The Dark Art of Scoring
There’s a saying amongst fishermen that 1% of the anglers catch 99% of the fish. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to find the parallels in surfing. Sure, anyone can find a wave to ride almost any day of the week, but to really score, to consistently maximise the amount of great and epic sessions, is the preserve of a very select group.
Whilst the definition of scoring is subjective to suit the tastes and abilities of all surfers, I’m specifically referring to the type of sessions which grace the insides of magazines. Waves of quality. Waves which can range from uncrowded and hollow beachbreak peaks all the way to thunderous deep water reefs.
If you’ve ever wondered how in hell Nic von Rupp appears to surf every session in better waves than you’ve ever laid eyes on, then I think I may be able to help. This guide won’t guarantee you’ll never surf another dud wave, though it will hopefully put a bit of ground between yourself and the hordes of mindless punters banging rails in the aquatic version of dodgem cars at Metro Beach X every Saturday morning.
If you are ready to expand your wave count in quality waves then here’s a few tips to help get you started:
1) Get Off Your Arse
No-one ever got the tube of their life whilst laying on the lounge covered in biscuit crumbs and happy tissues. Step one in the Dark Art of Scoring is to get proactive. This might involve waking before dawn, it might involve travel and unless your name is Joel Parkinson or Mick Fanning it will definitely involve thinking and planning your surf sessions as opposed to simply rolling into your allocated parking spot fronting the world class break you are about to dominate.
In the words of one not-so-great Australian, “Have a go to get a go.”
2) The Knowledge
Whathever zone you are currently surfing, you should make it your mission to know that zone like the back of your hand. London taxi drivers were famously required to pass a test known as The Knowledge whereby they’d have to memorise every street and location within the CBD. Consider yourself under prepared if you don’t aim for the surf break equivalent of The Knowledge in the area you are surfing. Learn the location of every break and the conditions they require to break at optimum quality.
Make it your business to be able to mentally predict what any one of those breaks will look like by checking the ocean from any one place and know what they’ll look like with the predicted tide, wind, or swell change.
It’s your job to perform routine boundary rides to assess the quality of every sandbank within your zone. It’s incredible the way sand can accrete in places you’d never believe until you witness it yourself. Keep your eyes peeled for sand deposits alongside overlooked points, river mouth breakouts, and the island-adjacent tombolos which can appear virtually overnight.
Nail down your trusted sources of weather and tidal information. If you can’t read a weather map yourself then find a reliable surf forecaster (like, ahem….Swellnet!) who will remove most of the guesswork from the equation. Overlay their generalised predictions on to your specialised zone of expertise and get to work.
Even if an area can be surveyed physically it pays to check it on maps or google Earth to confirm it’s alignment to wind and swell. This overview can also reveal potential locations you may have discounted due to the conditions on the day. It really needs no saying that any exploration of a new zone should be prefaced with map work.
3) Loose Lips Sink Ships AKA The Strategy of Asymmetric Information Warfare
Surfers are hunters, and hunters love nothing more than a trophy. For many the trophy is worth more than the kill. Without the ability to produce a set of twelve point antlers or a waste paper basket fashioned from a Bull Elephant’s foot, surfer’s trophies are restricted to photos and verbal accounts of epic sessions. This love of brandishing a trophy has contributed just as much to the crowded ruination of remote reefs and sneaky sandbars as it has to the species depletion of the white rhino. Just as surely as there is a hunter somewhere who would love nothing more than to accessorise his outfits with a cape made from the hide of the planet’s final remaining snow leopard, there is a surfer who cannot wait to upload their photos of The Last Uncrowded Wave On Earth to Instagram.
Don’t be that guy or gal. Ever. That is the road to ruin my friend.
This doesn’t mean that the trophy bearers aren’t useful. On the contrary I think that most of the secret spots in my quiver have come from those who can’t, simply cannot, keep their lips shut if there’s an opportunity for self-aggrandisement. Befriend the trophy hunter. Ply them with alcohol, encourage a bit of one-upmanship, boastingly feed them a chicane, and watch them play their King.
You, meanwhile, sit on your trump, if you’d permit me to run with the metaphor.
Be all ears and keep those lips sealed.
This doesn’t apply to mates who can be relied on to form a trusted quid pro quo surf spot alliance. Give these legends your treasure map in exchange for a glimpse of their own hidey holes of tubular gold.
4) Oils Ain’t Oils
You’ve got your zone mapped. You’ve got the tides, wind, and swell on lock but still you’re finding it hard to escape the mob. Now it’s time to start colouring outside the lines. First step is acknowledging that there’s wheels within wheels when it comes to quoting conditions which make a spot turn on.
Perceived wisdom tells you that a certain break works best on a south swell. The problem with this, and the advantage to be gained, is that a south swell can refer to anything from roughly 160 degrees all the way around to 200 degrees from North. That’s a lot of scope for difference, particularly when the optimal swell direction for some of the most perfectly foiled breaks can be a matter of a ten degree swell window. Those few degrees can transform a wave from seperate sections into a seamless machine.
Alternatively, you can think outside the box and content yourself with scoring an individual section of a long wave if you know that it shines in conditions which might not light up the whole break.
Another thing to remember about swells, is that they are encouraged or restrained by the bottom over which they travel before they reach the lineup. I’m referring to the bathymetry of the ocean surrounding a break. Whilst shallow water approaching a break may bleed energy from a swell, deep water allows a wave to maintain its power and a canyon of deep water can focus that energy on a stretch of coast which may otherwise appear insipid.
Don’t discount the ability of seemingly unrelated oceanic formation in creating amazing waves. Many a straight and featureless stretch of sand has hosted perfect peaks due to the presence of undersea structure seaward of the break. Offshore bomboras can turn a straight swell onto a plain beach into a fun park of teepees.
Tides are also wide open to variation. By now most punters with a pulse know which tide is best for most recognised breaks and will time their sessions accordingly. Thankfully though, most punters aren’t aware that tides can be larger or smaller depending on moon phase and time of year and that these tidal variations are highly predictable. A break works best when the water over the bottom is at a certain depth and the waves care not for whether this is officially cited as low tide or high tide.
An example is that I’ve had beautifully empty sessions at a break which people don’t check in the morning due to the assumption that it needs a midday high tide, despite the wave being at its best only a couple of hours after low on those large new moon tides. As long as that wave has X amount of water over the reef it’ll pump. Crew then turn up at the midday high and find the wave drowned in a huge flood tide and fail to understand what happened.
Tidal direction can make all the difference. Low incoming may be fattening walls whilst the water flowing off a reef during a draining low can make a wave super suck! Increase in tidal coefficient from moon phase exaggerates these effects even more.
Winds are equally open to variance of direction within a zone. They are heavily influenced by the exact positioning of local weather systems. Just because one spot is onshore, it does not guarantee a spot a few kilometres up the coast will also be onshore.
The winds can shift and change on a whim and it pays to have the inside running on how this unfolds. Example: Oftentimes a strong front or intense local storm can send a crowded lineup scurrying home as the waves turn to whitecaps, only to find the calm restored once the storm has passed and the waves recommence pumping for a handful of the previous crowd.
Local topography, even the temperature of oceanic currents, can affect the wind at a spot. Another example: Keramas in Bali was empty in the dry season for quite a few years as crew assumed that the south-east trade winds blew it out constantly. However, due to the presence of Mt Agung, local katabatic winds meant that many lonely offshore morning sessions went down at that dynamic wave.
5) Think Big
Try to avoid getting caught up in the routine of groupthink which traditionally shifts focus from Coast X to Coast Y as a result of set seasonal weather patterns. Crowds will bunch during the peak season and for good reason. It can sometimes pay to consider shoulder season. Although it’s less reliable it can also be less crowded. As with anything in life, it doesn’t hurt to weigh the deck in your favour and being aware of macro weather trends such as La Niña and El Niño, the position of the Long Wave Trough and the state of the Indian Ocean Dipole, as a few examples, can greatly improve your odds of scoring prime waves without peak season crowds.
7) Park Up or FIFO
Nothing wrong with pre-booking a Big Trip. All that anticipation and pre-adventure froth can be almost as good as the getaway, but if you are serious about tubes then you’re left with two options: An extended stay, or the strike mission.
The extended stay has multiple advantages, particularly if you arrive early season to acclimatise to the waves. Being on the spot early means you can earn yourself a place in the hierarchy of the lineup before the crowd proper descends, figure out the intricacies of the break and maybe even assume a bit of faux local status. The extended stay means you’ll get the sneaky groomed sessions between the Hollywood swells and it means that after a prolonged run of waves in a remote break there is a chance that the strike mission crowds have done their dash, used all of their holidays, and that leaves just yourself and the other pestilential Bush Tics who have burrowed deep into the hide of the break to surf yourselves silly.
The other way to score is the strike mission. The strike mission is the epitome of excitement and an excellent way to distill a surf trip down to the most essential elements of get in, get tubed, and get out.
Whilst I’ve done many strike missions and they’ve paid handsomely, with peak conditions minus the sometimes onerous downtime of the extended stay, it does take a certain fortitude to spontaneously roll the dice on an approaching run of conditions. Whilst surf forecasting has improved significantly, not all gambles pay off. Though there’s no denying the extreme satisfaction of the journey home with a full memory bank of good times earned by backing yourself. Surf fortune favours the brave.
8) Zig When Others Zag
The world is chock full of amazing waves. The challenge is scoring one of these liquid jewels without a zillion frothing punters destroying the amenity like ants at a picnic. Luckily enough, the punters mostly move as a herd. Though it may not be as true today as it was a few years ago due to sheer volumes of surfers, breaks come in and out of fashion and if you avoid the current chart toppers you stand a much better chance of some uncrowded tubular goodness. When the mob is baying for the surf travel equivalent of Drake perhaps it’s time for you to revisit the Beatles.
9) It’s All About You
There’s not much point going to the extent of preparation required to follow the above steps if you’re going to throw a shoe coming into the last straight. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve nailed the location of an all time session if your body, board, and mind isn’t up to the task of taking care of business.
Here’s some wisdom I’ve learnt the hard way so you don’t have to:
If you’re serious about surfing you’ve got to maintain a substantial level of fitness. Don’t be the guy who gets the blessed call up for the strike mission, only to realise that whilst Shaun Briley may make that extra 10 kilos of fat at 10 foot Pipe look like a bit of a giggle, staring down the barrel of a heaving offshore reef break in the remote back blocks of nowhere, whilst being too unfit to paddle properly, is no laughing matter.
Likewise, thinking that you’re going to rule that 8 foot @ 17 second Indian Ocean reef break on your 5’10 East Coast beach break daily driver. You aren’t John John and that isn’t going to work.
If you’re going to chase waves you’ve got to be prepared to surf them when you run them down. Get your fitness up and your equipment dialled. Pick the brains of crew who’ve been where you’re going and establish what boards work. Find yourself some like-minded mates who are keen for the hunt and who’ll push you past your own limits when you get there.
Then go out and bag your Big Cat.
Later when you’re at the pub reliving those incredible memories and another surfer comes up and asks if you’ve been scoring, just remember to stare forlornly into your beer and reply, “Nothin' special. How about you?”
Then sit back and watch the indecision writ large on their face as they are torn between preserving their spot or hauling that trophy high above their heads, just sit quietly as the space between you turns to dead air. Take a gentle sip of your beer, smile benignly and wait in silence...until they began to uncontrollably blab every single secret surfing spot they’ve ever known.
// JOHN DORY