PETER HART – WAVE CONDITIONS DIRECTORY PART II (THE NORTH ATLANTIC DIARIES)
Peter Hart, installed in his bunker in Donegal, continues his assessment of how the wave sailor’s approach and expectations are effected by different combinations of wind and swell. In this concluding piece, he focuses on the influence of waves.
Words Peter Hart // Photos Hart Photography & JC/pwaworldtour.com
“ It’s a big old subject …” warned our editor, a waterman of some considerable skill who talks about the breaks and wind of his native Ireland with the same intricacy and depth of vocabulary as Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall discussing the ingredients of an organic torte. He’s right. Wave sailing conditions does make for an infinitely various topic. (It fills a 3 year Bsc course at Plymouth University). Like the origin of the universe, the deeper you delve, the more various and mysterious it becomes – and yet that’s no reason not to give it a lash based on the information available.
Wind and swell combine in multiple ways to make life glorious, frustrating, challenging or just plain expensive. My aim here is to help the improving wave sailor bridge the gulf between what he aspires to achieve and what’s actually possible at that moment on that day. And by so doing preserve their morale, enthusiasm and sanity.
Most windsurfers (in this case I mean the person, not the board) are wind driven. With every session they become ever more sensitive to the smell, character and sound of every wind direction – the frantic screech of an easterly, the warm hum of a sou’wester. When they first attack the waves, it tends to be those darn Windguru stars that attract them to the beach. In the first instalment last month (copies still available) I honed in on the role of the wind in wave sailing; how different directions relative to the wave make the various elements – jumping and upwind and downwind riding – effortless, difficult or impossible.
But to become a real wave sailor, and not someone who just sails around in waves, you must develop the same sensitivity to the waves and learn to understand how their size, shape, speed, frequency and direction influences what you can do, where, when and how many times. Rather than drowning in a morass of theory, I’m going to illustrate the main issues by sharing the wavy questions and experiences of my recent wave groups and the lessons learned.
Changing elements and golden half hours
We start with a general comment along the lines: “I never seem to get on as many waves as the good guys.” Technique and tactics may be involved, but it’s more commonly an ‘f’ word issue -’fafffing’. You know the routine. Turn up at the beach; spend the first half hour chit-chatting to Henry about his new van conversion; then another agonising about sail size followed by a skinny latte and leisurely rig. Two hours later you’re sort of ready. You can’t do that wave sailing – well you can but you’re in severe danger of missing out. It’s rare that you get good wave sailing conditions all day. The system that is producing the wind is moving, meaning it’s likely to rise, drop, back or veer during the day. The depression that’s producing the swell is moving, meaning the swell is likely to increase and decrease AND change direction. The tide is constantly changing. The amount of water covering the seabed has the greatest influence over how the waves form and break. Everything is in motion. Like pulling the handle of the Las Vegas fruit machine, if you plug away long enough you’ll get all 3 cherries and disappear under a fortune of quarters. During every wave sailing day there may be a golden half hour when all the stars align, as if the gods of fun want to reward those who’ve stuck at it and stayed out there. So much of finding good conditions comes from halving your rigging time. The longer you’re in readiness on or by the water, the better your chance of scoring.
BEWARE THE MONEY SHOT
This is an observation more than a criticism, but our press likes to portray the sport in its most dynamic, sexy, colourful light as practised by young men and women all of whom have ‘danger’ as their middle name – and why wouldn’t they? Images of wave sailing tend to capture the money shot – sailor under the curling lip of a pitching, translucent wave; or laying their rig down to initiate a screaming bottom turn, looking over the tip of their mast at a perfectly smooth South Seas wave face. Marc was especially keen to achieve the latter. He’s a very good wave sailor. The waves were big so what was the problem? The problem was that the big outside waves were breaking in pretty deep water. That plus a slightly onshore wind had produced a lot of chop on the wave and in front of it; which made it difficult, unwise even, to suddenly lay the rail and drop the rig. It was still fun but you had to stay higher on the wave and make shallower turns. You can only do a proper lay down bottom turn if you have room to draw out the turn. That means having a lot of speed and power, a smooth flat in front of the wave and a big fast wave to pick you up again and help you maintain speed.
// Marc lining up in Donegal. There’s too much chop on the wave face to allow for a screaming, lay-down bottom turn. You can only be as radical as the wave allows.
WAVE SIZE – truths and myths
“I’m not going out there – it’s huge!” But he did – it was … and he was fine.
That ‘4m’ swell forecast for the next day had turned the dinner conversation to Laird Hamilton’s DVD ‘Riding Giants’ and the bit where he’s running along the seabed holding rocks to increase his lung capacity. Someone whimpered that they could only hold their breath for 20 seconds and would have no chance … it was as if the Sun had got hold of the story. Let’s calm down.
The measurement of 4m is a guide but actually tells you very little. It’s just swell height measured way out in the open ocean. By the time it makes landfall, depending on the depth of the water inshore and the angle it strikes the beach or reef, it may be double that, or just as likely, just a few feet. And most important, is not the actual size of the wave crest to trough that counts, but its shape as it breaks. We arrived at the beach. It was impressive but the first task was to plot the journey of the swells as they marched into the bay.
“I’m not going there!” said Rich. He was looking at mast high waves which were feathering, but not breaking, as they squeezed between the mainland and the island.
“Or there …” he said pointing to the reef off the harbour. Timo Mullen was already sailing out there and his mast had just disappeared as he bottom turned on a beautifully clean face. (More about reef breaks in a minute).
It was no time for pithy metaphors but I told him to see the waves as dogs. The big ones out to sea were like a Great Dane, imposing but soppy and predictable. It’s the yappy little terriers inshore you have to be careful of. The outer waves, if they broke, were crumbling from the top. By the time they reached the beach some were a quarter of the size, but they were exploding, top to bottom on the sandbars. “Beware of the yellow water” became the mantra. A wave that has sucked up sand and is breaking in shallow water may not be big, but it has destruction written all over it.
Along the beach of the 3km curving bay, the wave height varied enormously. In the apex of the bay that directly faced the NW swell direction, they were about 2 metres; and because they hit the beach and sandbar straight on, they jacked up and closed out (they didn’t peel). It became known as ‘the corner of certain death.’ (aah the power of positive thought…). Once in there, there was no exit, except by breaststroke and then foot.
When it comes to wave knowledge and strategy, a picture can indeed tell a thousand words. The wave pattern here is typical of many bays where the waves bend out into a curve to conform to the shape of the beach. It’s key to get on the right side of the curve or you can be pushed into places where you don’t want to go. I’m on the upwind side of the curve where the wave is turning upwind. That helps me hold station. It also means the wind is getting more and more offshore on the wave, good for downwind riding. But 100m downwind and the wave has turned 30° the other way. Get on that section and you get pushed into the apex of the bay where, as you can see from the mass of foam, the wave is closing out.
At the upwind corner of the beach where they had refracted around the pier, they were a quarter of the size and peeling. It was the obvious place to launch. When it comes to tackling big waves, any waves for that matter, you must have a plan, a route and an exit strategy. If you were a tourist in Rio, Brazil, you wouldn’t wander through the favelas with an expensive camera around your neck and a wad of 100 dollar bills sticking out of your back pocket. It’s the same city, you just stick to the safe areas. The upshot of ‘Big Thursday’ was that no one broke kit or body. For a few runs mental barriers needed to be broken – but once they had patted the Great Dane without getting snarled at, most sailed better. The realisation dawned that big waves are (can be) easier. For a start, there’s more of a face on which to do stuff. But the main thing is that they’re easier to spot – and if there’s one thing the amateur wave rider struggles with, it’s finding and getting on a wave that you can actually ride.
Wave venues, especially those with a bay and a reef, are like cities. You have to know where to go. Stay on Broadway you’ll find it safe, wide, welcoming and entertaining – but wander into the Bronx … one false move and you’re pinned to the wall and mugged.
“I don’t have a problem catching waves, but I always seem to end up on the one that ends up doing nothing. How DO you pick a good one?”
The advice is the same a mother might offer her teenage daughter – you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince. To improve your wave selection, you need to spend a lot of time in the dating zone, hence good wave sailors invariably surf or do Stand Up. Without a rig to help you charge about, you are forced to spend a lot of time studying the horizon anticipating which lumps are going to give you a long satisfying ride; which ones promise much but deliver nothing; and which are just going to dump you. So much is down to experience but here are some wave-spotting tips.
Look for length not height
A beginner surfer catches the white water and gets pushed straight to the beach, hopefully scrambling to their feet before they hit the sand. The life-changing moment for both surfer and windsurfer is when that journey becomes elliptical – that is to say when they travel along the wave (preferably on an unbroken face) not just straight in. So it is, that the length of the approaching wave is more important than the height.
Look for the swell not the wind wave
It can be a nebulous distinction. Swell lines are made up from bits of chop and small waves, which catch each other up, merge and form into longer, more cleanly defined lines and roll on as pulses of energy beyond the wind that has created them. The further the beach is from the source of the swell, the longer the lines and the greater the period between them. The wave period reading on the forecasts is what really interests us. If it’s in double figures i.e. 10 seconds or more – we start to get really excited. A big period denotes a clean, well-defined swell. Confusion occurs when you have a swell, produced by a distant storm, mixing with waves created by the local wind. These wind waves can look impressive but they are just a peak in the shape of an ‘A’ and disappear as soon as you bear away or head up away from the peak. Even in onshore, wind-driven conditions, where every wave seems to be a glorified piece of chop, some are longer than others.
SIZE – No guarantee of satisfaction
Surely the most satisfying move in windsurfing is a well-timed top turn. Yes you can carve sweet turns on an unbroken wave face but the very essence of surfing is to position your board in such a way that the wave does the work for you and redirects it down the face. For that to happen in the manner of your fantasies, the top of the wave has to be active, moving and overtaking the base. In that regard wave height is no measure of power. You’ll get a more dynamic turn off a 3 foot wave where the lip is throwing over, than on a 30 foot wave where it isn’t.
// Unless the wall is smooth and steep, it’s hard to do anything spectacular. The commonest fault is carving too hard and stalling in a fat, sloping, choppy wave.
// By contrast this one is a third of the size but three times as powerful. The pros like Jules Denel (pictured) are especially good at creating dynamism out of dead situations – but even they need a wave with some shape and power to work with. PHOTO John Carter/ pwaworldtour.com
Running into channels
As a young surfer trying to catch waves, my first instinct would be to paddle to a spot away from the crowds – and I’d sit there for hours waiting for the big one – until I realised that no one was waiting where I was because waves didn’t break there … because I was sitting in a deep water channel. Waves steepen and break when they run into shallow water and fatten out and back off when they run into deeper water. It may also be down to the tide. As the tide floods, the water over reefs and sandbars can become too deep for the waves to break and the smart sailors will have moved elsewhere.
Beware the double-ups
It happens anywhere at any time but especially with swells with a short period that are the result of a local storm, that two waves roll in one behind the other, almost as one. Avoid them for a couple of reasons. Firstly they seem to suck the power out of each other; and secondly, if you do catch the first, you’ll bang straight into the back of the second.
But so often the problem of ‘the wave doing nothing’ is a rider issue. Even clean swells are not infinitely long. If you fire off up or down the line as soon as you catch one, you’re in danger of running out of wall. The good guys work a section – that is to say, they’ll catch the wave early, ride upwind, create some space and then ride downwind on the same section of wave; do a couple of turns before riding upwind again; and then, if the wave reforms, repeat the process.
Yesterday, for the first time ever, I was bottom and top turning like Jason Polakow – today I was back to being Buster Keaton. I kept out-running the wave and turning way out in front on the flat and losing all my speed. I know that’s a problem in onshore winds but on both days the wind was side-shore and the waves the same size.
In the winter of 1988 I went to Margaret River in Western Oz to learn to wave sail properly. I broke tons of gear but progress was definitely made. I returned to our first wave event of the year in Cornwall with the podium very much in mind and … it was like I’d never been away. I was doing exactly as described above, out-running the wave and turning too wide and too late. It was all down to wave speed. Swells, which are generated in the massively deep water off Hawaii, Tahiti and Western Oz have nothing to slow them down; so when they collide with the reefs that jack them up into those famously big, steep barrelling surfing waves, they are charging. Fast waves are a bit scary because … well everything is speeded up. In one way you have to be more precise in that if you get on the wrong side of the peak, you won’t have the speed to make it to the unbroken section and get engulfed by the white water. But in another way you can be less precise. On day one I remember catching my first wave, riding the shoulder, doing a typically shaky, wide, skittery bottom turn; but then suddenly finding myself at the top of the wave again doing 100 mph shouting “I knew I was good!”. Fast waves catch you up before you can outrun them and so can be very flattering – you don’t have to be so dynamic because they do all the work for you. That was the difference for our friend above. On day one we were sailing the reef where the water made a more sudden transition from deep to shallow and so where the waves were faster. The next day we were sailing a beach break. Waves, which run up a shallow shelf (and that’s most of them) gradually make contact with the seabed and that friction sucks all the power and speed out of them.
I have a real problem with timing top and bottom turns.
The group quickly became adept at noting how a change in wind direction relative to the wave affected timing. For example, the more offshore it got, the quicker you had to make your bottom turn or you’d shoot off the back. But what’s harder to clock is a change in swell direction. Waves get deflected by under water obstruction. They also conform to the shape of the shoreline. Waves rolling into a bay for example will bend and push out in the middle. You could therefore find yourself on a section of wave which is curving downwind or upwind. If it’s curving downwind, the wind is effectively turning more and more onshore as you ride, meaning you have to lengthen your bottom turn to the point of riding clew first. If it’s curving upwind (generally better), the wind becomes more offshore. Getting on the right side of a curving wave is the difference between staying upwind and being pushed into the next county.
SWELL or WIND WAVE (or both)
Selecting a wave that is going to turn into something exciting and then getting on it early is the number one skill to develop in wave sailing. Swells, the result of distant storms, rolling in over a calm sea, are easy to spot – but less so when they’re mixed in amongst waves and chop whipped up by the local wind. When looking for a ride-able wave, length is more important than height.
// A glorious set of long clean swells just asking to be ridden. But eagle eyed viewers will note that the wind is from the left but the wave is breaking right – so those wanting to ride downwind will have to adjust their timing.
// Compare that to a good old onshore, North Sea wind-driven minefield – waves peaking and breaking every which way. The pros are especially good at getting on the right sections and ripping up such random munchers. PHOTO John Carter/ pwaworldtour.com
I’m really getting into the downwind, front side riding but I keep bottom turning into white water.
It’s again a case of windsurfers being more about ‘wind’ than ‘surf.’ Once the wind goes side shore you have equal opportunity to ride up and downwind on the wave. Many choose to ride downwind because that’s what they see in the videos and it looks more fun. However, the very thrust of surfing is to follow the curl and ride the steepest part of the wave just in front of the white water. To do that you have to clock which way the wave is breaking, left to right, right to left (or a bit of both). Often is the time, as it was on the day in question, where the wind was from the left but the wave is breaking from the right. Our man was therefore turning towards a wave, which was peeling towards him. He was leaving the turn too late and so hammered into the breaking section. The trick on such days is to ride upwind beyond the peak, create some space and then turn early downwind towards the white water.
It was side shore, windy and wavy but I never got any good jumps. The waves just didn’t seem right. So what makes a good jumping wave?
It’s pretty much the opposite of what you want for good riding. To create the widest jumping window you seek a wave that peaks gradually and has a gentle slope leading up to a steep lip – and it doesn’t have to be that big. High jumps come from wind power rather than wave height. On the day in question it was more of a riding day. The waves were jacking up and breaking suddenly and powerfully meaning you had to be very precise to hit the lip. The steep faces held up by a marginally offshore wind threw you into a sudden vertical redirection – all a bit scary unless you were very practised. However, wave period has the biggest influence. The smaller the gap between the waves, the less time and opportunity you have to get planing, reach full speed and get stable and organised. The worst jumping beaches tend to be those that have a series of sandbars. Sandbars make the waves peak and break suddenly. They also act like traffic lights – they slow the waves down so they all bunch up behind each other.
// A good jumping wave doesn’t have to be anything very beautiful – just a shallow slope leading up to steep lip – and then the sky is the limit … especially if your name is Philip Koester.
PHOTO John Carter/ pwaworldtour.com
When I catch a wave I never seem to have time to do anything.
It’s the novice wave sailor’s most common lament. They catch a wave as it’s breaking and have no choice but to ride in on bubbling white water. It can be a tactical issue – catching the waves too late and too close to shore. It can be a technique issue – thanks to dodgy trimming, you can’t catch the waves until they’re steep and about to break. But it’s often down to wave choice and trying to catch waves which aren’t peeling. The vision of a cleanly peeling wave isn’t quite a flying pig, but they are nevertheless pretty rare. However, as you sail out, beware of the wave which, although steep and clean and alluring, is the same height along its whole length. Such a wave will fold in one mighty explosion leaving you no chance to turn either up or downwind. The classic wave has a peak and a wall sloping off in one or both directions.
And to finish, a nugget of advice that has been repeated many times over but one of which the budding wave sailor should never tire. Over the past 4 weeks we have enjoyed a range of conditions – but the days on which people learned the most about the finer arts of wave sailing were on light wind days on SUPs or big wave boards off the plane – conditions which at home were normally reserved for mending the fence. If you haven’t already – beg, steal or borrow something big and get out there!
More technique gems from Harty in the next issue. His new website www.peter-hart.com is up and riding, giving news of clinics and DVD’s. And find latest news also on his Peter Hart Masterclass Facebook page