Swell of 1969


Benchmark big-wave swell, sometimes referred to as the "swell of the century," producing monstrous waves in Hawaii and the West Coast during the first week of December 1969. Meteorologists later determined that the weather during the winter of 1969-70 was affected by a relatively weak El Niño, the mid-Pacific ocean-warming phenomenon that tends to produce bigger, stronger open-ocean storms.

The Swell of 1969 was in fact the peak event in a wave season filled with a disproportionately high number of big-surf days. The famous swell itself was the result of three overlapping North Pacific storms; the first was identified on November 27, off the Kamchatka Peninsula. On the 28th, this east-moving storm met with another low-pressure area and doubled in size, and by the following day 60 mile per hour winds were blowing across a front measuring about 2,000 miles, from just north of Hawaii to the Aleutian Islands. Furthermore, the storm remained nearly stationary for more than 24 hours, helping to generate even bigger swells. Meanwhile, a third storm, smaller but still powerful, began tracking along the initial storm's wake.

Thirty-foot surf hit the north shore of Kauai mid-afternoon on December 1; at midnight, hundreds of beachfront residents along Oahu's North Shore were ordered to evacuate. Sixty North Shore homes were destroyed or badly damaged over the next 72 hours, Kam Highway was flooded, utility poles were flattened, and a number of boats were flushed from their berths at Haleiwa Harbor and deposited more than 100 yards inland; debris-crusted high-water marks were later measured at 38 feet above sea level. Two people were washed from shore and drowned.

The waves were unridable along the North Shore; top Hawaiian surfers Jeff Hakman, Jock Sutherland, and Bill Hamilton were among those who flew to Maui to ride 10- to 15-footers at Honolulu Bay. On the morning of December 4, a small group of surfers including Wally Froiseth, Fred Hemmings, Jim Blears, Randy Rarick, and Rolf Aurness all rode glassy 20- foot-plus waves at Makaha, on the west side of Oahu; later that day, as the largest waves from the second storm began piling ashore, big-wave leatherneck Greg Noll sat out at Makaha by himself and eventually bombed down the face of a 35-footer—still thought of by many as the largest wave ever ridden up to that point.

The big surf first hit Southern California on December 4. Oceanographer and 1966 Duke Kahanamoku Invitational winner Ricky Grigg rode 18-footers at San Diego's La Jolla Cove; at Rincon in Santa Barbara, board shaper Al Merrick, U.S. champion David Nuuhiwa, and world contest finalist Reno Abellira all rode triple-overhead point surf. Conditions that day, Merrick later recalled, were almost supernaturally aligned: "Like perfect six-foot Rincon, except it was 20-foot." A mild Santa Ana condition was in place, pushing the temperatures into the mid-70s, and creating a light offshore breeze. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, the heavy surf, which lasted until December 8, was responsible for drowning two men near Santa Barbara. Piers and parking lots were damaged, and a number of beachfront homes in Ventura, Rincon Point, Oxnard, and Seal Beach were flooded, but not destroyed. To the north, a small group of Santa Cruz surfers worked their way around the biggest waves at Steamer Lane, and managed to ride some 15-footers.

Exceptionally large waves have at times rolled across the Pacific Ocean (most notably in 1953, 1983, and 1998), but 1969 still stands as the milestone big-wave swell. While it's been said that surfers from the period remember the Swell of 1969 as bigger than it really was, satellite images of the great swell, along with atmosphere-gauging millibar charts and on-the-beach photographs, all suggest that the swell was in fact the most powerful on record. Waves from the Swell of 1969 are featured in Cosmic Children, Pacific Vibrations, and Tracks, all released in 1970.