a. Tripping Fins: Puerto Rico
b. The Science of North Pacific Swell
c. Fin Quiver: Sean Starky
d. Playing in the Ocean
e. Life Magazine- August 26, 1940
a. Tripping Fins: Puerto Rico
b. The Science of North Pacific Swell
c. Fin Quiver: Sean Starky
d. Playing in the Ocean
e. Life Magazine- August 26, 1940
The Caribbean charts had been bouncing. Soon as our tickets were purchased I was sending out feelers. “Know any Puerto Rican bodysurfers?” Enoka was the only guy with a lead. We flew in as the first serious swell of the season was leaving town. The redeye was a blur, Storm of Swords and rum-cokes.
The Island of Enchantment, Puerto Rico, is where many East Coast surfers are first touched by big waves, baptism in the Atlantic. The northern half of the island wakes each winter to sweeping hurricane-swell borne off the coast of Africa. I read about razor sharp reef, searches for extra-terrestrials and a shallow history of deep Euro-American imperialism. All are reminders to remain a welcome guest in another’s home.
From the airport we drove east to a well-known reef in Pavones, an attempt to milk the last pulses of a mighty storm. On the sticky sand, the Rangers of the Wall felt the chill of the Whitewalkers and I fell to sleep. The waves were still small and scattered when I woke, but knowing I’d probably not be back, I swam out anyway. Maybe it was the lack of sleep or the heat, but I was gassed. The air stifled and the water offered little in refreshment. The boardriders regarded me with a silent nod and took little notice thereafter. I managed my way down a few lines, but remained keenly alert of the shallow reef. I accepted my welcome back to the Atlantic and waddled back to shore.
Rachel and I met with friends each night and site-hopped around the island. Arecibo, Puerto Rico is home to the world’s largest single aperture telescope. Scientists have been solving mysteries of deep space and listening for otherworldly wompers from this natural sinkhole for decades. Are there little green men with oblong shaped domes charging the frigid waves of Europa? We also spent time with nature scoring cave visions and getting waterfall shacked.
Miguel is my swell guide, thanks to Enoka. He was kind and welcoming, as were all of our other contacts. Off of the road, Puerto Ricans were warm and inviting. Behind the wheel, or worse, in the passenger seat I would have rather been swimming with a shark. The roads lacked in signage. The other drivers were comfortably aggressive, demonstrating little concern for following distances or stoplights. When I asked Miguel if he knew any other Puerto Rican bodysurfers he laughed. Still, as we met on Shore-Break Island he introduced me to Francisco and Antonio, bodyboarding twins who occasionally dabbled as torpedopeople. They were bodyboarding when I arrived, but happily ditched boards for a bodysurfing session.
While there were plenty of surfers, Miguel couldn’t name another hominid who regularly chose bellysliding. He had spent some serious time in Hawaii and makes it back at least once a year. It showed. Miguel launched into playful takeoffs flying through both air and water. He missed no opportunity to execute a spin either, using the wave’s bursts of energy to get a 360-degree view. The twins were hucking themselves into any lump of swell they could find and came up smiling. Each hooted the others into sets and drifted from to peak to peak. We were having so much fun the surfers couldn’t help but start to migrate closer.
I was blown away by the access we as bodysurfers had to peaks. There were huddles of surfers spread across the blue horizon on this pristine 3-4ft Sunday morning. Then I remembered 15ft surf just hammered these guys days ago, leftovers. One man’s trash… 3-4 foot barrels so clear you could see straight out to sea through the back of each wave. I asked Miguel about the crowd and he just gave a knowing smile. The appreciation is not lost on him, Puerto Rico’s lone bodysurfer.
The following morning Miguel and the rest of the coast opted for a return to work. This small stretch of coast that was brimming with surfers the day before was essentially empty. Rachel and I swam together, milking each glassy breaker before the fickle Atlantic winds stirred. Thousands of miles away from deadlines and meetings we played together once again.
We spent the last few days of our visit sipping wine with an old friend and his family. Sitting by the still Caribbean, watching the sun fall away, we ate Mofongo. A gang of stunning street cats swarmed us where we sat, attracted to Rachel. The technicolor sunset drenched a broken stretch of concrete reaching out to sea. We said our thank-yous and turned compass home.
Special thanks to Kike and the family for the amazing hospitality. Also to Miguel for sharing your home-break with Aloha.
Summer of 2014 saw an incredible run of swell. But any surfer worth their saltwater, knows that winter is the best time. Swell producing storms are more frequent and much closer to our coastline. Regardless of the colder water and shorter days, winter produces the best swells. The North Pacific Ocean (NPAC) generates some of the largest and most powerful storms on Earth. Let’s investigate the genesis of these storms and track their energy across the Ocean to our coastlines.
The Polar Jet Stream: a major factor in the production of our winter surf. What is it? More importantly, where is it? It’s a belt of strong, upper-level winds that blow across the mid-latitude atmosphere. Here, the gradient between the cold/dry polar air and the wet/warm tropical air is strongest. Known as the Polar Front, this region funnels the Polar Jet Stream from west to east across the North Pacific Ocean, North America to Europe and beyond. At between 23,000 and 39,000ft. above sea level and 100mph+, this enigmatic force impacts global weather.
As the Earth orbits the Sun over the course of 365.25 days, tilted on its axis, different parts of the planet receive more solar energy than others. The Northern Hemisphere is pointed toward the Sun in the summer. The temperature gradient between the North Pole and equator is weaker because the solar energy reaches farther north. Hence, the Polar Jet Stream is positioned close to the Arctic and the North Pacific is quiet.
In our winter, the Northern Hemisphere leans away from the sun, strengthening the gradient and moving the Polar Jet Stream south over the Pacific Ocean. This is the fuel that feeds energy into the storms that generate our waves. The Jet Stream doesn’ t flow in a straight line, instead troughs and ridges form along its length. Rossby Waves meander the jet, unsettling the atmosphere. As the jet stream flows along these bends, it speeds up, taking air from surface-level high pressure upward. This creates low pressure that begins to intensify as it spins with the Coriolis Effect. The pressure gradients tighten, wind speed increases and kinetic energy is transferred into the water below.
On the surface, the warm Kuroshiro Ocean Current brings heat from the equator up the coast of Japan and into the Northwestern Pacific. The cold Oyashio Current flows south from the Arctic Ocean. The Westerlies blow cold, dry wind across Asia and out to sea near Japan. In the winter, these forces collide at the Polar Front. This is the genesis of many North Pacific swells. The Polar Jet Stream moves these systems to the east, first near the Kamchatka Peninsula, then past the Aleutian Islands and into the Gulf of Alaska. Purple, black, yellow and white blobs marching across the NPAC: the active storm track that we all love to see.
The direction the storm takes is of utmost importance to swell production. Sometimes they track north into the Bering Sea. This is poor for California and Hawaii swell production because the energy is moving away from our coastlines. Ideally, the storm stays to the south, intensifying as it passes north of Hawaii. Moving east, the storm slams into a giant ridge of high pressure off the California coast. The system and it’s inclement weather are spun north towards Canada. But the goods are delivered. Swell trains march across the Pacific, slamming the sunny California coast with perfect surf…ideally.
If the high pressure ridge is weakened off the coast of California, the storms can stay south and deliver (much needed) precipitation. These storms can also deliver very intense, shorter period, stormy groundswell. La Nina conditions represent a weaker and more northerly Polar Jet Stream that supports high pressure in the Gulf of Alaska with a less active NPAC storm track. El Nino brings the jet to the south, setting up low pressure in the Gulf and a more active storm track.
There are innumerable variables that dictate the production and quality of waves at any location. From the size, strength and track of a storm to the local winds and bathymetry. Forecasting accuracy continues to improve as computer and satellite technology advance. Along with our understanding of the large-scale connections between atmospheric phenomenon. So when the Polar Jet Stream troughs, we can rearrange our schedules to enjoy the energy.
Black Churchills. These by far were the hardest fins in my collection to find. For awhile I didn’t even know of their existence, I had always thought the green Churchills were the first color of Owen Churchill fins. The blacks are tough to find for a couple reasons. First, they’re from the 1940’s. Secondly, they were used during WWII by the British and US Navy. You have to deal with WWII collectors that have deep pockets. Got lucky on these and didn’t have to pay too much.
Blue UDTs. Greg Deets gave me these fins and one day they will be framed and hung next to my family photo. Deets wether he likes it or not is almost a mythical character in our weird underground community. I’ve always been more focused on style and fluidity with my bodysurfing and to me Deets is one of the smoothest and cleanest bodysurfers around. The fact he invited me to his home and local surf break to give me a pair of his newly designed UDT’s before my first bodysurf trip to Hawaii will go down as one of the best days of my life.
Yellow Dot Vipers. These fins bring back a lot of memories. Wish we had some awesome ceremony with robes and booze to make the Wedge Crew thing official, but we don’t. You pretty much know you are one of the boys when Fred Simpson starts giving you free fins. You have to hand it to Fred, he has always made sure the best bodysurfers were in his fins, not the most famous or the pro surfer who might sell him more fins, just good bodysurfers.
M.S. Viper. These are my daily driver’s. When I heard Mike Stewart was designing a fin I knew it was going to be something special before I even used it. It fits my wide foot, has a soft pocket and a stiff blade. Most important and an often overlooked positive of the MS is it’s drainage, hands down the best drainage on the market. If your fins don’t drain water, they slow you down and that means you’re blowing waves looking like a kook. No one wants to look like a kook.
Viper I-Beams. If there’s a fire I’m running straight for these over anything else! My best friend, mentor, man about Wedge, John Potato Head a.k.a. Kunu Karam gave me these fins! These were his daily drivers back in his glory days. Whenever I pick these up, I imagine Potato just laying it down on some magical corner bowl in 88! What’s even wilder is Karam had the original canvas bag he got with the fins. For added flare I had the legend himself, Fred Simpson, sign the bag. An amazing fin with an amazing past.
Let’s not take ourselves too seriously. We’re all just playing in the Ocean. No matter if you ride foam, wood or your body; have as much fun as possible. Unless you’re chasing a World Title or requalification points, your Ocean session ultimately has very little value outside of your fun. But that does not discredit the importance of that fun. Many of us know that there are few things on Earth more fulfilling and meaningful than an epic day in the Ocean.
Bodysurfing does not have a World Tour or points. But we do have the Ocean and friends and waves and offshore mornings and barrels and sunrises with omelets and sunsets with beer afterwards. “The best surfer in the water is the one having the most fun,” cliche, yes, but there is much truth there. As bodysurfers, we should quantify our talents with joy and hoots and exasperating fun. Sure there are a few contests that crown winners and champions, but these events are less about cutthroat competition and more about enjoying the camaraderie and celebrating the Ocean.
It is simple and pure recreation. Guru Mark Cunningham says in the seminal surf movie Sprout, “It’s just bodysurfing. Its just swimming. It’s not rocket science. It’s a beautiful, elegant diversion.” There is no pressure to perform or get the shot or succeed. Very few, very lucky people make an actual living playing in the Ocean. Yet, there is great fortune in having the Ocean as our daily playground.
I grew up in Ohio. My annual family vacation to the Jersey Shore was circled on the map and looked forward to for 51 weeks at a time. I would wake up at dawn and annoy my family all morning to go to the beach. I would spend entire days simply splashing and “bodysurfing” in the waves. When I finally rented a surfboard in high school, and kind of rode my first wave, I knew instantly that I wanted to live forever near the Ocean. There are millions of landlocked people that love playing in the Ocean. We should not take our coastal geography for granted. Utilize it, take advantage of it. Appreciate the opportunities that we have to play in the Ocean.
Republished from Life Magazine- August 26, 1940:
SURF RIDING ON A CALIFORNIA BEACH IS A FAVORITE SUMMERTIME SPORT
Two hundred yards from the shoreline, like a huge sleepy giant, a big wave rises. Slowly it lifts itself into the air, a thin line of silver spray bubbling along its crest. Higher and higher it goes. Then suddenly, beginning at one end it starts to break. With a crash and a churn, it tosses toward the beach.
This is the sort of wave that body surfers dream about and the sort they hope to find whenever they go to the seashore. Actually nowhere do they have a better chance of finding these big waves than on California beaches. There almost every boy and girl is a expert surf rider. After school, after work, over the weekend, or just any time as all they trek down to the beach, spend hour after hour playing in the waves, swallowing water, scraping stomachs on the sand, occasionally getting a long, spectacular ride which leaves them belly-down, high and dry on the beach
A novice will not find find body surfing easy. He must be a strong swimmer, not afraid of getting thorooughly ducked. He should wade out in the water to the spot where the waves are breaking. Then he should start swimming fast in front of a big wave just before it starts to break. He mustn’t feel discouraged if at first all the water in the Pacific Ocean seems to crash on top of him.
“Surf Riding on a California Beach is a Favorite Summertime Sport.” Life Magazine Aug. 26, 1940. 50-2. Google Books. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.