Ten years since the Pasha Bulker Storm
Next month marks ten years since the famous June 2007 run of swell, arguably the best month that any East Coast surfer can remember. The East Coast is a dynamic coast, good waves can come at any time from the north through to the south, and though it has seasons they're not as distinct as, say, Hawaii's North Shore or Indonesia. So when East Coast surfers reflect on great waves it's usually in terms of individual storms or individual cyclones. But that wasn't the case in 2007. In the space of four weeks - or to be more accurate, three weeks - five similar storms formed off the coast and delivered a sequence of surf that rivalled the North Shore for size and consistency. The nearest comparison was the May 1974 storms. The 33 years span between the events underlining how rare they are.
I recall Friday the 8th of June 2007 much like a Hollywood disaster film. Sydney was shrouded by low, fast moving clouds, the southerly wind ramped up by the hour, while AM radio reporters were warning people to stay off the roads and move indoors as the storm increased in ferocity. All this on the eve of a public holiday long weekend; the people wanting but unable to escape the metropolis only added to the cinematic sense of foreboding.
Myself and two friends drove north that evening and in six hours we didn’t see another non-essential vehicle on the highway. It was manic. Branches shorn from trees flew across the road heralding gusts of wind that tried to wrench the steering wheel from my hands while the relentless rain limited my vision to two immediate cones of headlight.
It was a white knuckle ride, yet it changed around Hexham, twenty kilometres inland from Newcastle. In the click of your fingers the rain stopped, the wind switched to a different direction, and the clouds lifted to reveal the stars. We’d just passed the axis of the storm. The storm that would become known as the Pasha Bulker Storm, named so because just twenty kilometres due east of our location the MV Pasha Bulker, a 75,000 tonne 225 metre coal ship had just dry docked itself at Nobbys Beach.
When I think back to that day, it’s not just celluloid deja vu that comes to mind, or the terror drive, or even the fantastic waves that we scored, but that the Pasha Bulker Storm was only the first of five storms that hit that month. There were four more sequels in the franchise. And once it was over June 2007 was the most swell drenched month anyone on the NSW coast could remember.
The MV Pasha Bulker lies stricken on Nobby's Beach, Newcastle (Wikipedia)
The first known documentation of an East Coast Low (ECL) was August 1846 when the schooner Coolangatta broke anchor and was driven ashore near Point Danger. The surrounding area was subsequently named after the wreck. Similar storms are dotted throughout history, their significance determined by the havoc they wreak or the waves they create, or both. In August 1857 The Dunbar sunk off Sydney killing all 122 people. In June 1967 two ECLs stripped the sand off every Gold Coast beach. In July 1973 the Cherry Venture washed ashore near Double Island Point. In May 1974 a series of storms caused enormous damage to coastal property and generated some of the largest rideable waves the East Coast had ever seen.
Though the term East Coast Low alludes to type and place, the criteria for an ECL is a bit more stringent, involving wind speed, direction of track, and distance from the coast. Meteorologists sometimes struggle to agree on their categorisation, the criteria leaves a lot of wriggle room, and subsequently there’s no exact figure for their frequency. The Bureau of Meteorology asserts that ‘several’ ECLs form each year, yet they sharpen the consensus for June 2007 maintaining that five separate ECLs formed in just three weeks. An abnormal and never before before seen cluster of storms.
Clustering occurs when conditions favourable to ECLs - or indeed any weather phenomena - persist after the initial event. The atmospheric conditions remain and spawn subsequent events which continue till the broad-scale pattern changes.
The aforementioned May 1974 storms were an example of clustering: three ECLs formed in the space of a fortnight. May 1974 also bears a strong similarity with June 2007 in that the first storm of the series created the most damage and also caused a ship to run aground. On the 26th May 1974 the MV Sygna ran ashore at Stockton Beach. Both the Sygna and Pasha Bulker were unladen coal ships waiting outside Newcastle Harbour when an ECL formed. Both captains ignored warnings to leave the region when storms developed and their vessels washed ashore within five kilometres of each other.
Though the May 1974 cluster wasn’t as protracted as June 2007, the year 1974 marked a record number of Tropical Cyclones, ECLs, and deep lows off the east coast. There were 17 in total making it a banner year for swell and a nightmare for insurance companies. The devastation wrought by the May 1974 storms also caused governments to focus on coastal planning as a separate, specialised area.
The aftermath of the Sygna Storm, May 1974. Merewether at left, and Cronulla.
A week after the Pasha Bulker ran aground, another ECL developed off the NSW Central Coast. The floodwaters had only just cleared from the Pasha Bulker Storm and the swell abated when the second storm struck. And though it wasn’t as intense it again provided large weekend waves for surfers while exacerbating beach erosion caused by the initial storm.
For the large majority of surfers the best waves of June 2007 came a few days later when the third ECL formed. The good surf owing to the fact that this storm formed further offshore meaning coastal winds were lighter, the swell was more groomed, and it also impacted a larger stretch of coast - the northern NSW and Gold Coast shared in the size. It also had just a touch of east in the direction.
By late June surfers were weary from three weeks of waves, while rescuers were desperate to remove the Pasha Bulker from where it lay at Nobbys Beach. Though the crew had been winched to safety, 700 tonnes of oil remained on the ship which was slowly breaking apart under the sustained barrage of storm-driven swell. The risk of environmental disaster drove the salvage team to expedite a rescue operation involving sea anchors and winches plus three tugs to haul it to deeper water.
As urgent as the operation was, they needed calmer weather, yet on the 26th June a trough line moved off the coast marking the fourth ECL of the month. The system was preceded by an east north-east swell that shifted to south-east when the low moved offshore and deepened. Two days of offshore winds followed it with the swell slowly ebbing.
Thinking the storm had cleared, the salvage team pulled the trigger on the 28th of June and attempted to haul the boat to safety. Yet they were beaten by the weather. Improbable as it was, the atmospheric conditions that spawned the previous four storms gave rise to one more and they were forced to abandon the operation amid rising four metre seas. In every sense the fifth storm was a classic East Coast Low. It formed just off the NSW/Victorian border and tracked parallel to the coast as it moved north delivering flooding rain and destructive winds, and a huge south-east swell to any surfer who still had boards remaining in their quiver.
A timeline of storms beginning with the Pasha Bulker Storm, at left, and then the subsequent ECLs running clockwise from top left
In the following months every Australian surf magazine ran a cover and feature of the June 2007 swells. “The most epic month of surf this century” proclaimed Australia’s Surfing Life, and then devoted 38 straight pages to it. Waves gave it a cover plus 20 pages. Tracks interrupted their annual Indonesian issue by putting aside a cover and ten pages. Surfer and Surfing also joined in with cover shots taken during the June barrage.
Aside from the Pasha Bulker Storm my own surfing recollections of June 2007 are indistinct - an unfocused blur that evokes swell and excitement yet it’s devoid of sharp recall. It’s hard to remember individual sessions, leave alone individual waves. But memory is treacherous anyway, over the years it gets altered and augmented. So thank heavens for science...
Associate Professor Ian Goodwin works in the Marine Climate Risk Group at Macquarie University and he’s studied both the May 1974 cluster and June 2007. Prof. Goodwin determined that June 2007 featured a record duration of storm conditions. Assuming storm conditions are when significant wave height is greater than three metres, then June 2007 had a total duration of storm wave conditions of 449 hours. In other words, nearly 19 days of the month had waves over three metres.
During the month, Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology issued over 750 warnings to the NSW coastal fringe, while 20,000 calls were made to the State Emergency Service during the Pasha Bulker Storm alone and about the same amount again during the rest of the month. The whole NSW coastline was scarred with severe erosion to beaches and damaged property and infrastructure above the tide line.
Terepai Richmond rolling the dice at epic Shark Island. 28th June 2007 (Photo Sean Hill)
Meanwhile, up in Newcastle, the salvage team took three attempts to haul the Pasha Bulker off the beach and into deeper water. On the 2nd July they were successful and the stricken ship was towed into Newcastle Harbour for minor repairs before being towed to a shipyard in Japan for a major overhaul. This included a new name - the MV Drake. In 2008 the Drake left Japan and returned to service.
In March this year the Drake quietly returned to Newcastle Harbour ten years after its infamous visit. Conditions were fine with small seas and little wind.