I’m completely baffled, sitting on my flight back to Oahu and trying to figure out where I went wrong.
As soon as the footage of the XL swell at Teahupoo last week hit social media, everyone in Hawaii started scrambling to figure out where they were going to surf. This swell overperformed, and even without that factor the numbers were already looking like the biggest swell of the summer. It was clear that this was going to be the apex of the season, and we all wanted to make sure we were at the right place at the right time.
I decided to roll the dice on a rare outer island wave that was rumoured to fire on once-per-decade south swells. I pulled the trigger the night before the swell, camped on a nearby beach, and was up at 5:00 a.m. for the multi-hour hike through dense kiawe thorns to the lineup.
But when I got there, it turned out this spot needed a load more swell to fill in to get good. So I started the hot, thorny hike back to my truck.
I spent the next 36 hours checking every spot on the south and southwest coast of the island, my dismay growing with every stop, as nowhere was much bigger than head high. Meanwhile, messages were blowing up my inbox with pictures and descriptions from all my friends who were scoring at the dozens of spots that were firing. Because as it turns out, pretty much every island in the archipelago was seeing all-time conditions—except the one I was on.
The bulk of the action went down on Oahu, which has the largest surfing population and a host of surf spots packed into the south and west shores. Bowls was going off, of course—nearly capsizing huge passenger boats as they exited the harbour—and the other waves in and around Ala Moana were as big as they’ve been in years.
The steep angle of the swell meant that a lot of waves that are normally focal spots weren’t working, but other stretches of reef that are typically closeouts were lighting up like a tree on Christmas. “Best I’ve ever seen it” was the most commonly heard phrase on Oahu yesterday.
Noa Mizuno spent the entire swell sniping the spots near his house, and said it was “the most energy and push he’d felt in a long time. Three days of pumping surf with light winds—every where was good. It was the best swell we’ve had in a very long time.” Meanwhile, some of the big wave crew headed to an offshore reef that was serving up the sort of waves that made guns appropriate.
Jamie Sterling was one of a handful of big wave crew who surfed a big, deep-water peak that rarely breaks. As Sterls tells it, “It was my first time there, and that was pretty rad to surf a new wave on the biggest south swell in a few years. There were a few 8- to 10-foot sets—just big enough to bring out a medium-sized Sunset board—but the wave felt like it could hold as big of a swell as the ocean could throw at it. Of course, we aren’t likely to get a bigger south than this one here on Oahu, but it’s nice to know that there’s a wave over here that could handle it if we did. And after a long summer of small waves on Oahu, it was cool to get to paddle an 8'0" and scout out a new lineup with a few of my buddies.”
It’s always good to hear that your friends are scoring, even when you are getting skunked, so I tried to keep a positive perspective. But by the morning of the third day I was ready to get back to Oahu and salvage what was left of the swell.
As I took off, I had a bird’s-eye-view of the entire south coast of the island I was on—which was pretty much flat, with the occasional chest-high wave limping ashore. But 50 minutes later, as I landed on Oahu, I could see endless swell lines hammering the reefs up and down the south coast. Most of the guys on the island were surfed out by then, but the ocean wasn’t done with us yet. It was still pumping.
Of this swell, MSW forecaster Tony Butt said: “The swell originated from a low pressure that deepened east of New Zealand around Wednesday August 11.
“A very large area of strong southwest and south winds generated a big, long-period swell, most of which propagated in a north-easterly direction towards Central America. However, the windfield was large enough in area to generate a considerable amount of tangential swell, heading directly northwards. This was what produced the big waves at Teahupoo on Friday 13, and was what eventually reached the South Shore of Hawaii.
“Swells that propagate this far lose a lot of raw size due to the energy spreading out over a progressively wider area (circumferential dispersion), but the long periods that were originally generated in the storm centre persist.
“On the South Shore of Hawaii, the swell arrived super clean and lined-up, with initial periods of around 20 secs and wave heights of about five feet. Long-travelled swells like this also spread out in the propagation direction (radial dispersion), which results in a long-lasting swell at the coast. In Hawaii, the first long-period forerunners began to arrive early Monday, with wave heights ramping up through Monday, peaking on Tuesday and then gradually ramping down again through Wednesday and Thursday.”