Swells that Shook the World

California and Hawaii's four greatest runs of wintertime swell

| posted on January 09, 2014

In the Northern Hemisphere, winter is often ushered in with a barrage of big west swells. Every decade or so, Aleutian storms send winter swell trains roaring toward Hawaii and the West Coast with enough ferocity to remake the narrative of big-wave surfing history. Bellwether bombs. As these swells recede, they leave behind busted coastlines and new members to the hall of big-wave-riding royalty. If it seems like it’s been awhile since we’ve seen one of these historic swells on the west coast, well, it has been (Though Europe just had their own thanks to Hercules). Yes, yes, in recent years we’ve seen 90-foot waves ridden, freak slabs survived, and giant tubes threaded at Cloudbreak and Teahupoo. But the epoch-defining swells that make your homebreak look like Cloudbreak and Teahupoo, and which threaten to sink our local coastlines, are rare, with the last truly monumental swell event—the Big Wednesday Swell of January 1998—happening more than 15 years ago. We’re overdue for another. In the meantime, while you wax your 10’6″ and wait, if that’s your thing, indulge in this historical stroll through some winter swell magic:

For the first crop of post-war big-wave surfers, 1953 came in like a lion. Birthed by a storm-factory El Niño season, a magnificent west swell hammered California’s coast for three days, beginning on January 7th and peaking on the 10th. Southern California, especially the South Bay and northern Orange County, took the swell’s fury right in the teeth. The Redondo Beach breakwater was almost completely destroyed, waterfront homes and businesses in Seal Beach and Hermosa Beach were smashed by surf and flooded out, and unmoored boats from all over the southland surged onto Huntington Beach.

Most breaks in California that were surfed at the time couldn’t really handle the swell, but a few spots absolutely cooked for the handful of surfers good enough to ride them. Mickey Muñoz surfed perfect out-of-season Malibu at 8-10 feet, Peter Cole bombed some 15-footers at freezing Steamer Lane, while a crew of legends including Matt Kivlin, Joe Quigg, and Ricky Grigg ventured out at triple-overhead Rincon (pictured below) for the swell’s best session. Grigg, a future big-wave star and oceanographer, had a life-altering experience. “My destiny had been marked that day,” Grigg later wrote. “I overcame the great fear the waves inspired.”

Surf magazines have changed a bit in 58 years. SURFER, Vol. 6, 1965.

Surf magazines have changed a bit in 58 years. SURFER, Vol. 6, 1965.

By the time three separate North Pacific storms had merged during the last week of November, 1969, there were near-hurricane force winds blowing across a 2,000 mile-long storm front, from the Gulf of Alaska to Hawaii, one of the longest wind fetches ever recorded. Over the the first few days of December, thirty-foot waves hammered parts of Kauai, the North Shore was partially evacuated, a storm surged drowned the Kam Highway, and dozens of homes along California’s coast were swamped by high surf. Often remembered as the “Swell of the Century,” weather charts and photos have confirmed that the ’69 swell event was among the most powerful in history.

While California put on a show that included giant, pinwheeling sets at Rincon (Al Merrick: “Rincon was like perfect six-foot Rincon, except it was 20-foot Rincon”), and 15-to-20-foot waves at San Diego’s La Jolla Cove (pictured below), Hawaii was the real star. On December 4th, a terrified, 14-year-old Shaun Tomson was way out of his league sitting in the channel at Makaha, before riding a wave in and regrouping with his dad to shoot Super-8 film of the lineup. Shortly after, the Tomsons were among the few eyewitnesses to Greg Noll’s career-defining bomb at Makaha. While all hell was breaking loose on Oahu, a group of Hawaiian aces led by Jeff Hakman, Bill Hamilton, and Jock Sutherland bailed the unruly North Shore for Maui and headed straight for Honolua Bay, where they giddily slid into epic double-overhead freight trains. Best Honolua session known to man.

The surf and the crowd roar. La Jolla Cove, as big as you want it, December, 1969. Photo: Vandervoort

The surf and the crowd roar. La Jolla Cove, as big as you want it, December, 1969. Photo: Vandervoort

The first few months of 1983’s winter of surf were absolutely dominated by North Pacific action. Sam George called January’s standout swell of that year “the last of the free range swells,” as it arrived as swells had for decades, unannounced and mysterious. Not long after, swell forecasts were blasted out over surf report phone and fax lines well before they marched into local lineups. Once again, as with previous banner swells, shorelines in Hawaii and California were wrecked. Due to a weird shift in the jet stream, the series of low-pressure storms that generated the historic swell were parked much further south than normal, sending nasty weather along with the supercharged swell to Hawaii and the mainland. In California, the Santa Monica pier partially collapsed, nearly 1,500 beachside structures were ruined, federal disaster zones were declared all over the state, and more than $600 million in property damages were rung up.

January ’83 was notable not so much for one or two particular days of swell, but for sheer longevity. Surfing magazine reported “25 consecutive days of overhead surf, and the weather maps show more to come.” At one point, Waimea broke for almost three weeks straight. Big-wave riders in Hawaii and California grew fat and sated on the constant bombardment of powerful surf. The surf media noticed. From then on, inspired by the heroics of 1983, surf mags gave renewed attention to big-wave surfing, breaking the spell the shortboard revolution had cast upon editors and photographers, who’d spent over a decade devoted to covering small-wave hotdogging. Not long after, the Eddie contest was born.

January, 1983. Photo: Casmus

January, 1983. Photo: Casmus

Though Laird and the strapped crew had been buzzing around Hawaii’s most fearsome outer reefs for a few years by the late ‘90s, January 28, 1998 was tow-surfing’s grand entrance to the surf world’s stage. The islands were savaged by a swell clocking in on some buoys at 27 feet with 21 second intervals; it was the most powerful swell Hawaii had seen since 1969. The Eddie contest was called off after contestants freaked while watching one-too-many closeout sets wash through the bay. The beach at Waimea was closed for the first time ever. Whitewater stacked up on the North Shore’s reefs was visible to the throngs of drivers who were stuck in traffic ten miles away, crawling their way to the seven mile miracle to witness the maelstrom. Ken Bradshaw, in the standout performance of the day, rode what was at the time the biggest wave ever surfed (surely it still ranks as the biggest wave ever ridden by a native Texan), an Outer Log Cabins behemoth that’s been claimed at somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 feet. Meanwhile, on Maui, Laird, Buzzy Kerbox, and Dave Kalama, among others, showed what tow surfing was truly capable of by ripping perfect 50-foot surf at Jaws.

California went insane too. Haggerty’s in Palos Verdes was a perfect imitation of 12-foot Raglan. Lunada Bay, around the corner from Haggerty’s, was bigger, also perfect, and ridden only by its jealous cadre of possessive caretakers. If you could make it out at Rincon you shared glassy but muddy 15-footers with only a handful of surfers. Just to the north, Sandspit churned and gurgled in Santa Barbara’s harbor, six-feet and flawless. Pretty much any sheltered spot in California that could makes sense of the giant West swell was all-time good the last few days of January. Maverick’s went off. All over the West Coast, at spots that weren’t sheltered, and at many of the Cloudbreaks and exploding distant slabs, the tow-surfing revolution made its noisy debut.

Maverick's, winter of 1998.

Maverick’s, winter of 1998.

  • Scott

    The ’69 swell . . . had only been surfing for two years when it came . . . Rincon just fifteen miles down the road . . . but everywhere was going off . . . And this: is the Issue of Surfer that covered the ’69 swell, still available . . . somewhere? And what month was that issue? Best All Time Surfer, that one 🙂

  • jerry

    what were the buoys for ’83 swell? id love to know…anyone remember from their weather radios?

    • lance

      i heard one from the channel islands-42 foot!!!

  • scooby doo

    ’83, freshman year @ UCsomething something: CP peak all the way through Poles. so long so perfect so tasty. Also, mushroom-fueled nighttime sessions. Pretty easy to see in that condition, actually…also also, 1st time at a certain spot north, 7 guys out, solid 7 foot (double+ faces easy) backs, not a drop out of place, laybacks in the the FAT perfect barrels. I sure wouldn’t mind one pic of just one session from that year, but whatever, still giving my thanks. oh, completely non-sur-related, saw Book of Mormon in London tonight, I recommend, f’ing hilarious. Peace.

    • jon stange

      I surfed Carbon Beach in Malibu on that ’83 El Nino swell. I did the fastest hill run from school to get my board, and once on the point I waited easily for almost an hour before there was a small window of survivable paddle out, of course I was swept south so fast into the shore pound but made it out. Probably the biggest storm surf of my life that day, huge!

  • PC

    El Niño ’98, Swami’s had an epic 6 week run when the surfed never dropped below 6′ with multiple 8-12′ days. After a while people were surfed out and I can remember many uncrowded mornings with double overhead surf with just a handful of stoked surfers in the lineup.

  • Smalltime

    January ’98 at Rincon. I remember like yesterday! shaking in my booties, full of enthusiasm (before the word frothing was even invented) but petrified, riding the biggest waves of my life. Sitting at the top of the cove, anxiously waiting, trying to see over the tops of the lines; watching in awe, Shaun Tomson comes flying across from the creek mouth to the top of the cove on a semi closing out triple overhead wall on a 7 something and makes it; styling. I was barely surviving. Only 6 guys out. I watched bug eyed, as the seldom seen outside bombie closes out the whole cove on the biggest wave and receiving the pummeling of my life. Ahhh, those were the days back then, Sonny. Nah, Actually, it blows my mind how far surfing has come from those days.

    • jon

      I was at Rincon too in ’98 and shaking in my booties! I had to date the longest hold-down while being river-rafted down the point!

  • Gancha

    Oahu SOUTH SHORE summer 1975. 25 plus. Ala Moana Bowls to Honolulu harbor one giant close out. The day that took out the buoy and the channel marker. I believe it made the “B” list of all time days only cause there were no photo’s of outside 3’s that was still wide open. Before tow-ins, surf reports, and leashes were still iffy,,, Browns to Sandy’s at 15 to 20 ft on the wrap!

    • Keeks

      Yeah! I was out at Browns by myself that afternoon about 5:00pm when what must have been the same set that took out the original Ala Mo pole popped up outside, turning the horizon BLACK! I was paddling as fast as I could for minutes and still barely edged over the shoulder! ….didn’t even consider trying to take off!

    • sbrowf


      You’re off a bit on the date. I surfed that swell on an 8′ 4″, yellow, Brewer, swallow-tail gun. The giant swell was July 5, 1974. I got my mug on the centerfold of this magazine as the biggest wave ever photographed at Ala Mo, at the time. The next day Gary Speece and I hit Yokohama for way, way outrageous rights and lefts. That day the locals didn’t mess with us, the surf was so big and gnarly. They just sat on the shoulder and watched. Yokos was a hardcore local break that outsiders didn’t go to back then unless they wanted to go mucky. I was going right, the only one, through incredible tubes over a reef you could see as you surfed. Every time I paddled back out the locals would give the the shaka and yell, “You one crazy HAOLE.” Speece got into an infamous fight there a few years before where he got jumped by a half dozen locals. Gary ain’t scared of nothing. He took out several of the guys that surrounded him. He was a black belt that really knew how to rumble.

      My old buddy and next-door neighbor, Owl Chapman, went to Maui to surf Maalaea. He and Sam Hawk got some screaming rights.

      Steve Wilkings shot the photograph of the Ala Mo wave.

  • locomote

    Past week in Basque Country: 17 metres (51 feet!) the highest wave

  • greg

    Baja Mexico Dec.69 camping on the beach, We were sleeping in tent, huge swell high tide water came over berm and washed us away. It was 4 in the morning. When sun came up shore break was so big you couldn’t see outside. Has to go up on cliff to see the outside. Had to dig van out of sand. It was buried up to doors. Went to H.B. when I got home. Waves were forming out by oil derricks. Naturally I didn’t go out. No one did.

    • Chucho Estrada

      Greg, hi, i’m writing an article about the first years of surf riding in Baja, it would be great to talk about it, i would appreciate,
      This is my email:
      I hope your interested, I’m sure you have a good memories of it
      See ya’

  • Jon Stange

    My uncle, Mike Stange, who is a good friend and surfing buddy of Greg Noll has a Black n white 8 x10 picture of Lunada Bay from the ’69 swell, a giant 20′ wall with Greg streaking across, it could easily been mistaken for Waimea Bay!

  • shooootsbrah

    sick article and pics. more stuff like this . thx surfer!

  • Dude

    The article shows how tiny is the surf world media. Stories of a little group of persons in a very restricted area. Yeah, surf have a lot to grow. A lot of good surf spots and cool histories around the world still out of the tiny world of surf media.

    • Solitudeseeker

      And lucky they are. Better to remain anonymous than become a destination spot for hotshots, groupies, wannabes and the whole tired and tiring group of gawkers and hangers-on.

      • Dude

        Hey, if they enlarge hugely the number of surf spots, people became spread around. There are space to everyone if they don’t go all to same spots. You know, simple maths, more places to same people means less people per place.

        But with worldwide surf destinations and more people surfing the monopoly of nowadays groupies will disappear. When Brazilians became surfers suddenly USA, Australia and South Africans don’t look so good surfers.
        Europe have bigger waves than USA. East Africa has better waves than south Africa… If americans wannabes want still being surf champions they need to cut the access of others, otherwise neither the ASP judges can stop the others showing that they are must better than red necks and aussies.

        Don’t be sad, your tiny world will disappear but at least you will see some aerial surf and other new cool surf, better than the old shitty surf with shitty stories of same old shitty groupie of the past.

  • Sojourner Truth

    I remember surfing the Redondo Beach breakwater during the winter of ’65, breaking 20′. First and only really big waves of my life. The La Jolla Cove in ’83 was quite a ride, and in ’93 if I remember right.

  • Tundra Tom

    In 1969 we were part of the only 2 or 3 carloads of regular surfers in the whole of Washington State. On the same day Greg Noll rode his epic wave at Makaha we were watching easy 20-25 foot waves breaking like a point, peeling down the river side of the North Jetty at Ocean Shores WA. I was still around for the ’83 swells and although I checked a few times, never saw anything even close to the 69 swells.

  • Splitter

    I’m 50 now but I remember the mutant waves of ’83 el-nino like it was yesterday. Almost dying will do that to you. John stayed on the beach refusing to go out on his 4ft knee board, I wondered why the buoys were forecasting 26 ft plus west swells with 20 plus intervals,,,it only “looked” 10 feet at Elcapitan, besides, it was a point wave it couldn’t be that bad, could it? After catching a solid 10 footer (backs) I was paddling back out when I notice Sean get drilled by a solid 15 footer, that’s when I noticed all the guys on the point jumping up and down pointing outside…holly shit I almost shit myself!! Massive swells in the 20′ range were stacked to the horizon. It was paddle hard or die! I swear as I crested the first 20 footer, there was a 22 footer, then 24, 26, 28, 30? all I could do is haul ass…or die. I was terrified looking seaward. oh God, I’ll never forget that fear. I remember saying long before, that a tube the size of a VW bus was huge, ha, ha. These tubes firing down the point were EASILY the size of Greyhound buses!! When the 20 sets were through, I was a half mile out to sea. My only choice…haul ass in before another freak set came. I belly rode a 10 footer left up unto the rocks and kissed beach
    !! I almost died! The faces on the sets were telephone pole heights. No shit. I found out later, that set wiped out around 20 piers up and down the coast. I should of listened to John…whew!! I should of died.

    • WhereHaveAllTheGoodNamesGone

      I was 17 when those beautiful monsters came rolling in. I was surfing the north end of Newport, just south of the Santa Ana Riverbed when the big swells hit. Don’t feel alone. When I finely got out of the water I told my friend, “Dude, I almost died”!

  • wedge rat

    Jan 83′ all of 17 years old, show up at the wedge, hb pier already down ( ) waves rollin in over the top of the jetty’s, hundreds watching, just 2 sponge bob’s in the line-up. Ok, better stretch, check ballz, I know they were there earlier, current MIA.. A couple cuties you goin out THERE? Well if I wasn’t, ok sure unless you were 1 shy of a 3some? No? Could you tell our boyfriends we gotta go to work time to get out.. mmkay..

    2 duck feet, and a pair drawstring nut huggers, what more do you need to kick out the only other people from the biggest waves you’ve seen before or since? Next 3 hours alone riding MOUNTAINS, tough t call in the line-up I’d would have said 40 foot faces, back on shore BIGGER, that was a good day…

  • Robert

    I began surfing in 59,
    but I haven’t board surfed in years. My first board was 12 feet long and made out of balsa wood, and I learned to surf on that. But at my age, I just can’t stand up on one anymore. I really enjoy surfing vids. I think surfers are better at their sport than ever.

  • ocean1271

    Anyone else notice all of these swell took place during an el nino year??

    Get ready to add 2015-16 to the list.

  • I am the Lizard King

    and during all this nothing was going off at the wedge???

  • Fattonecat

    I was in Hilo in Dec 1969, Honolii and outside the breakwater were big as well…