'Condition Black' January 28th, 1998
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.