Boomer Bust – The Historic South Swell That Kind of Was
“In this crowded world, the surfer can still go on the Internet, hear about a swell a week in advance along with a zillion other surfers, and try to find the perfect wave on the perfect day and be alone with the surf and his thoughts.
Yeah right, like whatever. Good luck.” –
Anonymous web blogger, after John Severson, 1960.
Some got it, some didn’t. Two weeks after it first showed up on satellites, radar and submarine reports, perhaps the most-hyped Southern Hemisphere in the history of man is still lingering on some Pacific Coast beaches, and has left equally intense feelings of joy and depression in its wake.
Spawned by a pod of leopard seals who all ate bad penguin and burped in unison, a perfect storm began to swirl in the southern ocean during the first week of September and made all the right moves to inspire various surf forecasters into paroxysms of historical promise. “The Monster from Down Under,” as it came be called, had all the potential to be as epic as the Super Tuesday swell of April 2004, or The Sweetie from Tahiti of 1996, the non-stop El Nio freight train summer of 1983, or even — gasp — the now-legendary Monster from New Zealand during September of 1975.
Surf forecasters were hyping this swell as the storm was still building, as far back as the first week of September. By the 9th it was a full-scale phenomenon that left most Pacific surfers with as much as a week to leave the wife, kiss the babies, tell the boss to take this job and shove it, get a new quiver shaped and head for the coast to catch a bit o’ history.
So did it live up to the hype? Yes and no. This swell had the juice to sweep through most of the Pacific, creating historic days at some places and disappointment in others.
In the aftermath, the Monster from Down Under became the The Chaos From Across, The Hater from the Equator, The Tease from 40 Degrees, Anarchy from the Antarctic, and The Hoax Along the Coast.
There were stories heroic and tragic and here are some of them.
The Monster from Down Under grew and mutated with winds as strong as 50 mph and since it was only 1,500 miles south of Tahiti, the swell that storm generated was fresh when it tripped over an abrupt reef in the middle of the ocean.
Let’s do the math. The storm was predicted on 9/9, and the swell hit Tahiti on 9/11, so if you divide 1,500 miles by 48 hours you get a swell traveling at 31.25 mph. That’s probably not right but it felt like that to the brave nutcases who challenged the world’s gnarliest wave on one of the biggest swells ever seen there.
As the swell moved north through the southern ocean, sprucing itself up at about 31 mph, more than a few surfers were zooming south at 500 mph in jets, then 40 mph in expensive rent-a-cars, then 25 mph on WaveRunners as they motored out to head this swell off at the pass.
The reef pass at Teahupoo that is, because these days when a monster swell rears its head, the most dedicated thrill-seekers and adrenaline junkies flock to that outside reef to see just how close to death they can get and still make it to the shoulder.
If this Teahupoo session was a sort of reunion for surfing’s most dedicated adrenaline junkies, then Garret Mcnamara wins the award for Farthest Traveled. Mcnamara was in Florida at his father’s house in Palm Beach about a mile from Pump House waiting to surf an East Coast hurricane swell when he heard about the Motion From the Southern Ocean: “The Southern Hemi web map showed a monster swell under Tahiti,” Garrett said. “I knew it was going to be the biggest Teahupoo I have ever seen. There was one variable: the swell was so south and I hadn’t seen that south of a swell before, I was wondering if it would miss a little off to the south. I knew for sure what ever this low produced would be perfect, long barrels marching down the reef without the west bowl monkey on your back. I was sure the longest barrels at big Teahupoo would be ridden!”
Garrett jumped a plane and flew about a third of the way around the world and arrived to find that he would not be alone with this thoughts and the surf. The reefs were loaded with swell and washing into shore, causing havoc and evacuations on land. This was big, gnarly, 10.0 on the Sphincter Scale Teahupoo, and there were a couple of others who had the same idea. “There was a bunch of skis and there were frustrating moments I think for all of us, but I have seen worse crowds in other places. There was no more than five skis going at any one time, where at Jaws you can have up to 10 or 15 trying to catch the same waves.”
Of all the images that went online soon after the session ended, the one that people will remember showed Garrett doubling up in the tube with Malik Joyeux. That created the impression of more people than waves, but Garrett says it wasn’t li’ dat: “The wave I shared with Malik was the most beautiful view I have ever seen. As I pulled in behind him I could see his face and it looked like he was concentrating so hard. I was thinking I should be deeper as I cruised and watched Malik. Beyond him I could see the most perfect, blue lip pitching over the channel. It was amazing. Like nothing I have ever experienced. As it spit I passed Malik and only then he realized I was behind him. I grabbed his hand and gave not one but three big hugs. I wanted to celebrate the camaraderie of our new sport. I think it is an awesome sport we get to enjoy. It is very personal and it’s not often you get to share a life-threatening wave with a friend. People ask me didn’t you want to kill him I say I was having fun with a friend that’s what it is all about, having fun!”
You would think that doubling up in a giant barrel would make a guy’s day, but this day at Teahupoo was something of a letdown for the Celtic/Hawaiian charger. “I had an okay time — just didn’t get that rush I long for. The Streach board I was on was so fast, every wave was just too easy. I guess that’s a good thing for survival, but for me to get a rush I have to be on the bubble — the 50/50 line — am I gonna make it? Come on come on oh yeah! Or oh no! I have a huge appetite for deep waves and at the end of the day I was still hungry and there was no real rush. So it was pretty much a letdown. I hate that feeling. I live for the rush! I had to tell myself over and over, ‘You made it home alive and that’s enough.’ You get what you are supposed to get. That’s what I believe. I just have to always remind myself of that and thank God.”
Garrett didn’t go to Hawaii to chase the swell, but flew to California and surfed the same swell at DMJs, where, more than a little ironically, he got hurt. “DMJs was 3- to 5-feet with 6- to 10-foot faces and had a real fun, perfect left sandbar running down the beach. At the end of a ride on a 3-footer I jumped. As my head popped out of the water I could see my 20-pound board coming at my eye. I tried to get my hands up to block it and moved upward at the same time. My hands didn’t get there in time and it smashed into my face under my nose, slicing upward. I usually Crazy Glue all my cuts, but this one was a just a little too ugly, right under the nasal passage and I didn’t want to risk getting infected in that area. DMJs’ water is definitely not the cleanest water I have been in. So I survived Tahiti without a scratch and the next day get smashed at 3- to 5-feet DMJs’ sandbar. That doesn’t seem right, but I would much rather get a cut under the nose from my board than get splattered, scraped and smeared on one of the sharpest reefs in the world.”
Tahiti went to Red Alert on Sunday, 9/11, appropriately, as people in America tried to remember the World Trade Center Attack at the same time they were dealing with the mess from Hurricane Katrina. Tim McKenna was one of the aquarazzi hovering in the channel that day, and his photos and captions and even a recorded play-by-play from Shane Dorian were up and online for all the world to see at right around the time the swell crossed the equator.
Teahupoo was truly historic, the photos were there as proof and now the rest of the Pacific went to Orange Alert, because it looked like history was coming.
Tahiti is right around 2,700 miles south of Hawaii, so when you figure that the swell hit Tahiti on the morning of 9/11 and started to show in the Hawaiian Islands on the morning of Wednesday, 9/14, you get 2,700 divided by 72 hours to find a swell moving at 37.5 mph.
The swell couldn’t show up soon enough for the wave-starved citizens of Hawaii. Think of the Hawaiian Islands as a bunch of starving baby birds with their mouths open to the south, hoping for energy from Mother Nature. That was Hawaii’s summer for 2005. Less than historic, surf starved, desperate. A lot of pent-up muscle and bone waiting for something to happen.
A platoon of Hawaiian surfers had flown down to Tahiti, got it, then flew back to Hawaii at 500 mph, then scattered to all their favorite, secret south swell spots, hoping to ride some of the same energy they had survived below the line.
BUZZY KERBOX ON MAALAEA
Maalaea breaks so infrequently that it’s time to teach a whole new generation of surfers how to pronounce the place. Properly, it is four syllables: Ma-ah-lie-ya — with an accent on the third syllable.
Buzzy Kerbox has been chasing the place for almost two decades and up until recently gave it only three haole syllables: “Mah-lie-ya.” Maybe now that Buzzy has gotten that 4-Star day, he might upgrade it to four syllables.
Buzzy has lived on Maui for 13 years but he never got one of those A+ days that got Maalaea dubbed “The World’s Fastest Wave” during the ’70s, when guys like Sam Hawk, Reno Abellira, Booby Jones and Jeff Hakman would dust off their mini-guns in the summer to barnstorm those south swells that seemed to thread the needle a little more frequently back then.
Look on a map of the Hawaiian Islands and you will see why this spot doesn’t break very often. Getting a good day at Maalaea is about as easy as threading a camel through the eye of a needle. It takes a strong, perfectly pointed Southern Hemisphere to get through the gap between Maui and Kahoolawe and into that tight corner pocket. “There had been a lot of false alarms over the years and I’d never really seen one of those days like they had in the ’70s. I used to fly to Maui to try to catch it but it was always like the sets came in the morning or right after you split. It is a very elusive spot,” Buzzy said. “I missed the last really good day about five years ago in October as I got home one day late from the Masters event in Ireland. Ever since I’ve had to hear about Dane’s perfect barrel every time the name Maalaea comes up. To miss a Maalaea day is like hearing Cindy Crawford came to your local bar and got naked on the night you stayed home. That’s why I was there at five in the morning, just at the thought that she might show up.”
When Buzzy showed up at the tight little southwest corner of Maui, there were only about 20 guys in the water, which was a tolerable crowd considering guys had known the swell was coming for more than a week. Two of the standouts were local Maui surfers Mark Anderson — best known for his underground surfing at Honolua Bay, and towing Jaws with Dan Moore — and Matt Kinoshita, “a goofyfooter extraordinaire shaper-turned fireman,” according to Buzzy. “Matt got the wave of the morning when he caught a bomb set from way deep and rode standing in the barrel all the way. I got one really good one in the morning but when I came in everyone was talking about Matt’s wave and Anderson’s wave. It was mellow in the morning, and nothing compared to the madhouse that broke out later in the day.”
This Anarchy from the Antarctic was a letdown in a lot of famous south swell spots, but it wasn’t a letdown at Maalaea. It had that perfect angle, plus unusual consistency at the same time the wind pattern over the Hawaiian Islands was blowing straight offshore. “This was the day,” Buzzy said. “Cindy showed up with all her friends. Sometimes at Maalaea there is a set an hour but this day was consistent by those standards. There were some 20-wave sets and it was really windy. I made the mistake of paddling for the first wave of a set and missed it. I was blinded by the spray, turned around and thought, ‘Uh oh, am I seeing what I think I am seeing?’ I just barely made it through the rest of the set.”
As the day wore on all of Maui showed up along with some from Oahu, like Michael Ho with son Mason and brother Derek. The sets kept coming all day long, so many barrels and so many drop-ins. “On some waves the burners got burned as they burned guys already burning,” Buzzy said. “There were not many that got ridden all the way through, but in the afternoon Alika Moepono took off deep on one and pulled in nice. I had been talking to Michael Ho when I saw this set coming. I ran over as I turned my camera on and started clicking on this wave; it was beautiful, as the sun that had hidden all day just came shining through the palm trees. He vanished as I kept clicking, I knew he was coming through this one and after some empty frames he emerged with the spit with his left arm raised. The beach erupted as he proned out and headed for shore, where he was greeted by cheers as he made his way to the shower. Alika doesn’t claim many waves but this was one to be claimed and remembered for a lifetime. The late afternoon was the time to surf as the sets were still pumping but most surfers were cut, bruised or their boards were broken. Or like me, they were tired and drinking a beer.”
Buzzy surfed three times this day, getting it while he could, dealing with everything from land and sea. By afternoon, the crowd was atrocious and Buzzy figures 60% of the waves that came through were ruined by drop-ins. “After my middle session I came in and someone asked if that was me claiming one. I said, ‘Yeah, I claimed it because after getting dropped in on eight waves in a row I was happy just to make one.’ Other Maui surfers that shined were the Rivers twins, Mike Crow, Eric Todah and young Nalu Wallace — who got it young and isn’t going to have to wait half his life. I don’t know how many guys got the barrel of their lives but that might have been a big number.”
While the swell stayed consistent through all of Wednesday, the wind shifted around, ebbed, blew onshore and then came back offshore stronger than ever. Later in the day there were some big waves and wind gusting to 30 mph and there were sets were no one made a wave. “Guys were trying as hard as they could to get in and get down, but there was too much wind. Major wipeouts, guys just getting worked.”
With all those tow surfers around, you have to wonder if anyone was tempted to shuck the wind by towing in and getting the fastest possible entry into the world’s fastest wave. It would be more than a little interesting to see Buzzy or Laird or Dave Kalama or any of the Strapt guys charge big windy Maalaea behind a PWC. “Well there was talk but no one acted on it,” Buzzy said. “It would be interesting to take off way back there but I don’t think the crowd would appreciate it. Not at all.”
Those photos of epic Maalaea inspired visions of Sam Hawk and Reno Abellira and pole sets taking out the buoys at Ala Moana, but alas, that little corner got the best of it for Hawaii, according to Bernie Baker. “”We got our wings clipped. The timing couldn’t have been worse,” said Baker. “The best SSE (for us) swell in decades and it rained and blew foul trades (side-shore) across all the south-facing shores, everywhere but Maui, where it gets a false angle bent around from Haleakala’s ‘presence.’ Those degrees (160-185) walked right into Maalaea Bay … it seemed to be forced into everywhere else, just too much bend. ULTIMATE Maalaea, wayyyyyyyy better than the two ‘epic’ swells of the ’70s. Yeah yeah, yeah, there were a couple of other ‘holes’ where it was just as perfect, but the best you can say was that at least it broke our nine-week south swell wave drought. We had more surf on the north shores than the south! Seriously, I saw 10-foot faces off Maili Point and I chased this swell as far to the west on Oahu, until I ran out of island … and it still rained and blew out on me, all the way past Makaha! But, like I said, we got surf, you just took it for what it was and surfed it till dark. We got three days out of it, three contests were run and a lot of surfers came home, either stoked or slapped around silly! Half of them shouldn’t have been out in the water, to begin with. Ask our lifeguards, firemen and the others who stuck their necks out to assist ’em in, to the beach. And on Kauai we lost a wonderful guy out in the lineup, Russell Souza, and we don’t know what happened. My heart goes out to the family and his buddies.”
The funny thing about this Southern Hemi is there was a good-sized winter swell running at the same time. “Sunset Beach was a solid 10 feet over the weekend,” said Karen Gallagher. “So a lot of Town guys stayed in town, but Sunset was still plenty crowded just with all the local residents.”
So Oahu was mostly a bust: No buoys being ripped out by the roots at Ala Moana or hapless catamaranistas going over the falls like the good old days.
That day at Maalaea, Buzzy took a sequence of Alika Moepono’s tuberide and sent them to a few people online. And those people sent them to a few friends, and then sent them to a few friends and within 36 hours, those photos had gone around the world and back to Hawaii, as Buzzy got an e-mail from a friend on Maui of that same sequence, captioned by “DID YOU SEE THESE SHOTS!!!!”
Those Maalaea photos went around the world and back a lot faster than 31.25 mph and
they just made the drums beat louder as the coconut wireless connected with the margarita wireless to send more than a few Californians south of the border to their favorite south swell “secret spots.”
PART TWO COMING UP SOON