How to Find a Secret Spot

Rob Gilley discovers the importance of local wind patterns in surf exploration

| posted on November 11, 2013
Three words that Mike Todd won't forget after his trip to the Seychelles: "trade wind wrap". Photo: Gilley

Three words that Mike Todd won’t forget after his trip to the Seychelles: “trade wind wrap”. Photo: Gilley

We were all pretty depressed—holed up on an Atlantic island with a clean, 10-foot swell, perfect winds…and nowhere to surf. Despite a severely undulated coastline and great swell exposure, the near-shore bathymetry prevented any kind of reasonable wave from breaking. Lines of swell would march towards shore, producing nothing but gigantic, unsurfable shore pound.

With Murphy’s Law in full effect, the only good set-ups we could find on this Shetland island were on the east side—the opposite side of predominant groundswell.

We were getting ready to cut our trip short when we noticed one of the first mid-Atlantic storms of the season about to pound Europe. To our cyber wonderment, we realized that this storm—the kind of south wind tempest that rages through most of the winter—would send a strong swell up the North Sea directly at us. And by the time it got to our island, it would be a 5-meter southeast swell.

That’s 5 meters as in 15 feet.

Two days later, when the storm passed and the swell reached us, we surfed a perfect right point with clean overhead waves for eight hours straight. Eight hours of pumping surf, sunshine, and no one else in the water.

Rewind two years to the Seychelles. With groundswell diminishing, Mike Todd and I drove south to see what we could find. With very little swell left, our expectations were low. Once we got to the very bottom of the island, however, there was an unlikely sight—a super fun, Rocky Point-like left with clean, overhead surf wrapping along a reef, and nobody around. What was going on? What this some sort of phantom groundswell?

After a subsequent trip around the island, Mike and I realized that this Seychelles surf was produced by wind swell—a large and cumulative trade wind event that had been so strong that it wrapped around the bottom of the island and pushed itself into a protected cove on the leeward side.

Slowly, these two experiences brought illumination. Even with the knowledge of San Diego-saving Point Conception north-westerlies, it took a while to extrapolate the exact meaning of local wind patterns on a world scale.

Eventually I realized that these kinds of predominant winds carry an important implication. They mean—and this is the part you should really pay attention to—that wherever there’s land that’s exposed to more than 200 miles of uninterrupted fetch and has a protected headland or turns a corner, there’s a good chance of finding a consistent surf spot—and it’s usually an untouched one.

If you look at a map, you’ll quickly realize that this opens up an amazing array of possibilities—a boatload of virgin spots to be discovered. From the Sea of Okhotsk to the Caspian, from the South China Sea to Lake Superior, from the Black Sea to Hudson Bay, from the Mediterranean to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a whole world opens up.

And this, I’m sure, will be the next frontier…as soon as we stop finding perfect, untouched spots in normal places.

  • rspkt

    Wind patterns bearing a direct effect on surf?… that’s a fresh concept.

  • Bobby Fisher

    good for you!

  • Scott

    You just figured this out? You jaded Californian kook. Spend some more time with the ocean, not using it, but learning it. I guess common sense isn’t really that common.

  • Fred

    Us eastcoasters have known this for decades. Climb out of your shell.

  • wicked man

    what a tool,no secrets in the surfing world,they rock up with 4 guys and two filming,then by the time they return home each person has told 1 other on average,then it just multiplys like a virus

  • jake

    thank for sharing Rob, I’m going to start looking at maps

  • scotty raymond

    whether it’s taiwan in the winter or a greek Island in the summer, this unexpected trade wind phenomenon is played out the world over. so many surfers go on business and family trips and then kick themselves because they weren’t expecting waves in places like this. if you read the text correctly, it isn’t about waiting on some coastline for the wind to change and go offshore, it’s about finding a corner of an island or headland during the event itself. mr. gilley is offering valuable advice, yet all you pricks can do is spit venom at him.

  • Sage Ross

    Im glad all of you on here are so smart. I cant wait to read your articles about how sick it was mounting your gopro to your 6’6 new flyer then paddling out in double over toe surf with it like you are somethin special. Maybe instead of being a stuck up asshole you could touch on some stuff this article didnt cover. Also for Scott thanks man i live in HB CA and feel proud to be a jaded Californian kook i work full time for jacks surfboards and im 20 years old so you can imagine i have all the time and money in the world to devote to traveling and studying the ocean. I love going online and seeing the surf community argue online like a bunch of fuckin girls over some shitty JB video on youtube.

  • Michael

    Nice read – just would advise that we as surfers need to keep it to ourselves because then there wont be any secret spots left. I’m not into name calling but I don’t get why so many do it.