The (Un)official Forecast
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.”
Greg Long, Cortes Bank