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 australiasevereweather.com — 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.