'Condition Black' January 28th, 1998

Stu Nettle picture
Stu Nettle (stunet)
The Rearview Mirror

The Hawaiian winter of ‘97/’98 was an El Nino year, and not just any El Nino but one of the most powerful in recorded history. In the late 90s, meteorologists and surf forecasters were just getting their head around El Nino and its relationship to big waves in the North Pacific. Hindcasting had shown that other classic years such as 1969 and 1983 were also El Nino years. Would 1998 be as good as those landmark years?

History shows it wasn’t. When it was over, the late Sean Collins called 1998 an 8.5 out of 10, while even Ken Bradshaw, who rode one of the largest waves in history that winter, said “six weeks does not a great winter make.” 1998 was big but it was inconsistent.

Ken Bradshaw, Outside Log Cabins, January 28th 1998. Though it sounds improbable, this wasn't the largest wave Bradshaw rode that day (Photo Brian Stephens)

What the winter of 1998 is most remembered for is the swell that struck Hawaii’s northern shores on 28th January, 1998 - twenty years ago today - and became known as ‘Condition Black’, a term used by the Hawaiian Coast Guard when all sea access is closed. It wasn’t just the size (huge) or the conditions (clean), that accorded the Condition Black swell a place in the history books but also where and how it was surfed.

It was the first time the wider world had seen footage of Outside Log Cabins on the North Shore, and it was the largest we’d seen Jaws on Maui since it burst onto the scene a few years earlier. At both waves the surfers were whipped in behind jet skis, and if anyone harboured doubts about the burgeoning tow movement they were silenced by what they saw in ‘98. It was a performance leap of the kind surfing had rarely seen.

Outside Logs had been surfed before. During the ‘86 Billabong Pro at Waimea Bay contestants were surprised to see Ken Bradshaw - who wasn’t competing - paddle through the shorebreak, out to sea, before veering east towards Outside Logs. Big Kenny, however, didn’t surf solo, Trevor Sifton was already out there surfing it by himself. While a year earlier, Ace Cool was dropped from a helicopter near the reef before catching three waves on his 12 foot Brewer.

Ironically, once down at sea level, Ace was towed around the break behind an early model jet ski piloted by Frankie Ramos yet he paddled into each wave under his own steam. History is full of ‘what ifs?’ and this is yet another one - tow surfing may have begun ten years earlier if Ace and Frankie had connected the dots.

During the Condition Black swell, Outside Logs was off limits to all paddle surfers as there was simply no way to access it. The Eddie Aikau Invitational was called off and police promptly cordoned off Waimea Bay. One surfer, Jason Magers, ducked the blue and white tape and paddled out anyway promptly copping two closeout sets on the head and earning a night in the slammer.

The six tow teams that made it to Outside Logs all covertly launched from Phantoms, near Backyards. On land, only those with a high enough vantage point could see what was happening a kilometre and a half out to sea beyond the lines of whitewash and spray. Dan Moore whipped Ken Bradshaw into the aforementioned record-breaking wave while Tony Ray and RCJ had a vastly different experience when their underpowered ski was rundown while Ray was driving. Stranded amongst 50 foot seas, Ray and RCJ were the beneficiaries of a selfless act when Kawika Stant and Shaun Briley magnanimously scuttled their shot at history to tow the stricken vessel back to Haleiwa Harbor.

Condition Black at Outside Log Cabins

Shortly after Laird Hamilton, Darrick Doerner, and Buzzy Kerbox invented tow surfing in December 1992, they shifted their operation base to Maui. The move was primarily to tow into Jaws, a wave the Ho’okipa windsurfers had been flirting with since the mid-80s. The first few years they were on a constant feedback loop of R&D: they strapped themselves to their boards, dropped the length, increased the weight, and the combination of all these modifications was a surge in performance levels.

On January 28th, Laird and Dave Kalama, Buzzy Kerbox and Victor Lopez, and Rush Randel and Mark Angulo made it out via Maliko Gulch to tow Jaws. Two other teams tried but their skis were decommissioned by an unexpected surge at the boat ramp.

Buzzy Kerbox called it the biggest swell since 1969. “Upon arrival, we witnessed waves that were giant thick, and powerful,” Kerbox wrote in The Surfer’s Journal. “It wasn’t so much expressed in their height but the sheer volume of water involved when the monsters unleashed over the reef.”

Laird was “the star of the day” mixing deep fades with extended rail turns, essentially opening up a new performance frontier for big wave surfing. Amazingly, he did it on just two fins after Dave Kalama knocked one out while retrieving his board early in the session.

Following a path of serendipity that would characterise his career, filmmaker Tim Bonython was tipped off about Jaws and filmed the day from high on the bluff. Shortly thereafter, Tim made ‘The Biggest Wednesday’ which documented the day and was his highest selling movie to date.

Comments

deckstrus's picture
deckstrus's picture
deckstrus Sunday, 28 Jan 2018 at 11:51am

Another awesome article, cheers guys

joesydney's picture
joesydney's picture
joesydney Sunday, 28 Jan 2018 at 12:32pm

lucky enough to have been on the north shore for this swell. The highlight was still Jason Majors paddling out Waimea, a conplete nutter. I was never so sure that he was dead when he copped a couple on the head, this was before flotation devices and there was not jet ski on hand to pick him up. Just a bloke taking it all on!

http://www.johnbilderback.com/jason-magers-black-sunday.html

Woof woof 41's picture
Woof woof 41's picture
Woof woof 41 Sunday, 28 Jan 2018 at 3:12pm

Must of been nuts! Condition couch for me on that one.

joesydney's picture
joesydney's picture
joesydney Tuesday, 30 Jan 2018 at 1:55pm

We were staying on the beach in front of backyards at sunset and during the night the windows were rattling with the sets and then we woke up to the white wash lapping at our back door. All you could see from ground level was white wash, could not see where the waves were really breaking.
The amount of water moving was just crazy, Waimea rip was like a rapid heading out to sea.

Woof woof 41's picture
Woof woof 41's picture
Woof woof 41 Wednesday, 31 Jan 2018 at 6:40pm

Rad. I can sit there all day and watch a chaotic ocean. The people who go out in wild surf by themselfs are next level mentally wise especially in isolated areas knowing all to well if it goes wrong your done...
Our Hellmen hero's growing up surfing down around Victoria was Russell M,Shuan Brooks,GBrown, And a few more crew from the 80s and 90s who were pushing the none filmed side of Big wave surfing down the coast.
When you are down around Johanna area and its 10-15ft+ light off shore and waves breaking a mile out with no one around you need to be like that guy paddling out a waimea to do it.

goofyfoot's picture
goofyfoot's picture
goofyfoot Monday, 29 Jan 2018 at 4:40pm

That’s an incredible shot

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet Monday, 29 Jan 2018 at 4:43pm

Got me buggered why he'd be diving so early - if indeed that's what he's doing.

The wave in front has just passed so he's got, say, 18 more seconds to ponder his fate. May as well spend that time breathing oxygen.

lostdoggy's picture
lostdoggy's picture
lostdoggy Monday, 29 Jan 2018 at 4:54pm

If you zoom in it looks like he's a fair way from the front wave and close to the shadow of the set wave. Probably wants to swim down for a cpl secs.

goofyfoot's picture
goofyfoot's picture
goofyfoot Monday, 29 Jan 2018 at 5:36pm

It’d be a long couple seconds waiting for that to pass over you!

neville-beats-buddha's picture
neville-beats-buddha's picture
neville-beats-buddha Monday, 29 Jan 2018 at 4:28pm

" I came up and saw the purple seat of our wave runner and that's when I knew....yep, Tony didn't make it" Ross Clark JOnes

Clam's picture
Clam's picture
Clam Tuesday, 30 Jan 2018 at 7:25pm

The photo of jason diving, imo its not too early, because the waves were moving so fast that day .
Hes had plenty of time to breath up.. The previous wave didn't break .

Was Tim Bs movie film of jaws ?
or outside Log cabins..?

"Tim Bonython was tipped off about Jaws and filmed the day from high on the bluff."

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet Tuesday, 30 Jan 2018 at 7:28pm

Tim filmed Jaws, but he later made the movie 'Biggest Wednesday' interviewing RCJ, T'Ray and co, set to Logs footy from Scott Aichner and Pete Hodgson.

Clam's picture
Clam's picture
Clam Tuesday, 30 Jan 2018 at 7:49pm

Ok thanks stunet, Can remember the interviews of briley etc .
That picture of kerby browns next to Bradshaws photo coincidentally side by side on the homepage , is a fairly even wave size !

croca's picture
croca's picture
croca Thursday, 8 Feb 2018 at 4:16pm

Has Cheyne Horan been written out of this piece of history ?
Pretty sure he was out there .