The (Un)of­fi­cial Fore­cast

Surfer - - Contents - By ASHTYN DOU­GLAS

Five un­con­ven­tional pre­dic­tions about the fu­ture of wave rid­ing

Five left-field pre­dic­tions about the fu­ture of wave rid­ing

Some­one (prob­a­bly al­bee layer) will land an 18-foot air

If you were to use a yard­stick to com­pare the big­gest airs of 1990 with the big­gest airs of 2018, you’d see that above-the-lip ma­neu­vers have grown vastly higher over the past three decades. But if you took that same yard­stick and com­pared airs done by surfers with those done by snow­board­ers or skate­board­ers, you’ll quickly see that the lat­ter two eas­ily out-launch and out-ro­tate surfers any day. Find Danny Way’s 25.5-foot air on Youtube and con­trast it with the 6-ish-foot al­ley oop Jack Robin­son landed in West Oz back in March. It’s not even in the same league, let alone ball­park.

Par­al­lel­ing wave-borne punts with those done in snowy half­pipes or in con­crete pools begs an ob­vi­ous ques­tion: why the enor­mous dif­fer­ence? Will surfers ever be able to sling­shot them­selves sky­wards at heights that ri­val snow­board­ers and skate­board­ers? Or does surf­ing have unique lim­i­ta­tions and we’ve al­ready reached the up­per­most level of aerial ma­neu­vers?

Ac­cord­ing to James Rior­don, the head of pub­lic re­la­tions at the Amer­i­can Phys­i­cal So­ci­ety, the an­swer is both yes and no. Based on a cou­ple “sim­ple cal­cu­la­tions,” Rior­don’s figured out how to roughly es­ti­mate the max height surfers can launch them­selves above the lip. Un­like snow­board­ers and skate­board­ers, surfers are re­liant upon the speed of the wave they’re punt­ing off. And since waves slow down as they reach the shore, the speed a surfer can ob­tain be­comes lim­ited, and there­fore so does their launch.

The cal­cu­la­tion works like this: mul­ti­ply the depth of wa­ter by 2.5, or, per­haps more eas­ily ob­serv­able, mul­ti­ply the wave face by 1.5 and that will spit out the

the­o­ret­i­cal max num­ber of feet a surfer can be sent into or­bit. To help those not-so-good with num­bers, that means some­one like Dane Reynolds or Matt Me­ola can get 6 feet of air on a 4-foot wave and 9 feet of air on a 6-footer—not too far off what guys are do­ing to­day.

Ac­cord­ing to the equa­tion, it should be mathematically pos­si­ble for some­one to fling them­selves 60 feet in the air on a 40-foot wave. But ac­cord­ing to Rior­don, that’s not ac­tu­ally phys­i­cally pos­si­ble. “The faster you move on a wave, the more air drag you have to deal with,” says Rior­don. “The thing about drag from the air is it’s very low when you’re mov­ing slowly, but rises quickly as your speed in­creases. So even though you go faster on a re­ally big wave, you would also slow quickly as you turned up the wave to go for an air.”

But ac­cord­ing to Rior­don, there’s a sweet spot. The rough speed a surfer can go be­fore air drag re­ally pumps the breaks is about 25 miles an hour, which would re­quire about a 12-foot wave. And ac­cord­ing to Rior­don’s cal­cu­la­tions, a surfer could hy­po­thet­i­cally land an 18-foot air on a 12-foot wave.

That’s just talk­ing about a straight air. Once you start throw­ing ro­ta­tions into the mix, the height de­creases. “The more ro­ta­tions you want, the longer your hang time needs to be, but the higher you go, the less en­ergy is avail­able to spin,” ex­plains Rior­don. “A 150-pound surfer rid­ing the ideal-sized wave from the ques­tion above has about 4200 joules of en­ergy avail­able to them just as they are launch­ing off the lip of the wave. If half that en­ergy goes into get­ting height and half goes into spin­ning, they will go about 9 feet in the air, have about 1.3 sec­onds of hang time, and spin for about nine ro­ta­tions, which is a 3240. That’s if they were spin­ning like an ice skater, with their hands and legs pulled in as tight as pos­si­ble. But that’s re­ally hard to do with a board, so it’s an up­per limit that no surfer will prob­a­bly ever reach.”

More re­al­is­ti­cally, Rior­don posits that guys can prob­a­bly start land­ing 1080s in 8-foot surf. “That will be tough, but I imag­ine we’ll be see­ing peo­ple pulling off at least 900s in com­ing years,” says Rior­don.

We took these pro­jec­tions to aerial wiz­ard Al­bee Layer, who thinks both op­tions—an 18-foot straight air and a 1080—aren’t com­pletely out of reach.

“I think to do an 18-foot air, your tim­ing would have to be ab­so­lutely im­pec­ca­ble,” says Layer. “In big­ger waves when you start do­ing airs, you have to re­ally fo­cus on tim­ing to land back in the tran­si­tion. You’re not go­ing to do an 18-foot air into the flats—you’d break your board and ev­ery joint in your an­kles, knees and hips. But I think it’s doable. Some­thing like that is go­ing to hap­pen even­tu­ally.”

As for land­ing a 1080, Layer’s al­ready got that move on his to-do list. “That ro­ta­tion is my next goal in life,” he says. “I was talk­ing to snow­board­ers a bunch and they were try­ing to coach me through it, but it’s so hard to bring your board with you when you’re spin­ning that fast. I think we need to make boards as short as pos­si­ble and more aero­dy­namic in a way where you can just bring it around with you. That’s why my newest board is re­ally small and the nose and the tail are al­most iden­ti­cal.”

“But I think the main cul­prit of why surfers aren’t find­ing the limit with airs is that prob­a­bly 50 per­cent of the most tal­ented surfers aren’t fo­cused on airs,” says Layer. “There’s no re­ward for do­ing new airs in surf­ing. If you look at any other ac­tion sport, ev­ery sin­gle com­pe­ti­tion is based around forc­ing the ath­letes to do a new trick. It’s all about in­cen­tiviz­ing peo­ple.”

Swells will ac­tu­ally show up when they're sup­posed to (and be as big as you ex­pected)

Stop for a se­cond and think about how amaz­ing surf fore­cast­ing is at this mo­ment in time. Thanks to mod­ern tech­nol­ogy, you can wake up, un­lock your smart­phone, and, while still in bed, pull up a global swell model to dis­cover that a large pur­ple blob will send waves to your lo­cal break two weeks from now (at which point you’ll likely be too “sick” to go to work). Sixty years ago, the heads of our surfy fore­fa­thers—who ac­tu­ally had to step on the sand and look at a real-life ocean to know if there were waves—would have ex­ploded at such a thought.

But even though com­puter-gen­er­ated fore­cast­ing has im­proved ex­po­nen­tially over the past few decades, know­ing when and where to surf dur­ing a swell still re­quires some guess­work. Raise your hand if you, dur­ing a re­cent swell, a) pad­dled out at a spot fore­casted to be good but wasn’t, b) ar­rived at the beach in the morn­ing to re­al­ize the swell peaked sooner than it was fore­casted to, or c) spent two hours driv­ing around to seven dif­fer­ent surf spots only to re­al­ize the swell was com­pletely over­hyped for your stretch of coast­line.

We’ve all done all of the above, but will this level of un­cer­tainty al­ways be a part of our sport? Or will surf-fore­cast­ing tech­nol­ogy evolve to the point where av­er­age surfers will know ex­actly when and where to surf ev­ery day?

Ac­cord­ing to Sur­fline’s Kevin Wal­lis, there could be a chance, but it’ll take a while to get there. “I’d say we’re prob­a­bly at a 6 out 10 when it comes to where com­puter-model-gen­er­ated fore­cast­ing is,” says Wal­lis. “Taken across all the dif­fer­ent spots and all the dif­fer­ent swells, tech­nol­ogy can be in­cred­i­bly ac­cu­rate at times but it can be in­cred­i­bly bad at times, too. There’s al­ways go­ing to be some mis­takes, like the swell peaks in the af­ter­noon ver­sus the morn­ing or it’s 4 feet in­stead of 5 to 6. But in gen­eral, you’re go­ing to get a pretty good idea a week out if there are go­ing to be waves. I think one of the ar­eas that we have is­sues mod­el­ing are spots where lot of swell has to wrap in to hit cer­tain breaks, like the Santa Bar­bara coast­line. There’s def­i­nitely a mar­gin of er­ror there that I think can be tight­ened up and im­proved.”

The main ways spot-spe­cific fore­casts will be­come more ac­cu­rate is if the res­o­lu­tion of the global mod­els that feed swell fore­casts con­tinue to im­prove. “What drives most of our com­puter-model fore­casts is a global model that looks at the earth in ba­si­cally 20 mile by 20 mile grids and cap­tures what’s hap­pen­ing in those grids,” says Wal­lis. “As the spa­tial res­o­lu­tion gets bet­ter, once we start see­ing these grids in 10 mile by 10 mile chunks, I think that’s go­ing to im­prove fore­cast­ing. We’ll see more fre­quent model fore­cast up­dates, which could im­prove longer-range fore­casts. I also think that as we get higher res­o­lu­tion ba­thym­e­try for cer­tain spots, that’ll help fore­cast­ers fig­ure out ex­actly how big a spot is go­ing to be on dif­fer­ent swell di­rec­tions and swell pe­ri­ods de­pend­ing on the un­der­wa­ter ty­pog­ra­phy.”

And since ev­ery tech­no­log­i­cal field seems to be work­ing to in­cor­po­rate more ad­vanced ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, Wal­lis thinks there’s an op­por­tu­nity for a ma­chine-learn­ing al­go­rithm to au­to­mate fore­cast­ing.

“There’s po­ten­tially go­ing to be the abil­ity for ma­chines to learn and take what hap­pened last time with a cer­tain swell at a cer­tain spot based on hu­man ob­ser­va­tions and ap­ply it to fu­ture swells,” says Wal­lis. “But that’ll be con­tin­gent on hav­ing good ob­ser­va­tions. That’s how fore­cast­ing works. You need re­ally good ob­ser­va­tions and you need what’s hap­pen­ing now to fore­cast out in time.”

In a way, tech de­vel­op­ers are al­ready tak­ing baby steps to make our surf de­ci­sions more au­to­mated. A com­pany called Swell Nav­i­ga­tor has part­nered with a fore­cast­ing plat­form called Ocean­weather to cre­ate an app that will al­low you to se­lect the ideal con­di­tions for a spe­cific spot based on your pref­er­ences and past ex­pe­ri­ences, and it’ll send you a push no­ti­fi­ca­tion for when all the right el­e­ments align.

But no mat­ter how in­tel­li­gent and au­to­mated surf fore­cast­ing be­comes, Wal­lis thinks that the ocean will al­ways con­tinue to sur­prise us. “As soon as you think you’ve got a swell or a spot nailed, the ocean will throw you for a loop,” says Wal­lis. “So either way there will al­ways be some­thing to be said about go­ing and check­ing it ev­ery day.”

Big-wave hell­men and women will paddle 100-foot waves (if the ocean gives them the chance)

Back in Jan­uary of 2016, dur­ing one of the big­gest swells of the re­cent El Nino sea­son, Oahu na­tive Aaron Gold sat out in the lineup at Jaws on a self-shaped gun. He was run­ning on adren­a­line, hav­ing got­ten lit­tle sleep the night be­fore, and when the wave of the day rolled into the lineup, he turned his board to­wards the shore and started scratch­ing. “When I got to my feet, I didn’t re­ally know just how big the wave was. But it felt like I was drop­ping in down the face for­ever,” Gold said in an in­ter­view af­ter­ward. He later learned that wave—a solid 63-footer—earned him the new world record for catch­ing the big­gest paddle-in wave to date.

The feat was awe-in­spir­ing to say the least—but it also wasn’t en­tirely sur­pris­ing. We’ve grown some­what ac­cus­tomed to the idea that hu­man be­ings can paddle into car­toon­ishly-large walls of wa­ter us­ing noth­ing but the strength of their scrawny-by-com­par­i­son up­per ap­pendages. And that’s be­cause over the past cou­ple decades, the big-wave elite have bro­ken any and all bound­aries set upon them.

But there’s gotta be a limit to what can be pad­dled, right? If the ocean were to pro­duce 150-foot waves (as­sum­ing there’s a spot that could hold that size) could the hu­man body match their speed by pad­dling? Ac­cord­ing to peren­nial big-wave stand­out Greg Long, we’re just now scratch­ing the sur­face of what’s pos­si­ble.

“Hon­estly, I don’t think we’ve reached the limit of how big we can paddle,” says Long. “Ev­ery sin­gle year there’s fur­ther ad­vance­ments in surf­board tech­nol­ogy and safety tech­nol­ogy and it’s re­ally a mat­ter of Mother Na­ture giv­ing us the can­vas in which we can safely go out and do it. Ob­vi­ously there are paddle lim­i­ta­tions when it comes to the amount of wind there is and how raw and ugly a swell is, but if we get a day at a break like Mav­er­icks or Jaws that’s 70 feet and glassy, there will be peo­ple who go out there and paddle it.”

You might think that surfers would need some kind of jet propul­sion pack on their boards in or­der to match the speed of a 70- or 80-foot wave, which trav­els at a con­sid­er­ably faster speed than a 30 or 40 foot wave. But in re­al­ity, catch­ing more mon­strous waves ac­tu­ally comes down to tim­ing and po­si­tion­ing.

“I don’t think hav­ing a thicker board with faster pad­dling ca­pa­bil­i­ties will ac­tu­ally do you any good, be­cause then it be­comes a chal­lenge of be­ing able to con­trol get­ting down the face,” says Long “It’ll re­ally come down to the tech­ni­cal side of it—where you’re po­si­tioned drop­ping in, the an­gle which you’re set­ting to go down the face of the wave and be­ing able to ne­go­ti­ate bumps.”

The prob­lem with test­ing this the­ory is that the ocean rarely pro­duces swells of such mag­ni­tude where all the el­e­ments are aligned. “One of the big­gest chal­lenges our sport is up against, and why it’s kept a rel­a­tively slow pro­gres­sion, is be­cause we only get the op­por­tu­nity to prac­tice rid­ing big waves maybe 30 days out of the year—and that’s if you’re surf­ing ev­ery sin­gle swell around the globe,” says Long.

Ac­cord­ing to Big Wave Tour com­peti­tor Trevor Carl­son, there’s a new, young crop of guys (in­clud­ing charg­ers like Lu­cas “Chumbo” Chi­anca and Kai Lenny) who, given the op­por­tu­nity, will push the sport to new heights in the com­ing years.

“There’s some­thing to be said about see­ing it be­fore you do it,” says Carl­son. “When you en­vi­sion some­thing and some­one has al­ready done it, it seems very pos­si­ble. Surf­ing ridicu­lously large waves at Jaws or Nazare seems doable now ver­sus when I first went to Nazare a cou­ple years ago. We re­ally didn’t know if it was pos­si­ble or if we were go­ing to die when we got caught in­side. When I caught a good one and didn’t die, it was like, “Holy shit, I did that.” Now we’re no longer show­ing up think­ing, ‘Is this pos­si­ble?’”

But the ques­tion of whether or not there’s an ab­so­lute limit to what surfers can paddle into still re­mains—and will prob­a­bly for­ever go unan­swered un­til some freak XXL swell pops up on the charts and a few fear­less souls give it a wild go.

“I try not to men­tally put a cap on any­thing be­cause any­time we’ve done that, it’s been ex­ploded out of the way,” says Bill Sharp, direc­tor of the Big Wave Awards. “The sport con­tin­ues to evolve and a lot of it is just that the ocean doesn’t of­fer up 100 foot waves that of­ten. But when the ocean does of­fer that up, there’s a lineup of guys wait­ing to go.”


Al­bee Layer




Greg Long, Cortes Bank

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