From the beating heart of a Black Nor'Easter
“Conditions were undergoing a change, which portended unsettled, thundery weather with rain in scattered parts of the State. Yesterday afternoon a black nor'-easter raged, the wind attaining a mean average velocity of 26 miles.” - The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 October, 1911
A black nor'easter.
It's one of those terms buried deep in the fissures of memory. A phrase that when heard ignites feelings of deja vu, of dark, brooding skies and screen doors banging in the wind. A generation ago it was a common descriptor, though it's rarely uttered now, overtaken by the cold language of science. Yet last week the Black Nor'Easter came roaring back into being, an evocative title for an amazing storm.
It was hard to know what to believe early on. There on the computer screen was a storm of staggering size, startling intensity, and divine positioning. Its overall composition was beguiling, yet the forecast was 148 hours into the future. Seven days. On the East Coast of Australia that's a forecaster's fantasy land.
The computer generated models that forecasters use often falsely report such storms. All the historical data that drive the models, plus the current observations that temper their output, combine to predict phantom storms. Atmospheric disturbances that simply don't eventuate. However, every storm has to be assessed, and it's at this point that human intervention takes place.
There's a strain of thought that surf forecasting is merely number regurgitation. That forecasters simply rehash information from computer generated models. It's a perversion of the truth. Good forecasters know where each model excels and where each one falls short. They watch the models persistently and intently, absorbing the flux and flow of the weather systems till they understand the complex interactions like a language. Something about this storm, even 148 hours away, spoke to them.
“All the catalysts were there,” says Swellnet forecaster, Craig Brokensha, “an unstable low pressure trough drifting from inland Australia, moisture feeding into another trough sitting adjacent the East Coast, with the two predicted to combine.” Yet this alone wasn't quite enough to put faith in the model output. “May 2016 was one of the driest on record across the East Coast,” says Craig. “It seemed like something had to give. And then there was the position and size of that high pressure system..."
As a rule, low pressure systems bounce off high pressure systems like pinballs off a bumper. However it wasn't forecast to be the case in this instance. The high pressure system Craig was referring too was so large it encompassed all of New Zealand and the Tasman Sea. The scale of the high and the strength of the approaching lows turned it into a case of the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object. Neither would yield, the lows wouldn't 'bounce' off the high but buckle its western flank, creating an elongated field of winds stretching in a near straight line from New Caledonia in the north to the south-western extremity of the Tasman Sea - a fetch over 2,500 kilometres long.
As the week passed, each day counted down like numbers before an old movie, while keen surfers began staggering their lives in six hourly increments – the time between successive model runs. The anxiety built as the real time synoptic pattern began to align with the computer forecast. The phantom storm would become reality, and the reality of that was slowly being grasped
Before a single wave would be surfed, however, the whole Eastern Seaboard would be battered by rain and wind. The tempest hit Queensland first, dropping up to 300mm of rain in 24 hours in some coastal areas while storm force north-east winds drove up a huge unruly swell. North of the border the Black Nor'easter was in full effect. There was nothing to do but sit and wait till the trough line peeled away from the coast and the westerly winds trailing the change cleaned up the surf.
Sunday dawned in Queensland with blue skies and offshore winds, however there were few places coping with the energy. This wasn't a ruler-edged cyclone swell but something more ragged and mean. Relentless too, owing to the localised nature of the swell. The only option was towing Burleigh Heads or the Tweed Bar. No-one successfully paddled the Gold Coast on Sunday.
As the swell moved south the period incrementally stretched out. Still, the swell could only approximate the great curve in the coastline at Lennox Head. 12 -15 foot sets broke wide of the point ready to clean up even the most cautious of paddlers. A small band of surfers including Dave Rastovich, Glen Curtis, and Joel Fitzgerald took their chances yet it was obvious that the swell needed more time to settle. Monday would be the day, for both Lennox and every point, reef, and rivermouth able to cope with the barrage.
“Four of us paddled out early,” said Blair Hall of his Monday morning session, “and when the crowd saw we were handling it, two more guys came out.” The six surfers tackled a rare rivermouth on the Mid North Coast. The sand hadn't been good there for a while, the same spot barely broke during Tropical Cyclone Winston back in February, but on Monday it was throwing oversized Hawaiian-style barrels.
Because of the sand situation the pack was sitting inside, where they normally would on a 6-to-8 foot day, only now it was much, much bigger. “I was thinking to myself this isn't good” recalls Blair. “Two sets came through that were way bigger than anything else that came through that morning. One of those sets everyone managed to escape but the second one caught us all.”
Blair rode a 9'2” while the other guys - “all younger and fitter than me,” says Blair - rode 7 and 8-footers. Age and conditioning didn't help, these were waves that demanded foam, the only entry being a long and committed series of strokes. Those with the paddling advantage got the waves. “They were all saying I was on the board,” said Blair with a sly chuckle, admitting that, yeah, he got a few.
Lachlan Rombouts knew foam was key. On Monday morning he was perched on the rocks at North Avalon with a sleek 12 foot gun shaped by Dave Howell at Misfit under his arm watching Paul Stanton and Hughy Morris trying to line up the sets. It took 45 minutes but Lachie got off the rocks and with 100 litres of foam under his body stroked into one of the biggest waves of the swell.
Around the same time Lachie was dropping into his beast Beau Mitchell was standing atop Queenscliff headland amongst a tight huddle of friends. Before them, a kilometre out to sea, the Queenscliff Bombora was breaking with uncommon majesty. Collectively the group were animated yet individually they were experiencing a tangle of emotions. Fear, anxiety, and excitement all vied for primacy while each approaching set rejigged the order. All up and down the East Coast surfers were gathered on headlands experiencing similar feelings as the largest north-east swell in recent memory powered headlong into a light westerly wind while waves without names, waves that some locals had never even seen break before, were firing off like some crazy North Pacific onslaught.
Some of those assembled were simply there to gape, maybe take a photo for Instagram and give it a clever hashtag, but others, such as Beau, had genuine intentions to surf. This was a day he'd been waiting for, yet despite the improbable scene he fought the impulse to rush. “It was clean but it was also really shifty so I sat and watched it for a while." It was a session that would require strategy.
When it started to clean up he made his move. On the paddle out Beau remarked to his brother that he hoped to get a couple on the head early in the piece. “I always think it's better to be conditioned like that,” says Beau explaining his unconventional wisdom. “Otherwise you go through the session wondering what's going to happen. I don’t want that thought in the back of my mind.”
On the first wave Beau's wish came true; he went down hard and despite wearing a floatation vest was held underwater for two waves. “After that I thought, well, if that's the worst that can happen then bring it on!”
And so began a perfect session. “It was so big and it just kept getting better and better.” Fittingly, Beau's last wave was his biggest and best. So well shaped was it that it may have been a product of the Kelly Slater Wave Company...except it was every bit of 20 feet. Three days later and Beau could still barely believe it.
“All the stars aligned that day: I had the day off, the kids were looked after, and I picked up my board just the day before.” Yep, it was that close for him. Beau took delivery of his 9'6” Warner just 24 hours earlier. “I told Brett it was gonna be 15 foot and I was gonna need it.” The board was shaped and glassed – two layers of six ounce – in double quick time. It wasn't cured but it survived intact.
“I'm definitely shaping more big wave paddle guns these days,” says Northern Beaches shaper Mike Psillakis. “The boards I'm making are mostly between 8 and 9 feet long, though some are even bigger. 3 ¼ – 4 inches thick seems to be the go, which is huge volume, and that thickness holds forward.” All that forward volume is to serve one simple purpose – paddling speed.
Associate Professor Ian Goodwin leads the Marine Climate Risk Group at Macquarie University. He reported that open ocean wave heights, at least in the northern half of the state, were "unremarkable", but the wave period is what got his interest. On Monday, peak wave periods in Sydney reached 15 seconds, and while Sydney may occasionally get longer wave periods it's usually on small swells. They're the product of remote storms in the Southern Ocean, already severely diminished by distance and further eroded by the acute angle of delivery. In contrast this swell formed the optimum distance offshore and hit the coast but a fraction off plumb. All the wind energy conveyed by those waves was unleashed with maximum efficiency.
"The long wave period was highly unusual," says Professor Goodwin, "and it caused higher wave power than normal along the NSW shelf and coast. The long period caused waves to shoal and break far offshore."
For years, East Coast surfers have watched their West Australian, American, even European brethren push the paddle resurgence. It hasn't really happened here and one reason is geology: big waves on the East Coast usually mean ledges and slabs which require a different approach and different equipment. Yet, as per Professor Goodwin's observation, the sheer enormity of this swell moved the playing area out onto dormant bomboras and deep water rock shelves that could theoretically be paddled. The paddle revolution that took hold elsewhere a decade ago was happening on the East Coast.
Everywhere, that is, but a shifting beachbreak near Wollongong. On Monday morning, 'Gong surfer Dylan Robertson chose to put his paddle guns aside and opt for horsepower. “I've done a few seasons in Mexico and it was just like that: big peaks broke 100 metres this way, then 100 metres that way," says Dylan. To get between the scattered peaks they twisted the throttle and whipped into huge Mexican-style beachbreak barrels.
“It was probably 15 foot in the morning,” says Dylan, which put it beyond the realm of paddling, yet as the swell settled throughout the day a few paddlers had a shot at it. Dylan and the other tow drivers escorted them through the impact zone and played water safety. “When a paddler spun around then the tow teams pulled back,” explains Dyl. “It was an exercise in co-operation and everyone got some bombs: Dylan Longbottom, Jackson Forbes, my brother Joe, Eddie Blackwell, and some of the younger guys like Luke Wrice who paddled into huge waves.” The camaraderie amongst the gathered surfers was clearly apparent.
There's a narrative in surfing that we're all one big tribe. It's fostered by older surfers who speak of trips to Bells or Hawaii as the gathering of the clans. But that story is hopelessly outdated. Surfing today is too big and too fractured for any consensus across the sport so we band together in small factions, and each faction is a bit wary of the others. We're suspicious of those who come from other beaches and those who ride different craft. Yet watching Monday's swell was to realise that unity lies only just below the surface.
Just as tow and paddle surfers co-operated in Wollongong, so to did the various factions mix elsewhere. On Monday, just being out in the water was the new bond. That afternoon I surfed one of the most localised waves on the East Coast and saw strangers getting called into the waves of their lives. Between sets the pack chatted freely irrespective of local standing, while up on the headland a communal vibe was in full affect amongst the gathered throng. All it took was a little swell.
If you want a straight ahead account of the swell then Mick Mackie is your man. Laconic and honest, the Ulladulla shaper lives his life in a hyperbole free zone. "The swell was 15 feet at its peak," says Mick getting straight to the point. The swell came at a great time for Mick, lately he's been experiementing with big single fins shaped from old style Burford blanks and what better conditions to test them in?
On Monday, Mick paddled a 10 foot single fin gun, this one shaped from a windsurfer blank, to a reef near his hometown. On the paddle out a strong rip dragged him toward an offshore bommie, a wave he'd had his eyes on for many years. "I got a real good look at it," says Mick. "And it almost looked doable, but..."
Mick leaves the sentence hanging, an unconcious imitation of his thought process while watching the bommie. He watched, deliberated...but ultimately opted out. Does he regret it? "Aw nah, it's past tense now. Though I'll be too old before I ever get a chance again," says Mick dolefully. "Swells like that don't come around very often. This was the biggest one since July 2001."
This seemed to be the consensus up and down the coast, that July 2001 was the last time the East Coast got this big and this good. Before that there was April 1989, then May 1983, May 1974. There may be others, no-one quite knows what the threshhold is for qualification, but suffice to say swells of this magnitude are very rare, hence why they're remembered by surfers forty years afterwards.
...and still the swell muscled up as it moved south. Two hundred kilometres beyond Ulladulla lies Eden, the southern-most town in NSW. At 4am on Monday morning a wave passed the Eden wave buoy measuring an incredible 17.67 metres - 58 feet in the old scale. The period was also stretching out beyond 16 seconds. After crunching the numbers, Ian Goodwin estimated the Eden buoy reading was a 1 in 85 year event. Reason indeed for surfers to remember this swell.
By Tuesday morning the whole coast had been under the effect of an offshore flow for 24 hours. Every kink and wobble was duly ironed out so the only undulations visible on the ocean were thick lines of easterly groundswell. Everywhere was pumping, from south-east Queensland to Eden and beyond into Victoria's secluded Gippsland region. While coasts further south, such as Flinders Island and Tasmania's east coast were coming off the storm's peak. They'd see a slight delay owing to distance but there'd be no reduction in size or quality, and they were even better positioned for a long wag in the swell's tail.
Although the East Coast gets swell from many directions, the one thing it doesn't have is staying power. Often our big swells are localised, so when a wind change comes through the swell engine shuts down. The rule here is to jump when you see a swell because it'll be half as big tomorrow. Yet this swell broke the pattern and it threw surfers into a welcome spin. The gales extending out into the Tasman promised three more days of swell. And as the size tapered the quality remained - the wind not straying from the western quadrant. Those surfers who read the play knew that pacing themselves would be paramount.
The 'Black Nor'Easter' swell of June 2016 reshaped parts of the east Australian coastline. Backyards fell into the sea at Collaroy, the houses abutting them structurally condemned. Bridges, piers, and walkways collapsed. Almost every north facing beach suffered some degree of erosion, from simple scouring of the foredune to waves eating into the brown dirt. It was a stark reminder that the coast is always in flux, even our apparently immutable sandstone rock shelves weren't exempt. At Cronulla, a number of car-sized boulders were thrown from below the tide zone up onto a rock platform.
For surfers, the swell of June 2016 reshaped our view of what this coastline is capable of. Everyone who saw it, and especially those who surfed it - they being afforded a more acute appreciation - witnessed a rare spectacle indeed. That of a truly huge swell being transformed by local bathymetry into something utterly breathtaking.
If only it happened more often.