Thursday, August 4, 2011

Big Dec 69 Makaha Wave Heights Greg Noll By: Larry Goddard

Jed Noll,Greg Noll,Larry Goddard,Laura Noll

I have the weather maps for that double-barreled swell (two huge swells, a couple days apart, overlapping on Dec 4th, to produce waves at least 10 feet BIGGER than the giant Jan. 28, 1998 swell that was called "Biggest Wednesday" by some, and otherwise the one featured in the "Condition Black" film, where Ken Bradshaw rode a 50-ft wave. He told me that there were even bigger sets than that one he rode (60 ft?).

That '98 swell was produce by only ONE storm, but there was a secondary, more intense fetch that developed near the dateline packing 55-60 knot winds. The first swells arriving were generated by a VERY long 1200 NM fetch of 40-knot winds, blowing for a day and a half, with periods of 20 seconds or more reaching "Buoy 1", (#51001, located 253 NM WNW of Waimea Bay, on a true bearing of 296 degrees from the 20-ft surf lineup at Waimea bay).

For a comparison, the Jan -98 surf at Waimea Bay was reported as "35-40 feet", and the waves out where the tow-in guys were sitting were probably 40-50 ft +, and 60 ft maybe on the very occasional sets.

The Dec '69 surf was completely closing out the Bay, running about 55 ft, and Kaena Point had waves of an estimated 50-70 ft! I saw it with my own eyes! Awesome!!

The first waves ridden from the 1st big swell were about 15-25 ft at Makaha on Tuesday morning, December 2nd, (ask Randy Rarick and Fred Hemmings how perfect it was. It was glassy and looked like 3rd point Malibu, only 2-3 times as big!). The North Shore was down to about 30 ft or so, after having been an estimated 35 ft during the night. It hit Kauai the evening before, Monday, Dec 1st, at 40 ft, and was very WNW in direction. Because of the swell direction, Makaha was able to produce PERFECT Point Break, catchable from the far west lineup, off the point, some 400 yards from the Bowl, just before the channel. That's almost a 1/4-mile ride on a freight-train wave!

Buzzy Trent, Wally Froiseth, and George Downing rode a similarly perfect Makaha Point Break in 1958 (Jan 12th, I believe). Note that both the 1958 and the 1969 swells occurred during a Sunspot Maximum, with the '69 swell also during an El Nino.

The SECOND big Dec '69 swell came in on top of the 20 ft or so that was left over from the first swell on the North Shore, (Makaha was down to 10-15 ft before dawn Thursday). The new swells began arriving on Thursday morning, the 4th, (also produced by 60-knot winds in Storm #2). The big problem was that the swell direction of the new swell was more NorthWest. That means that the lineup shifted about 150 yards down the line from the WNW lineup at the point to the NW Lineup. But, NW swells can't be ridden if the surf is much more than 25 ft (my, opinion, based on my own observations). And, the Bowl closes out on you at the end! You get the 'door' slammed in your face if you try to 'shoot the Bowl'. West to WNW swells let you make it past the Bowl to the safety of the channel.

Thursday, the 4th, started out really glassy, but by mid-morning, a light NW wind started blowing. And, as the waves got bigger, the wind got stronger, finally blowing at about 30 MPH, and the surf got really ugly. By late morning, all but one of the 7 guys out in the water gave up, and paddled or swim in. Only Greg Noll remained out there, determined to RIDE in!

I was on the 3rd floor lanai of the Makaha Shores Condominiums, with my camera set up 39 ft (about 4 stories!) above the reef right in front of the Shores. The only other guy up there with a camera was Albert "Alby" Falzon from Australia. He was set up right next to me, on the same lanai, with a 16mm movie camera, and on a separate tripod, a motor-drive Nikon 35mm film camera. I had called him up from the park next to the shores. Even with the tripod on the beach park picnic table, the camera could not see over the white water in front of the next wave coming in.

After we got setup there, there was an evacuation of tenants in the Shores, due to chunks of coral and seaweed being tossed up against the lowest floor of the Apartments. We ignored the orders and continued to shoot the surf.

By mid-late morning, the waves were getting up to 35-40 feet, and soon the biggest waves were rising well above the horizon, as seen from my vantage point. Those 13-minute sets I estimated to be about 5 or 6 ft above the horizon, or near 45 ft, not adjusting for the distance out to the lineup. That makes the waves about 40 feet ABOVE SEA LEVEL (i.e., NOT including the part of the wave BELOW sea level...the TROUGH). The true, TOTAL wave height, with the Trough, would be 15-20% higher: maybe 46-48 ft!

Greg was soon the only guy left in the water, trying to find the lineup where he could catch a wave. When you are out in surf you've never been in before, it takes time to find the right least 3-4 big sets have to pass by, while you carefully work yourself closer to that precise location where the wave first gets steep enough to catch, but not too close to where it pitches out. With 13-minute sets, that could take an hour of repositioning yourself closer to that take-off spot.

But, the northwesterly wind kept getting stronger and stronger, so by the time Greg found that lineup, it was blowing about 30 MPH, and already pretty gnarly from the heavy chop. But, I could see that he was absolutely determined to wait until he could at least drop in on ONE wave!

I had just run out of film, and had the back of my camera open, getting ready to change to a fresh roll of film, when one of the bigger sets arrived, and Alby yelled "He's paddling for it!".

Alby had just finished a reel of 16mm movie film and was also about to replace it with a new roll, but barely had time to jump on his motor-drive Nikon instead when Greg started to catch the huge wave. He was able to bang off a series of 4 or 5 frames before Greg got to the bottom of the wave. The wave was breaking from the northwest lineup into the beginning of the "Saddleback" area, (where the water's deeper), and was already pitching out in the Outside Bowl ahead of where he was dropping in. There was no place to go! The white water was closing in on him from both directions, and he had to bail out at the bottom of the 40 ft wave.

I started timing a couple seconds after he disappeared under the 35 ft or so of white water, until finally we saw Greg's head pop up above the surface WAY inside of where he got nailed. I estimated that after about a full minute, he reappeared at least 200 yards inside of the spot where he disappeared! That's 600 ft in about 60 seconds, or 10 ft per second, about 6.8 MPH, for the current produced by the broken wave.

I had estimated that Greg was about 800 yards out from the Shores, (700 meters, or so), in the direction of the channel side of the Northwest Lineup, just before the Saddleback. That's looking southwest from my position at the front of the Makaha Shores. My 1970 Edition of the "Waianae Port" Coast & Geodetic Survey (#4136, 3rd Edition, dated June 27, 1970) is a large-scale Quadrangle map that shows the bottom depth contours in the waters just off the coastline. The scale of the Map is 1:10,000, so 1 centimeter on the map represents 10,000 cm of the real world , that is, 100 meters.

I am very familiar with the bottom in the entire Makaha-to-Klausmeyer's area, out to about 600 yards, having snorkeled and dived there (including SCUBA diving in the '70s) for all the 16 years I lived there. The C.& G.S. chart shows that Greg Noll was sitting in 10 Fathoms of water if he was 700 meters out, SW of the Shores. That is 60 feet!, or twice as deep as the 20 ft lineup at Waimea Bay! Must be about a 40 ft wave, right?

The wave propagation speed in shallow water is dependent mostly on the water depth, rather than wavelength or period, as when out in the open ocean. The speed is given by a simple formula:
Wave Propagation Speed = Square root of (g times d)

where g is the acceleration due to gravity, and d is the water depth.

At the Latitude of Makaha Point Lineup, g is about 32.11 ft/sec/sec.
If the depth of the breaking wave, d = 60ft,

then, Wave Speed = 43.89 ft per sec.

The calculated wave velocity toward the beach in 60 feet of water is pretty close to 44 ft per second, or about 30 MPH. After the wave broke on Greg, if the speed of the white water was only 1/4 of that, or 11 ft per second, then if he was under water for a full 60 seconds, that would have carried him 660 ft, or about 220 yards.

I saw him pop up after about a full minute, time enough for three more 18-second waves to pass over him. If he was only held down for 3 waves, or 54 seconds, then he would have been carried in just about the 200 yards that I had estimated. That's a LONG time when the adrenaline is rushing, and the heart racing! Few surfers would survive THAT! Only an experienced big-wave surfer or a diver, would have a chance. Training and conditioning DOES make a difference!

So, How big was the wave, if it broke in 60 feet of water?

There is also a simple formula for that, where the bottom slope is not very steep. Most good surf spots have a bottom slope of about 1 in 30. Easy surf spots like those you find in Waikiki, have gentler slopes, 1 in 80, or 1 in 100.

For the less steep bottom slopes, the wave height is at least 0.78 times the water depth. That is, the "True, Total Height", INCLUDING the trough, (which is well out in front of a breaking wave and unridable) is around 78% of the water depth. The portion of the wave that is "Above Sea Level", is probably about 6/7ths or 5/6ths of the true total height. Most standup surfers only use the upper 80% of that part of the wave that is above sea level, so now we're talking about usable, Ridable Heights of maybe only 2/3rds of the entire top-to-bottom ("crest-to-trough") height that you could measure, and that all the formulas used in surf forecasting deal with.

Most surfers are even more conservative than that, typically reporting about 3/5ths or 5/8ths of the True Height. To minimize the need to specify HOW you are "measuring" wave heights, I convert my surf height forecasts to the only universally understood scale in the world: "Relative Height", i.e. how big relative to the surfer trimming across the wave.

Thus, "Head High" is pretty well understandable anywhere in the world. The problem is that in some places, surfers use "Slant Height", which is about Twice the vertical height (as in a 30-60-90 degree right triangle; the hypotenuse is twice the length of the verticle height of the short side opposite the 30 degree angle).

Anyway, as John kelly said decades ago, there are only TWO ways to estimate wave height: "Underestimated or Overestimated."

So, if the water is 60 ft deep where you see waves breaking, the waves are at least 0.78 times as big, or 46.8 ft. That's top-to-bottom. If the wave height WITHOUT the trough is 6/7ths of the true height of 46.8 ft, then it's about 40.114 ft...just what I suspected all along!

So, Greg, you paddled into a 40 foot wave, probably 5 ft BIGGER than that giant Waimea Bay wave in your famous poster! Too bad it wasn't a WEST swell, and still glassy. It would have been the most fantastic ride in the history of surfing, before the advent of Tow-In surfing.

Alby Falzon's slides that he shot that day are now ruined by fungus. Oh, well...You have the "video" in your memory cells, and can replay them whenever you want to relive that fateful day.

By the way, I had a near-death experience once when I almost died on an operating table at a young age of only 12 years. And once I went LEFT on a 15 ft wave at Sunset Beach, and got slammed by a dozen waves, as I was in the impact zone during a triple set, and my life flashed before my eyes as I surrendered to my drowning experience, but, my conditioning and diving experience helped my survive that ordeal.

When you have a near-death experience, everything changes in your perspective on life...things that once seemed so important no longer are, and other things matter more. So, I think I understand well why you gave up surfing giant waves after that day. Most people don't have a clue...

Larry Goddard

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