How to Find a Secret Spot

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

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.