The mystery of the missing skeleton
Everyone knows the story of 'The Endless Summer.' How Bruce Brown went all the way around the world, found the 'perfect wave' at Cape St Francis then came home crowing about it. The back story, however, is that poor old Bruce missed discovering J'Bay by just one headland. Sure, great film, but let's pause for a moment and think what could've been. No need to bung in those "same funny looking wave" quotes, just film the real thing.
In a similar vein, back in 1987 Sven Seifritz was stationed near one of the world's best waves, but he left the area not even knowing of its existence. When Skeleton Bay was revealed to the world years later, Sven's heart dropped when he realised he'd been stationed just five kilometres from the wave that every pro was now beating tracks to surf. Did he, like Bruce Brown, miss discovering one of the world's great waves by the proverbial bee's?
However, there's a complexity in Sven's story: Unlike J'Bay, Skeleton Bay AKA Donkey Bay, has a sand bottom and the shoreline is rapidly changing as the prevailing wind carries sand from the Namib Desert to reclaim the coast. Donkey Bay 1987 is not the same as Donkey Bay 2020, or even 2008 when it was exposed to the world. However, there'll always be a 'what if'?
Did I turn my back on the best wave in the world?
It’s 1987 and I was serving my two years military conscription in the South African Navy. Having not exactly been exemplary naval material I was sent for one year to the worst naval base in South Africa, Walvis Bay (then South West Africa) as punishment. Walvis Bay is a smelly, harbour shithole town in the middle of the desert full of conscripted naval, army, and air force personnel. The first weekend showed one dump of a club with a hundred men and ten foul local girls that have never had it so good.
An excursion of the coastline between Walvis and Swakopmund showed a variety of points, reefs, and beachbreaks. In Swakopmund, a smoking, grinding left they called Thick Lip had us frothing and resulted in a flurry of phone calls and letters - email and mobile phones didn't yet exist. The message: ‘Send boards ASAP! Oh, by the way, how are you…blah, blah…your son, Sven.’
Boards arrived, we had great waves, we surfed circles around the locals and the local Swakop girls were queuing up to meet the Navy surfer boys. When solid swell arrived the best wave was a reef called Guns, a long left, and on smaller swell a rippable right too. Guns needed solid ground swell to wrap around the Pelican Point sand strip where we were working at the lighthouse watching the radar for communist vessels: 24 hours on duty, 48 hours free.
There were no roads from Walvis Bay to Pelican Point, just car-chewing sand so we were brought across from the Naval Base to Pelican Point by boat. The jetty was on the calm inland-side of the sand strip. Only once did we venture out from the lighthouse to check out the smelly seals and dismal closeout shorebreak on the ocean side. We were conserving our energy for two days of surfing, partying, sleeping in our board bags on the beach, and the girls of course. When we saw spray coming of the waves from the lighthouse then we knew Guns was on and spent many mornings on the radio getting the boat to come and fetch us as quick as possible; we were frothing to get back to camp and our boards as quickly as possible.
Many years after my conscription ended I saw a video of Cory Lopez surfing an unknown wave somewhere in Namibia. I started thinking about a surf expedition, armed with GPS, maps, and Land Rovers driving endlessly in the desert looking for this mystical break. It was slightly onshore, misty, but one wave just tubed forever.
Over the years I saw more and more clips of this wave until the day I saw a clip of what had to be longest barrelling wave ever. Wow! Just imagine it?! Somewhere in the comments, hidden away were the words "Donkey Bay". I'd been looking "Skeleton Bay" and was convinced the wave was on the desolate Skeleton Coast.
A quick search on Google Maps revealed a sand point, wrapping waves, some strip of sand and a little inner lake. I zoomed out and...there was Pelican Point!
This is clearly a mistake! Can't be. I am on the wrong track.
However, despite more and more searching, checking out articles, they always brought me back to a disbelieving square one. NO WAY! I was in a daze for weeks. I think it must be like winning the lotto and you still don’t believe it’s real. I had this dreaded thought in my head that every time I stood on the wharf at Pelican Point frothing to surf Guns, I was in fact turning my back on a short walk to the best wave in the world - over and over again.
I contacted my main surfing partner in crime, who's a bigger frother than me, and after doing his own investigations he confirmed the same dreaded feeling. We simply did not know! We were best friends with the locals and not a word or even a whisper about this mystical spot was mentioned. We were the ‘board’ of directors there and knew everything. I mean, imagine you surf the place on your own and keep a kilometre long, eight barrel wave all to yourself? Unless you had video footage, no-one would believe you.
I got tired of looking at Skeleton Bay clips, yet on a local surf website, under another Skeleton Bay clip, I posted my sad surf story. Comments of disbelief, empathy, sympathy, all came through but a person with a background in oceanography made a comment that because of the sand movement there was no wave in 1987/1988.
Really? Well that is fantastic news!
My experience with waves were rock points, reefs, and sandbanks, which of course I know keep changing, but it never occurred to me that an entire strip of submerged sand could also change.
He said in '87/'88 the little lake was a lot bigger and there was no strip of sand - the strip that created the wave. He also had a blurry photo that seemed to confirm his findings, an old Google Map screen shot. I was utterly relived, but then I started thinking, 'If you take 500 metres away, I'd still be over the moon with the first 500 metres of perfection'.
Later I saw an interesting post about the sand movement. In the comments quite far down someone posted a picture and prediction of where the sand was in 2005. You can see the strip of sand between the lake and the wave getting smaller and smaller the further you go back in time. 2005 is about as far back as I can go.
Please Swellnet, forever put me out of my misery, doubt, sleepless nights and confirm that in 1987/1988 there was no wave at all, not even a short point wave.
And to answer Sven's question, here's Swellnet forecaster and author of past Skeleton Bay articles, Craig Brokensha:
"While a little disjointed, what imagery we have shows that there, most likely, was a wave there in '87/'88.
It's clear the bank was not to the angle or standard of today, with a few weird kinks and curves, but I'd say there definitely would have been some perfect sections.
Would it have been better than Guns, the reef that Sven and his mates were surfing?
Of that, we'll never know for sure." - Craig Brokensha