs of Dungeons. Check out more of his photography at: http://www.antfoxphoto.com
Images, Thoughts and Reflections – Wedge, July 6 & 7, 2014 – Ron Romanosky
Ron Romanosky rode Wedge for decades as a knee boarder and bodysurfer and has long been known as a strong supporter of Wedge bodysurfing. He has photographed and documented Wedge in its entirety, its standout bodysurfers and its unique ongoing story for years, long before the www and social media discovered and exploited the place. From its inception the Surfers Journal has published Ron’s photos of Wedge and of surfing in general. The Journal also published three Wedge-related pieces written by him, the last of which was Our Wedge, Our Way. His photos have appeared in print media around the world. He continues to shape kneeboards under the logo ROMANOSKY and has websites for kneeboards and photography: www.romanoskykneeboards.com and www.romanoskyphoto.com Note: A battle with late stage throat cancer necessitating weeks of chemo and radiation treatments in 2009 led to Ron’s decision to leave the wedge lineup.
This is the Wedge California and I knew years before the internet and long before every attention-craving social media post would immediately be known to the world. The image, from a 35mm slide and one of a several shot sequence, was captured at mid-day in the summer of 1990 or 1991. No, the transparency was not scanned to facilitate photo-shop to remove anyone from the image or to add anything. Minutes prior to this wave – one of a 3 or 4 wave set, several bodysurfing friends and I had been in the water. Scattered about on the beach was a small number of beach goers more interested in tanning. The word mellow adequately describes that day. The only camera there was mine. There were many days such as this one – of a pristine Wedge, etched into my memory banks… and, for both substantiation and history, archived in my film collections.
Canyon Set on the Head
It was a truly epic weekend. Beginning on Friday evening, winter spots were well-overhead and pumping at last light. Saturday morning, we walked down the cliff in perfect predawn stillness. We could hear solid waves cracking and could trace the whitewater outlines as they rolled. We changed into our wetsuits on the beach, in the dark while snacking and hydrating. Eyes strained to make out some semblance of wave form. We were in the water at the first sign of light.
For two and half hours, we rode and witnessed some of the best surf California can offer: 8-12ft, light offshore and consistent. The rest of the dawn patrol crowd sat outside waiting for the 12fters, while we had the perfect 6-8fters to ourselves. Splitting perfect peaks with buddies, hooting and laughing. It was big and exciting but not terrifying. Lots of swimming and plenty of fun thrashings. Coming up inside after a good one, looking back to see your friend slide into the next peak. Yews all around. We got out for a water, snack, photog break exhilarated and dripping stoke.
Then the tide drained out. We swam out to North Peak at noon. The tide had dropped from a 5ft. high at 4am to a .5 low at 11:30am. The swell continued to pump. But the glassy perfection of the morning changed. A treacherous rip current blasted through the lineup. The Peak sucked sand and exploded relentlessly on the shallow bank. I was cautious of the conditions and as usual EJ swam himself into a meaty slab.
Then it appeared. We’ve heard about it mythologically in local lore. Spend enough time around here and you’ll pay dues eventually. It was our time. Way outside, large lumps of water stacked up, gathering momentum into three distinct peaks. I’d never witnessed more raw, focused energy. Canyon Set…a real one. We were mesmerized by the hydrodynamics until we realized we were square in the impact zone as the largest lump swung at us. Swim. Swim hard. Not gonna make it. Shit. Not gonna make it.
The first wave’s apex stood up in front of us. Oxygen: get it. Dive to bottom, fingertips dig into sand. The lip launched and landed on our heads. Ripped from the sand and drilled back down again. Come up with a gasp, check for EJ…we’re ok but the next wave is bigger and the rip is pulling us directly into the pit. Helpless, we watch the next wave develop. A-frame…teepee…monster. Big breath, back to the bottom.
The percussion of the lip squeezes just enough oxygen out to make the rest of the beating interesting. Gasping through the thick layer of foam on the surface. I know there are successive waves in this set. There is nowhere to go. Start to think, “Sure would be embarrassing to be rescued today.” Gotta slow the breathing, gotta get the heart rate down. Relax, you’re ok. You have fin leashes and this set can’t last forever.
The next wave, bigger and more menacing, stood and focused it’s attention. A surfer trying to escape gets caught in the lip and ditches his board. One more thing from which to run and hide. Big breath, swim to the bottom, blasted by the full brunt of North Pacific winter energy. Back to the surface, mouth open hoping for oxygen, but only the gases inside the foot of foam are on offer. Now choking, the rip current holds its ground in the impact zone and the next wave (and hopefully last) is gathering force. The turbulence in the water makes it difficult to penetrate. Heart pounding, back to the bottom for the same cycle. Surfacing, the horizon finally quiet.
I look to EJ. We chuckle nervously with eyes wide open and great relief that there weren’t more waves in the set. It was our time to experience the mythological Canyon Set. We survived. Looking back, it is a great privilege to experience such raw natural energy. A transcendent thrashing.
Always Coming Out
Always Coming Out
It’s a state of mind, a mantra. Simultaneously the goal and the journey. Strapping on my fins I’m always coming out. The storm has raged, sent mountains of water and I am stepping in… always coming out. Stroke for stroke into the wide open blue, take the long swim. This is where the mist keeps. This is where the swell reaches for the deep and we must reach deeper… always coming out.
The peak is swinging wide and each of the boards is beyond a takeoff. This one is mine… always coming out. It moves with speed, great speed. Pulling water from the deep and bursting out when the surface can hold tension no more. The energy is on me now and it pulls first. I could let go and join the rest of the molecules to roll skyward and fold over into the deep, but I have a will and now it pushes.
Some daft combination of skipping and sliding I’m holding a line. The open world starts to pinch… always coming out. From the pocket, the energy is changing now, it moves faster, freighting for the coast. Even the sun scratches at the lip trying to climb through. I could dig in both arms, take a deep breath and watch the tunnel spin away. I could close my eyes, tasting the thick salty air before punching out into placid waters. I could find a way to be safe and clear, but… always coming out.
The moment you give that inch it stretches to a yard. When you forget the words the ride is over and the deed is done. With hay-maker backwash and howling winds, with double-overhead slabs of water and fading light there is only one thing to whisper in the grips of the sea… always coming out.