Here’s a question; where do you go when South Africa’s premier pointbreak at Jeffrey’s Bay is wild and out of control? During a late season pulse last week, a rare yet equally rippable alternative presented itself, only a mere 45 minute drive south of SA’s favourite wave.
Named after Bruce Brown’s iconic discovery in The Endless Summer, Bruce’s Beauties is a notoriously fickle spot at Cape St Francis, making this off-season swell even more remarkable for those who surfed it. It’s a spot that is steeped in history and physical change over the years, and last Wednesday, September 28, local photographer and man-in-the-know Mike Ruthnam scored, along with a friend from Margaret River, Lee Parkinson.
Forecast: Cape St Francis
"We drove down the hill to the parking overlooking Bruce's and were greeted with 4-6ft lines stacked to the horizon," said Mike. "Gloomy conditions, a draining tide and stiff offshores groomed those lines as they wrapped into the bay all the way down from the harbour wall.
"It's a strange one forecasting Bruce's or getting a feel for when it's on based on Jbay. I've gone there on days that looked so promising and came back empty handed and then heard reports of good waves when the swell readings were pretty bad.
"So many variables need to come together; sand build up, swell size and direction, favourable winds and of course you need to be really close by because as fast as she appears she'll pull a fast one on you and disappear for a long while.
"Late season swells of this nature are not uncommon at this time of year when we get a lot of high pressure cut off lows and then early in the year round about the same time as Snapper/Kirra turns on we get those cyclone swells that spin in the Mozambique channel that can light up the east coast points all the way from Mozambique down as far south as Bruce's. Getting all those elements aligned takes a fair bit of perseverance and patience.
"Some luck and good karma helps also!"
Mike's friend Lee last surfed Bruce's back in 1993 so was more than keen to make the drive over after seeing a disappointing JBay surf check.
Similar to JBay, Bruce's features multiple spots up the point, with the furthest being the ominously named Killers.
"Mate... My wetsuit was so full of sand from getting worked on a few at Killers," says Lee.
"The jump off when it's bigger than 6ft is not for the faint hearted and is pretty intense," says Mike. "Visitors will get cautioned if they froth too hard and paddle around too much. Caution most often comes delivered politely."
Port St Francis is the only privately owned working harbour in South Africa, and changed the landscape and mechanics of the wave when built in 1997.
"Before they built the harbour in 1997 there was a spot called 69's that was the furthest breaking wave up the point. When the initial Harbour wall went up, 69s all but disappeared except on occasions when sand moved around and an appropriate swell arrived. Rumour has it the name came from the year it was first surfed but other stories call for a more hippy themed origin to the name.
Local shaper and Cape St Francis resident Eric Stedman added: "Although the Harbour all but destroyed 69s, the main reason for the deterioration of Bruce's is the non existent sand flow from the prevailing offshore winds these days.
"Development all over the dunes lining the point led to the disappearance of the primary dune between the Cape St Francis Beach and the Rocky point of Bruce's Beauties. The sand that has remained moves around a fair bit bringing dredging sections to different parts of the point on the most extreme of low tides whenever a decent angle swell pulls in."
The biggest recorded swell for Bruce's was 1993," said Mike. An ex-professional lifeguard turned calamari fisherman was reputed to have been the only guy that paddled out and surfed waves all by himself. Two others attempted the paddle... one ended up In hospital."
MSW forecaster Jamie Bateman broke down this swell that filled in to Cape St Francis last week.
High pressure is not something you would normally associate with swell producing events, but they are likely more common than you think. Case in point, in the South Atlantic Ocean last week, a strong high squeezed up against a shallow low pressure off the Eastern Cape of South Africa as it moved steadily westwards.
Through Tuesday, Sept 27th, large swathes of 30-40kts east wind was generated just off the southern coast of South Africa, producing a healthy, 12ft@10secs ESE wind-swell that peaked in the afternoon with strong-to-gale force, onshore wind.
A timely weather front moved off the Eastern Cape Province coast early in the hours of Wed, 28th which actually switched the wind to offshore at spots to the north of Cape St Francis, right as the bulk of the earlier east wind swell was still in the water – and that means, it was a day of days for fickle spots.