“Mate, if you’re going to Bali, go on the full moon. Swell’s almost always the best then.”
This was one of the early words of wisdom among the first band of surfers traveling to Bali. We still hear it today.
But is this really true? To be honest, I’ve personally have always doubted it, although to voice this in some surfers’ company is like suggesting that Bintang Zero tastes better than the real thing, enough to get you booed out of the bar.
But first a historical digression: for a long time, sailors and scientists and surfers were evidently perplexed by what caused ground swells. In his classic book THE MALAY ARCHIPELAGO Alfred Wallace, the great Victorian naturalist, recounts anchoring at Ampenan Bay in Lombok in June of 1856. This is the dry season, the easterly trade winds being offshore at Ampenan, just south of Senggigi:
“The bay…was smooth as a lake. The beach of black volcanic sand is very steep, and there is at all times a heavy surf upon it, which during spring tides increases to such an extent that it is often impossible for boats to land, and many serious accidents have occurred. Where we lay anchored, about a quarter mile from the shore, not the slightest swell was perceptible, but, on approaching nearer, undulations began, which rapidly increased, so as to form rollers which toppled over on to the beach at regular intervals with noise like thunder. Sometimes this surf increases suddenly during perfect calms.”
Being a naturalist with a creative and curious and intelligent mind, Wallace sought an explanation: “This violent surf is probably in some way dependent on the swell of the great southern ocean, and the violent current that flows through the Straits of Lombok.” He went on to say, reasonably for the time: “…the sudden heavy surfs that occasionally occur in perfectly calm weather may be due to slight upheavals of the ocean-bed in this eminently volcanic region.”
Other historical references I google-spooned out the cybersphere comes from the Hawaii surfers of the early 20th century.
“During the  Japanese earthquake,” wrote Tom Blake,”there was a long spell of big surf here of which the boys still talk. So it seems to be the jars, the shaking, the vibration from the inside of the earth that causes the big surfs.” (link)
In a 1965 interview, Duke Kahanamoku recalls his famous “Mile Ride”: “But the day I caught ‘The Big One’ was a day when I was not thinking in terms of awing any tourists or kamaainas (old-timers) on Waikiki Beach. It was simply an early morning when mammoth ground swells were rolling in sporadically from the horizon, and I saw that no one was paddling out to try them. Frankly, they were the largest I’d ever seen. The yell of ‘The surf is up!’ was the understatement of the century In fact, it was that rare morning when the word was out that the big ‘Bluebirds’ were rolling in; this is the name for gigantic waves that sweep in from the horizon on extra-ordinary occasions. Sometimes years elapse with no evidence of them. They are spawned far out at sea and are the result of cataclysms of nature — either great atmospheric disturbances or subterranean agitation like underwater earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
So Duke was getting close with that “great atmospheric disturbances.” But note that this interview was in 1965.
I remember being similarly perplexed as a boy eagerly heading to Kuta for a day of swimming and body surfing, as I recount in an early blog post. Would there be waves or not? Sometimes there were, sometimes there weren’t, and without any real rhyme or reason.
Interestingly, I also remember local fishermen saying that the waves were always biggest on the “air besar” or the big tides of the full and new moon. As I started exploring outer islands, fishermen and sailors there would also say the same thing when I asked them if there were any waves around: “Air besar, ombak besar, ini sekarang air konda.” (“Air konda” = good phrase to know for the traveling Indo surfer, means neap tides).
But does this mean that those salty old seadogs, with intimate and daily knowledge of their oceans, knew what they were talking about?
This post is already long enough and it’s getting close to Zero Hour of the Chilled Bintang, and not Bintang Zero. To be concluded next week.