Stab Magazine | Nostalgia Is The Best Drug! (A year of swell in review)

Nostalgia Is The Best Drug! (A year of swell in review)

The lingering charm of a scented candle pleases, but is nothing compared with the burning flame. By Greg Long “It used to be so much better back in the day!” “Better,” as in the act of surfing itself, including the stoke, the glide, the fun, the thrills, the exhilaration, the lack of crowds, and in […]

news // Mar 8, 2016
Words by stab
Reading Time: 9 minutes

The lingering charm of a scented candle pleases, but is nothing compared with the burning flame.

By Greg Long

“It used to be so much better back in the day!”

“Better,” as in the act of surfing itself, including the stoke, the glide, the fun, the thrills, the exhilaration, the lack of crowds, and in the quality and quantity of rideable waves that graced our shores… used to be so much better back in the day. Take your pick.

We have all heard it, and it’s likely we have all said it, or at least questioned the validity of the statement. It is an age old topic for pondering that can ensure a debate as cyclical as the very patterns of nature that create the storms and waves we love so much. But it would seem that if you ask almost any surfer from an older generation, they will assure you things were in fact better. I don’t doubt for a minute that it was, and that the days of old were most certainly different. But I refuse to believe that surfing’s best days and waves are to be reserved as distant memories of those that came before us.


A rare east swell hit south east Queensland on August 28. Dave Rastovich knew Broken Head had fine sand placement…

Now, I will argue that the surf culture, lifestyle, and minimal crowds back in the day were indeed something special. I personally would trade any and all modern comforts and luxuries in order to travel back in time to live in a rustic beachfront shack on the North Shore, before it was the North Shore. Or camp out in a tent for months on end in the dunes at Jeffery’s Bay, gorging myself on endless empty point break walls. I will fully acknowledge that it has become next to impossible to find a break in the crowds at our beloved metropolitan surf breaks. And there has in fact been the odd gem of a sandbar that has drifted off with the currents, or other waves that’ve sadly been disturbed or destroyed by the almighty human hand in the name of “progress”. There is no doubt many things were different in the past, but were they so much better?

It seemed like only a few years ago, if you wanted endless sand-bottom tubes you were relegated to battle with the masses at but one location: The Gold Coast. Now, options abound: Mexico, Mozambique, West Africa, Chile, Peru, the list goes on. If crowds remained exactly the same as they were back in the day, people would have never ventured out to new horizons and discovered some of the very best waves in the world that we surf regularly today. Try telling one of the goofyfooters getting barrelled for minutes on end in the African desert that “surfing used to be better.”


…the system gifted the north NSW coast waves, too, much to the splendour of Ryan Callinan…

And then, advancements in surfboard and wave riding technology have allowed us to surf waves we never thought possible, in ways previous generations never dreamed imaginable. Try telling the guy towing into the slab barrel of his life that “surfing used to be better.”

And then of course, there’s the forecasting technology that allows us to put ourselves in the bulls-eye of the very best swells, with timing and accuracy like never before. Tell the person who managed to call in sick at work for a week and snuck off to Indo or Mexico for the swell of the year, that “surfing used to be better.”


…It was so rare that Kirra couldn’t miss out, and either could Wade Goodall who came and turned down for what. All photos by Duncan Macfarlane.

And if you want to get right down to the simple idea of whether or not the swells were bigger and better. Well, they could’ve been. My short tenure as an “amateur forecaster” only extends 10 years back, and Mother Nature’s cycles happen on a much grander scale. But I’ll be damned if she hasn’t been producing “the swell of the year” on what feels like a weekly basis the past 12 months. Record-setting super-storms have been occurring with more frequency than I can remember. If you ask me, it definitely wasn’t better back in my early days.

Now, some may still argue that it’s only because of these advancements in technology and forecasting, and the fact that it is impossible for a swell, session, or even a significant ride to pass under the radar, without being plastered across the countless social media outlets for the entire world to see, that things seem better today.


“August 9th and 10th, it was the biggest swell we had this year,” says the photographer, Perth based Chris Gurney. “We arrived in Gracetown expecting solid North Point but instead it was 15 feet, washing through the bay. That same swell was massive in Indo. We had a big Cow Bombie session that afternoon with Brad Norris and James Hick, and the next morning North Point (opening image) was really good and Jay Davies was all over it. It’s really rare to get two days in a row at North Point.”

Yes, I will readily admit that today’s incredible access has contributed to the present scene. And the scene that we are viewing today includes more spectacular surfing imagery and action, coming from all corners of the world. I see images of new waves, bigger waves, better, longer, and hollower waves, being surfed with as much skill, bravado, athleticism and enthusiasm as any time in history. When I look at the photo evidence of what is happening here and now… I simply don’t see how it could be any better.

Perhaps, though, this means that one day, I too might be looking back with my own fond memories of today, reminiscing, of course it was better back in the day.


The back-to-back swells that hit Tahiti during the mid-August event were low-pressure systems that generated in the Tasman Sea, south east of New Zealand. They’re exactly what we can expect more of over the coming, say, 15 years! By the time anchors were drawn from the channel we’d seen the best world tour event in history. 57 nine-point rides had been ridden, 11 heat totals were 19.00 or higher and Owen Wright pictured here snatched much respect for standing tall in chunks of the Pacific. Photo by Ed Sloane

But science gets you pretty high, too!

We’ve seen glitter in the last three decades, but it was the generation prior who really rode the lightning. Don’t worry though: Soon, your world will fill with a burning aroma.

By Lucas Townsend

You’ve heard the old rhetoric. “You should’ve seen it 20 years ago.” It’s the ubiquitous sentiment we’ve grown up with, which suggests that the last few decades, if we’re to categorise broadly, have been simply awful compared to the years of cheap drugs and discovery.

And, as undesirable as that truth might be, it’s the only world that many of us know. The average of what we consider normal conditions (and I’m talking globally here) is based on falsity, like a human who, after 20-odd years of life, beats an illness they didn’t realise they had.


According to Prof. Goodwin The Pass at Byron Bay didn’t exist during the 1800’s. There was no sandbank and it was known as ‘Boat Harbour’. It wasn’t until the 1950’s and above-the-knee trunks had sand moved enough and made surfing possible. The same has happened in Africa. Here, in Mozambique, and also Namibia. “A couple of decades ago (the two points) weren’t strong features of the coast. We think of them as permanent surf spots, but they’re so ephemeral at the whim of the wave climate. They’re doing now, what the Pass did in the 50s and 60s.” This photo and two below by Alan Van Gysen.

But – and it’s a very big, excited and jovial but – our number is about to get called. Science tells us! And when was the last time science was wrong? Science is the only god!

2014 has been a year of unprecedented swell activity. It feels as though classic sessions have continually fallen on every location where land meets ocean meets gents in trunks (or rubber). Indonesia’s had a flawless season. Western Australia feeds from the same pond, and one particular 15-foot swell hit Margaret River, the outer bombies and inside shelves and made its way across South Australia to Victoria in time for the Rip Curl Pro Bells.

The East Coast illuminated from far south slabs to perennial summer points, from autumn entirely through to the end of spring. Kirra even returned on August 28, just in time for Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson to be at home licking their wounds after damaging results in Tahiti.


And oh, Tahiti! Where do we even begin with you? The best competition ever could be a start, before you loosened your lungs again for Hollywood two weeks later to film Point Break II.

And before Tahiti, the general consensus was that it’d be hard to surpass the J-Bay Open. Remember? Namibia and Mozambique both hosted to-the-degree perfect swells, too. New Zealand and Fiji rained flawlessness. And that’s only the Southern Hemisphere.

The Big Wednesday cliché was dusted off when Hurricane Marie coughed for the US west coast, and the best Malibu First Point in a decade. Two super-typhoons hit Japan and surrounding shores in the space of two weeks. Europe didn’t miss the juice either.


The juice squeezed from an in season Indian Ocean, into the bowls of South Africa.

Undeniably, an extraordinary year. But, why?

Enter Professor Ian Goodwin, as good at understanding weather patterns as John John Florence is in backside tubes. A Marine Climatologist, Coastal Oceanographer, Marine Geologist and true boss, Ian’s reconstructed the wind and wave fields for the last 1000 years as part of his research at Macquarie University, Sydney. Yes, you read that time period correctly. And, he says the cycle that made the rearview so golden is coming around again.

“I talk to a lot of guys my age (57) and everyone harks back: ‘why is the surf so crap in recent years compared to the way it was in the 60s and 70s?’” he says. “Well, when we look at the decadal climate pattern, we’re actually back into the pattern of the 1960s.”


Before hurricane status, Marie was twirling off the coast of mainland Mexico. Other systems in that area would usually degenerate, but not Marie. This gal had presence! Tropical swells had been pretty average for the past decade of the SoCal swell window, but by August 24th, Marie was firing on all category-5 cylinders. Three days later, traffic cues were over two hours around The Wedge, lines hit Malibu First Point that hadn’t been seen in 10 years and Laird Hamilton shot the Pier on a SUP because he’s Laird Hamilton and gives zero phucks. This and below photo by Tom Carey

Decadal climate patterns are reoccurring conditions, roughly a 15 to 30-year cycle of similar sea surface temperatures and sea-level pressures. They’re the ingredients making the quality brine we love.

So, what Goodwin’s saying is, if you’ve grown up with The Crosby Show or Seinfeld, it’s been during the low energy end of the cycle. A lot of the systems tracked closer to the Antarctic and the Arctic and out of reach of our metropolitan breaks. From 1955 to ’75 though, Goodwin says, we had much higher wave energy because those storms occurred in the mid latitudes, instead. So here’s the sweetest music: It’s happened all this year.

It has to do with how the Indian Ocean is influencing the Tasman, too: “We’ve had a negative phase of the Indian Ocean dipole, which means southern Tasman lows have been more intense. That’s combined with a strong La Nina, producing a strong trade wind field, but also sets up tropical depressions for Kirra to fire.”


The Indian Ocean is the playmaker, here. The warm temperatures in the Indian create a low pressure event. When they get strong, they send a wave through the atmosphere that then down wells over south eastern Australia and the Tasman Sea where it sits and intensifies. When it combines with the influence of the Southern Ocean it produces swells that can hit anywhere in the south east corner of Oceania – New Zealand, the east coast, Fiji – depending on their exact direction.

The other thing about this pattern is called a wavenumber-3 pattern in the climate system. It means a similar sort of climate off the east coast of South America and Africa is occurring. Hello, Hurricane Marie, and hello, swell.

“It’s all a matter of calibrating your life experience as to what you consider to be normal,” says Prof. Goodwin. “If you’ve grown up with the fabled stories of what it used to be like, you’re about to get a taste of those glory days. It should be a pretty magical 15-year window, and it could run as long as 30 years.”

Did you get all that? The surf will be very, very good, for a very, very long time. You’re welcome.


What a year! What cause for celebration! Pass me a glass of wine, a slice of brie cheese and lets admire this French scene because Hossegor wasn’t forgotten from this swell script. Photo by Seth de Roulet.


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