Breaking Down Code Red 2: The Swell That Devoured 13,000kms of the Pacific

Jason Lock

by on

Updated 20d ago

It's hard to fathom a swell travelling some 13,000kms, from way down in the Antarctic up to the fingers of Kamchatka in Russia. But this was no ordinary swell. Code Red 2 truly devoured the Pacific, firing waves to shore that ranged from playful and peaky to dang-well harrowing and almost over-bearing – just ask Eimeo Czermak about his Teahupoo reef excursion.

And we did! Because MSW was right there for the majority of this half-the-world swell extravaganza. We tracked this beast (along with a South Atlantic bomb, too) before it formed in the south Pacific, we mopped our sweat beaded-brow as we saw this big black blob develop, our internal monologues going from 'that looks interesting', to 'oh heck... this thing is gigantic,' in the space of less than half-a-day. And there were so many places impacted.

So many surfers rode the brunt of this thing, like Sage Burke who scored Teahupoo and then Wedge, Billy Kemper, Teahupoo and then Maui. Yeah, there were a lot of narratives, and a lot of places touched too. So, we thought it would be a fitting eulogy to map out exactly where this beast waltzed in to and break it all down, from start to end.

Epic New Zealand

Gisborne, for a while, was the centre of the surfing world. Kinda.

Before Code Red was a twinkle in the eyes of Tahitian water authorities, this swell was new-to-life and dazzling its way up the land of the long white cloud.

Our MSW swell period chart showing this thing forming up. The T in the top right corner is the estimated start of when the swell started to spread out from the storm centre.

Our MSW swell period chart showing this thing forming up. The T in the top right corner is the estimated start of when the swell started to spread out from the storm centre.

That same behemoth swell that fed Teahupoo was actually serving up epic tubes a few thousand kms south. Particularly around Wainui beach in Gisborne, along the east coast of NZ's north island. The birth of a monster.

Terrifying Teahupoo

This was it. Marine authorities swooped, banned water activities off the coast of the island of Tahiti, designating this a code red situation, birthing the name for this swell. What transpired over throughout that day, on Wednesday July 13, teetered on the knife edge of insanity. Nerves boiled away under the surface, only made more agonising as Manutea scored the first wave and was sent to the reef. Head cut. Treated on shore. (He was ok though!).

As you can see, we're now 60 hours after the storm's strongest point and it's travelled some 4,000kms already.

As you can see, we're now 60 hours after the storm's strongest point and it's travelled some 4,000kms already.

Eimeo Czermak broke the tension on one of the meanest, heaviest Teahupoo waves seen in years. For those young guns out there, they were making their own legacy. And then, it was gone! Marched deeper into the Pacific with a wave and a salute.

Maui's Day of the Decade

Ma'alea, a wave we've not seen break sine the mid-noughties looked like what a wave would be if you asked someone to draw their idea of perfection. Windy? Yeah, but Maui's new favourite juggernaut ploughed down the reef, ping-ponging surfers out the way as it thundered through.

9,300kms later, and this swell set off Ma'alea for the biggest and best day in 20 or so years.

9,300kms later, and this swell set off Ma'alea for the biggest and best day in 20 or so years.

We saw Billy Kemper go wild for two hours straight, Kai Lenny too along with Ian Walsh. This was historic for the Valley Isle and a swell event no one in the surfing world will forget any time soon.

Solid in South America

Nicaragua! Exclusive for MSW.

Puerto Escondido and Nicaragua were up next. “Something crazy is happening down here,” said Bruno Dias in Nica, filmer extraordinare. “It's firing everywhere.” Meanwhile, some 1,200 miles along the coast, Puerto Escondido was trying its best.

Up to 10k miles away from where Code Red 2 started now and look what it produced.

Up to 10k miles away from where Code Red 2 started now and look what it produced.

“There were a few diamonds in the rough,” said Greg Long. “By day three, when the period dropped and the swell shifted to a slightly more southerly direction, things returned to normal and it was a pretty epic morning by all accounts.”

California Gets Biggest South of the Season

While this was all happening further south, surfers in California were watching, thinking; 'what does this mean for us?' The answer came soon enough making for the biggest south swell of the season so far. Wedge went off. Not all-time, but then it doesn't have to be for a novelty swell event. It's the kudos of saying 'I surfed Code Red Wedge', that adds to it all.

Finally, SoCal starts to see the swell show,  174 hours after it all began.

Finally, SoCal starts to see the swell show, 174 hours after it all began.

SoCal was blistering, NorCal caught a bit of it too. For three days, California was the centre of the surfing universe again.

Cruising in Canada

...and a little encounter with the locals.

...and a little encounter with the locals.

© 2022 - Alex Joel.

Code Orca? Sepp Bruwhiler's close encounter was spine-tingling, especially as we got a text from this legend saying he thought it was going to eat him. That aside, Sepp created a sense of wanderlust – gearing up with old mates and scoring somewhere up the coast.

Canada's turn.

Canada's turn.

Meanwhile, fellow lord in the north Pete Devries was surfing a beachies at Tofino. “Not all-time,” he said. “But decent for the summer along here.”

Sepp Bruwhiler...

Sepp Bruwhiler...

© 2022 - Shane Roy.

Let's Break this Thing down

Now that you're caught up with what happened, let's focus on why and how it happened. Did you know these Code Red 2 waves travelled across the ocean at around 67km/h (41mph) The devil's in the details, so they say. Here, MSW forecaster Tony Butt lays out some facts about this swell, how it moved, the history of tracking south to north and some other handy tidbits too.

In 1963, a group of scientists from Scripps Institute of Oceanography, headed by the ‘grandfather of swell forecasting’, Walter Munk, performed what was perhaps the most important swell-tracking experiment ever done. They set up a system of six wave-measuring stations in the Pacific over a great-circle route between New Zealand and Alaska. They tracked 12 big swells from way down in the Southern Ocean all the way up to Alaska.

They made some findings that were fundamental to our understanding of swell propagation (or, how a swell spreads out): for example, the fact that long-travelled swells lose hardly any energy as they spread out; and the fact that the long-period waves gradually outpace the shorter-period ones.

Over the last half of July 2022, you could say that the same experiment was re-run. But instead of wave measuring stations, there were real people surfing those waves in different parts of the Pacific Ocean, as the swell reached each spot on its journey from south to north.

Showing the path of the swell period as it moved away from way down south.

Showing the path of the swell period as it moved away from way down south.

It can all be traced back to a low that formed in the Tasman Sea on Wednesday July 6, and another one that formed at the same time a few thousand kilometres to the south, just off Antarctica. These two storms moved eastwards and then merged on Saturday July 9, southeast of New Zealand.

The combined system grew and expanded as it moved slowly eastwards. By around midday on Sunday 10th, it was centred just off the ice shelf about half way across the South Pacific, and had developed a huge area of storm-force winds on its northwest flank. The windfield then moved NNE as the main system expanded out into the open South Pacific and pushed up against some high pressure to the west. This generated a massive pulse of swell, the bulk of which spread out towards the NNE, but also towards the east, northeast and north. It was components of the swell that travelled towards the north and NNE that produced the epic waves.

The north-travelling part of the swell hit Tahiti on Wednesday July 13, and continued onto the south shores of Hawaii, arriving on Saturday 16th and continuing through Sunday. Meanwhile the NNE-travelling arm headed straight for Mexico and Central America, and arrived there later in the weekend, filling in from Monday 18th to Wednesday 20th. It then carried on going, hitting Southern California, Canada, Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.

One of the last places it reached was Yakutat in Alaska, over 13,000 km away from the original storm centre. It also spread out towards the northwest, hitting Kodiak Island, the Aleutian Islands and filtering through to Kamchatka and other parts of eastern Russia. [Ed's note -- yeah, it was tough to find images out of Russia]

Once it started reaching places like Central America, you could see how the super long period forerunners had become completely separated out from the rest of the swell. Waves with periods well over 20 secs arrived up to three days before the swell peaked, only getting bigger and more consistent very gradually, as the shorter periods with larger wave heights started filling in.

A reminder of what this looked like when it hit Teahupoo. Eimeo Czermak, going deep.

A reminder of what this looked like when it hit Teahupoo. Eimeo Czermak, going deep.

© 2022 - Anuanua Lucas.

And why is that? As a swell gets further away from the storm centre, it spreads out, and wave heights go down because the energy is ‘stretched out’ over a progressively wider area. But the long periods contained in the swell don’t go away. Importantly, the radial expansion (spreading out in the same direction as the swell is heading) means that the further away you are from the storm centre, the longer the swell takes to fill in and, once it peaks, the longer it takes to ramp down again.

In the period charts on MSW, you can see how the swell spreads out in both directions and the rough times the first long-period forerunners arrived at each spot. See, for example, how much more stretched out the swell was when it arrived in Canada, than when it first arrived in Tahiti.

These charts were generated by the MSW wave model, but you can calculate the rough speed of a swell yourself. You just need to know that the speed of ocean swell as it spreads through deep water is dependent on the period; the longer the period, the faster the swell. The speed of swell in deep water, in km/h, is approximately 2.8 times the period in secs.

For example, if we assume that the longest periods contained in this swell were about 24 secs, they would have been travelling at about 2.8 x 24 = 67 km/h. These were the ones that got right to the front of the pack. On the other hand, the ones right at the back, with, say, periods of about 8 secs, would have only been travelling at about 2.8 x 8 = 22 km/h.

And Code Red 2's final resting place, after 222 hours and 13,600kms.

And Code Red 2's final resting place, after 222 hours and 13,600kms.

Cover shot down in New Zealand, where it all began, by Shawn Tunny.