Kylie and I woke up early this morning to meet Lisa and Sara at Addington Beach to surf. Sara and Lisa were new to the sport, and wanted to surf a more tame break, so we skipped North Beach and headed a little further south.
We arrived a little ahead of them, just before 6 am. When we pulled up, I could already tell that something strange was going on with the ocean. Firstly, the horizon was not flat, like it normally is. It was bumpy, for lack of a better word. Instead of a straight line, there were perfect sinusoidal shapes, evenly spaced. You could also see massive waves breaking just below the horizon. Not at the beach, where things were relatively calm, but about a mile or two out, waves were whitecapping, and tumbling over. I had never seen waves break that far out. Strong offshore wind blew the tops off the wave in an arc of trailing sea spray. It was too far away to hear, but it looked loud and powerful.
I often have a recurring dream about large waves that moved parallel to the shore. I am usually driving along the seawall in Galveston, watching waves break the same direction that my car is moving. I always thought this was impossible, until today. Waves about a mile out were literally traveling parallel to the shore. Some were breaking, others were simply rolling along like big huling blue monsters.
What might seem confusing, is that the beach where we surfed, the waves were relatively small. The waves were only about 1-2 feet tall. Perfect for longboarding, but really kind of boring. You might wonder how this is possible. Its a trick of swell and protection. I'll explain.
Groundswell occurs when a huge storm somewhere several hundred miles offshore roughs up the water. The swell is initially powerful, but disorganized and choppy. As it spreads out over the hundreds of miles between the beach and the storm, the waves sort themselves out. They organize, and roll onto shore in great big lurking waves, evenly spaced out with a smooth, polished surface. Groundswell is what makes for classic surfing conditions. Sadly, in Galveston, groundswell rarely occurs. Usually we are only lucky enough for some choppy windswell (the kind of waves that occur before they have time to organize). Only big hurricanes really bring the groundswell. But in Durban, groundswell is really the only thing that is surfed.
Like any wave, groundswell can also refract around edges. The massive groundswell I saw rolling across the horizon was actually created by a huge storm way down south of Africa. The waves were rolling up, and almost wrapping around the coast by the time they hit Durban.
However, where we were surfing (near Addington hospital in the map to the right) the shape of the shore line was protecting the beach from the massive swell coming in from the south. In the image to the right, imagine waves rolling in from the bottom of the map, but refracting a little around and inward. The mouth of the bay (North and South pier) were blocking much of the refracted swell. So, where we were, the surf was pretty timid, but still kind of fun.
After a quick hour of catching thigh-high waves, we loaded up the boards. I decided I wanted to go have a look at North Beach, and maybe surf there if there was time. The mouth of the bay doesnt offer as much protection further north, so I knew the waves would be much bigger up there. I had never seen the ocean move like this before, I wanted to see what was happening up there.
So we made the short 2-3 minute drive up to North Beach (one could walk it in about 5 minutes). What I saw there was unreal. Enormous waves, some 10-15 feet tall, exploding into the pier. There were red Quicksilver flags running all along New Pier. I surf there most days, and had never seen them before. There were about 10 people in the water surfing, and several others standing on the pier, board in hand, waiting to jump off. People were catching lots of the huge waves rolling in. Surfers and bodyboarders would drop in on the giant towers of water and carve whitewater along the face. When the waves broke, they exploded in a dynamic wall of whitewater and hiss. It was truly amazing to witness.
Those jumping off the pier had to time their jump perfectly. If they jumped at the wrong time, a huge wave could toss them back into the pier with a lot of force. Many jumped, cleared the pier,
but couldnt paddle past the massive break and were washed back to the beach. They were all experts at duck diving, where you essentialy push you and your board uner the breaking wave (see image at right). Even if they were washed ashore, they usually reappeared at the pier 10 minutes later for another jump. They all looked to be about 16.
For an instant, I thought about going to get my board. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I was on the sidelines. But then I remembered that I would undoubtedly die if I tried to brave this surf. Either that, or be rescued by the many jet skis zipping around, making sure no one drowned. That seemed like an embarassing fate, possibly worse than death. So I swallowed my pride, and we sat and marveled at the amazing display of natural power unfolding before us.
The Quicksilver flags were up because the next day they were holding the Goodwave Surf Competition
. This is a once a year event, held on the day that the judges predict the surf to be the best for that season. Unlike any other surf contest in the world, this contest does not have a scheduled date. They simply wait all year for the biggest and best day, and call everyone up. Often, surfers are off in other competitions, and local alternatives are invited to join.
One of those locals happens to be the guy who introduced us to Durban surfing, JJ. JJ gave Kylie her first lesson, and helped us find the shaper who designed our boards. He is 44, and is at the beach every single day. I think everyone who surfs in Durban knows him, and I dont think anyone knows his last name. He is friendly, energetic, and I only understand about 70% of what comes out of his mouth (he speaks quite quickly and in thick surfer lingo). Tomorrow, he'll surf in the Goodwave against teenagers, less than half his age. Needless to say, we'll be there to cheer him on.
It was a truly phenomenal day. I have never seen the ocean display so much power, yet power that was so organized and focal. Sure, part of me wished I was one of the brave souls diving into the ocean to surf this once a year swell. But really I was just grateful to have caught a few waves that morning and been around to witness such a unique aquatic experience. I cant wait to get up at dawn and do it again tomorrow.