The Surf Coast's Season Of Plenty
The Surf Coast's Season Of Plenty
Last Wednesday, the morning crowds at Bells and Winki were fewer than usual. Though the rising sun revealed clean 3 to 4 feet lines, it also revealed just a handful of surfers at each spot. Up above, the carparks were crowded, people gathered and talked, yet few were suiting up.
Wednesday 23rd August was a day to pace yourself. The first day of the last week of winter came with an exceptional forecast, perhaps the best forecast of what's been an exceptional season.
3-4 feet in the morning rising to a long period 8-10 feet by dark. Offshore all day.
There'd be no need for a standing start at sunrise. No need to rush out, to beat a dropping swell or rising wind. Surfers, at least those with a bit of flexibility in their schedule, could slowly limber up, watch the swell rise, savour the anticipation, maybe get a short surf in mid-morning to loosen up, and prepare for what was to come mid-afternoon, staying in the water until fatigue or darkness sent them in. All the elements were aligning for an epic afternoon session, and it didn't disappoint.
The swell of last Wednesday and Thursday bookended what's been a fantastic season in Victoria, and particularly on the Surf Coast. A flick back through my notes reveals winter opened with a bang: "Large Swell To End The Week" was the heading for my first winter forecast, with the waves on Thursday 1st June forecast to "build rapidly and reach an easy 6ft through the afternoon on the Surf Coast, 8ft to the east, with Friday due to ease back from a similar size range."
In truth, the run of waves started even earlier than that. In April, there were a number of mid-size swells; enough to feel like the last three years of La Niña was coming to a close. May was when the consistency began to kick in and it felt like we were reaching a turning point. Yet it was June when the pattern established itself and Victorian surfers realised this was becoming the new normal and not the rubbish they'd endured for the last 36 months.
Considering what they'd suffered through and what they'd revelled in, it was no suprise to hear lots of big calls for winter 2023. Statements ranged from 'the best winter in recent memory' to 'the best winter ever' have been thrown around. However, to get some perspective Swellnet called Cahill Bell-Warren, who grew up in the hills just behind Bells Beach, to get his thoughts on the matter.
Before continuing, keep in mind that Cahill was in Indonesia for a month during the middle of winter. This may explain why he's keeping a lid on the hyperbole, saying the winter just gone had “better than regular programming” yet the big calls arose because "everyone is so toey and has short memories.”
It's worth focusing on that last sentence. Cahill figures there's an element of memory bias at play, magnified by “how genuinely bad La Niña was for us.” This meant Victorian surfers were coming off an extraordinarily low base when this season kicked into gear. Seen like this, the wave quality in winter 2023 may be over-represented compared to previous standout years. No doubt every Victorian surfer will have an opinion on that.
After speaking to Cahill, I chatted to Brendan 'Swiv' Garreau about how the season should be regarded. Swiv was more upbeat.
“Yeah, it’s been an amazing run of waves at home," said Swiv, who, when I pressed him for a time frame told me, "it hasn’t stopped since April. Non-stop, lots of solid swells. Clean and offshore nearly everyday.”
"And the girls have been shredding. They need some credit. The same few girls absolutely sending it in some big surf."
Swiv also noted the season of plenty satisfied everyone's hunger. “Basically it was shit for two to three years,“ he said frankly, meaning anytime there was a wave the crowds would descend like bees on a honeypot. Yet with plentiful surf everyone has been getting their fill. "The crowds at times have been minimal due to the consistency of the swells," explains Swiv.
All of which has washed away the frustration of the La Niña years and created a collective sense of joy. “The vibe on the coast has been different and definitely better.”
From a long-term forecasting point of view, the season was defined by an extended sequence of swell, most of moderate size with generally clean, offshore conditions prevailing. As Swiv mentioned, having the swell size in that Godilocks zone kept the majority of the surfing population well satisfied while also providing options along the Great Ocean Road. For all its consistency, one thing winter 2023 didn't have was many swells pushing above the 6-8 foot range. In that regard, there have been better years.
Carlo Lowdown, who runs the Bells Beach 50 Year Storm event, puts it succingtly when the waiting period for the contest closed without running. "This year, was a frustrating one," Carlo wrote on Instagram, "with a couple of good wave periods, but nothing great enough for us to call on."
So while being great in terms of quality and consistency, the one missing ingredient, if we were to be picky, was the lack of larger swell events.
The key to understanding why Victoria has had an extended run of moderate-sized surf relates to persistent frontal systems moving under Australia, and most importantly, how through winter they focussed more towards Western Australia and the Bight. This allowed conditions down-wind to be clean under a general north-west flow.
Indonesia can attest to this, with the season so far filled with many moderate-sized swells from a southerly bias. There's only been a few swells that could be considered large and none threatening that XL range.
So what was the main difference that led to Wednesday afternoon's large groundswell?
In short, wind strength.
Larger swells are generated either by storms with stronger core wind speeds, or frontal systems firing up in close proximity to the mainland. Wednesday's was generated by the former, that being a rapidly deepening low pressure system that 'bombed' south of Western Australia. A 'bombing low' is classified when the central pressure of the low drops 24hPa within a 24 hour period, and this low far exceeded this, dropping approximately 40hPa over 24 hours.
This resulted in a fetch of storm-force (50kt+) winds being aimed towards Victoria and Tasmania, producing a large, long-period W/SW groundswell. The satellite pass of the low in question (see below) shows a vast fetch of storm-force barbs (purple triangles), with a few hurricane-force (70kt) barbs in the mix.
The end result was a large, strong long-period swell front that arrived mid-afternoon and built into the evening.
Zooming out to see the season in full, the Mean Sea Level Pressure anomaly charts (difference from the long-term average) for winter paints the picture with clarity. Lower than normal pressure was seen directly south of the country, and more importantly south-west of Victoria. This positioning allowed storms to generate swell before tracking south-east across Tasmania, bringing those favourable offshore winds. A win, win for Victorian surfers, and perhaps some redempiont for the last three years.
At 3PM on Wednesday 23rd there was no better place for a surfer to be than standing on the pathway above Winki and Bells, especially if you were suited up with a 7'6" under your arm. With the north-west wind dropping away to a zephyr, surfers who'd waited all day - and some who'd waited much longer - made their move. It was getting to the size where the paddle out wasn't a guarantee, though once out beyond the whitewash the lineups were remarkably organised; so clean was it, the vectors of energy were following the reef contours in ways not often seen.
The Cape Sorrell buoy peaked just after midday and the increase struck the Surf Coast like clockwork. Those who were properly prepared got some of the better waves, sitting out and wide at Bells or jagging the runners at Winki. The last hour of light may well have been the best hour of waves on the Surf Coast all winter, perhaps even the last three winters, with heavily stacked sets measuring up to 10-12 feet lurching towards the reef. Surf camera footage (see below) shows a majestic set hitting at 5:30PM, with another even bigger set hitting right on dark that cleaned up most of the pack at Bells.
By Thursday morning, the swell had come off its peak, however with no intervening weather Thursday still saw very clean 6 foot surf all day. Two days of waves served up like a cherry on top of an excellent winter.
While the Southern Ocean looks to remain active into spring, the offshore winds will become less reliable as more troughy, unstable weather pushes in from the west.
// CRAIG BROKENSHA