Some accounts of a few of Bali’s biggest swells

In Jim Bank’s account of last year’s big Outside Corner, he called it the thickest but not the largest swell he’s surfed out there. I emailed him asking him what was the largest swell he’s surfed at Outside Corner. September, 1988, he replied. Below is a photograph of that day. I wonder what the guy paddling up the wave is thinking. He seems to be pretty focused and not admiring Bank’s swooping panache.

I tried to find the charts for that swell, but unfortunately, Bouyweather’s historical data only goes back to 1998.

One of the largest swells in the past ten years slammed into Bali on May 18, 2007 Surfline filed a special reporton this mega swell. I wasn’t in Bali – I was chasing a fickle spot that alas remained fickle. You reckon a swell this massive would wrap into all nooks and crannies, but as we know, and which I had reconfirmed for me, swell direction is more important for some spots.

Uluwatu locals Gobleg and Lana ripped during this swell. In fact, being permanent Uluwatu residents, they’d be the ones to list the Top Ten swells of all time. They’d certainly have lots of stories to tell. I haven’t been out to Ulu in four years or so because of the traffic, but maybe I should crowbar myself out of my hermitage and make the pilgrimage to listen to them.

Below is screen grab of the Indian Ocean NOAA model for this May 18/07 swell, which coincided with new moon spring tides. In Java and Bali, at the high tide white water surged over beaches and wiped out warungs, stalls and boats. Panicked fishermen and residents thought it was a tsunami. An Australian paddled out to Impossibles and never returned to shore. A few days later his body was recovered toward Canggu.

According to the world’s oldest grommet and long time Bali expat, the biggest swell he’s seen struck on October 4, 1991. He surfed Padang at solid 10 foot plus with Kim Bradley, aka The Fly, and then wandered down to Uluwatu, where Outside Corner was 18 ft plus. Surfers: Jim Banks, Albert Taylor, Bruce Hansell. The Grom, being of sound mind and weary body, decided to shoot photographs from the cliff.

Me? Big Friday, April 21st, 1989. At the time I was living in Sanur, and rode a motorcycle early each morning over to Kuta, where I was working for Michael McHugh in his export business. The evening before, during my routine surf check, white water barely rippled on the Sanur and Hyatt reefs. When I woke up at dawn the next morning in our coral-wall and thatched roof hut in the Mertasari coconut groves, I could hear surf, but I had to get to work early and didn’t want to torture myself with a check. I hopped on my on my battered trail bike and rattled onto the two-lane empty Bypass for Kuta, with nary a traffic light.

Fifteen minutes later, I crested the small rise at the end of Jalan Pantai, and braked to a dead stop, stunned by what I was seeing. An enormous wave was closing out the entire outer bay from way outside Kuta Lefts all the way toward Canggu. I’d seen the outer bommies break many times, but never a horizon-long mass of white water. Cruising down the path along the beach to Poppies Lane (no road along the beach back then), I still couldn’t believe it. There wasn’t any real beach break, just massive walls of brown-foam water.

As I walked into the compound where Michael lived, he was just stepping out of his house wearing his Speedoes with goggles in hand for his morning swim.

“I don’t think you’re gonna be swimming this morning,” I told him.

Five minutes later he rushed into the office and grabbed me. “We’re going surfing.”

I didn’t want to go surfing. While I didn’t mind a go at big surf, this swell was of another proportion altogether. I couldn’t think of a single spot that would be handling it at anywhere near my comfort level – not to mention the usual excuses, my board’s only a 6’8″ etc.

Mike reckoned Sri Lanka would be manageable.

It wasn’t. The sets weren’t breaking as waves but as super thick slabs and nearly closing out the channel. But I paddled out with Mike (never go surfing with an adrenaline junkie). I’d barely gotten into position when a larger set came thundering it. I scratched over the top of the first one and thought okay, I’m over it. But the thing was so thick that even on the back side I was sucked back and over the falls – the first and only time that’s ever happened to me in Bali. A brutal smash down ensued, leash snapped. I was still spinning donuts when the second wave throttled my revs up again. Then a third one. This was definitely a near full minute exception to the twelve second ruleof wave hold downs.

I’d lost all sense of direction, and was starting to see sparkles when I popped up dazed way out in the middle of the channel, about a hundred yards from where I’d started. I waved at passing outrigger but the fisherman didn’t want to get anywhere close to the explosions on the reef. Mike paddled over and we managed to make find a smaller niche and make it into the lagoon, where a Club Med inflatable picked us up—the French surfer/driver/staff guy had seen the trouble but couldn’t make it out the channel. On the beach at Club Med a Balinese woman was crying and shrieking because her teen son had also decided to have a go at Sri Lanka and he was nowhere to be seen (he later made it back).

We all have similar Big Wednesday stories, but what was unique about this one was the swell. It dropped by over half overnight, and the next day we surfed Nusa Dua at a respectable 8 foot, but nothing life threatening. At the same time, Kuta Reef was a dribble. The only thing that explained this was the monster swell had an unusual degree of east to it.

About a week later, the local paper reported that dozens of East Indonesian fishermen had gone missing during a cyclone off NW Australia. Cylone Orson, a Category 5 cyclone was the fourth most powerful ever recorded in Australian waters with sustained winds over two days of 250 km/hour. Below is the cyclone’s track (from — Orson is the higher red one). You can see with that the power, and being so close to Bali, and with a perfect angle of fetch on its SW to NW quadrant, why it shoved such a huge swell to us. Almost a novelty swell, but the biggest I’ve ever seen.

The satellite image:

Now, at the time, wet season or early season south swells were still a mystery to many, the Received Wisdom being that Bali only worked on the SW swells from the southern hemisphere winter storms. In fact, the whole wet season was a mystery to most surfers and the surf media, apart from resident expats and locals who chuckled as they paddled out to empty perfection. But cyclone swells? Well, this explained to me at least several mysterious wet season swells that came up hard and died fast, lighting up weird rare spots.

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15 Responses to Some accounts of a few of Bali’s biggest swells

  1. Bukit Bear says:

    Whew! Need to lie down after reading this post. Surfed Impossibles during that 2007 swell – paddled out early..with 8 -10ft sets. From memory.. the swell continued rising.. peaking around midday… to a size well out of my league… the clean up sets were unrelentingly brutal. That poor Aussie kid (that got caught inside) didn’t have a chance…

  2. Greg Griffiths says:

    G’day Dick ,
    now if my tortured memory hasn’t completely left me the photo credit for Banksy’s bomb was either ” the world’s oldest grom ” or P . Graham , I’m thinking the former . I was in Bali at that time but too long ago remember where I hid out . Those words on Mike ring so true whilst recalling bailing over the handrail behind him as he lead us out to stupid size Scar , reducing ” the world’s oldest grom’s ” board to two 4′ hotdoggers .
    Greg ( kneelo )

  3. If that is the Grom’s photo, then according to him that is Albert Taylor paddling up the wave. Plus, sheesh, if Bank’s biggest swell was in 1988 and not this 91 swell, can you imagine how huge it was?

  4. John Harris says:

    I love this all so much, I was there on certain days, others not. I never used to pike, now and for a while, I do. I know most of the players and the whole thing is like the best lover you ever had, you can’t let go, even if she doesn’t want you anymore, H.

  5. Biggest I surfed it was that Banksy swell after Padang ! Was Legit 15-20 Hawaii Kine ! Banksy got barreled on that wave ! I barely survived some DROPS on a 6’10” ! Banks was only riding a 7’0″ but they were much thicker than what we Ride now. I have retired dedicating 100% of my surf time to my 12 Year Old daughter the next Hansel ! LOL !

  6. Pingback: The no fear and unloathing surf trip, Part II: At Ashmore Reef. | Bali and Indo Surf Stories

  7. Pingback: Cyclone swells and wind swells | Bali and Indo Surf Stories

  8. thingadonta says:

    there is an old video somewhere of 40+ foot faces at uluwatu in 1984, or sometime in early 1980s. Waves in the video show uluwatu reeling towards padang padang at incredible sizes, 40 foot,-50 foot faces and nobody out. Old Guy at Uluwatu also told me in about 2010 1984 was the biggest uluwatu had ever been.

  9. Detlev Wirth says:

    i remember sitting on the cliffs at ulus and filming the may 2007 swell . Andy Campbell (remember him ) got a smoker from way way way out back with a pig dog bottom turn into a under the lip snap into a barrell , spat out then lined up somewhere near friggin outside corner into another barrell then as he came out of that barrell it sucked out from under him and he got flogged big time. only saw him get 2 waves on that day . Fuck it was huge. the waves were washing right up into poppies 1 that morning .

  10. Right now I am watching Surfline’s live cam feed of Padang (and just witnessed a classic drop in). It’s proper Padang, but at the moment it looks like 6 ft.I know swell is supposed to peak later but at the moment, it’s not up there yet in biggest swells.

  11. Prabu says:

    Greetings, I read your story and saw the name McHugh. Is that Michael McHugh? I’m trying to get his contact. I’m wondering if you are still in contact with him. Regards.

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