Swells that Shook the World

California and Hawaii's four greatest runs of wintertime swell

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.