(July 12, 2019) The column prior to this one centered around observing a surf spot and getting a good idea of what was going on before heading into the water.
A major aspect of this observation process came under the heading of the “rule of three,” as in for every foot of wave height observe and study for three minutes.
If the waves are three feet, observe for nine minutes. If the waves are 10 feet observe for 30 minutes, and so on.
This is not an absolute, of course, but the idea is to take some time and have a good look at what is going on in the water before running headlong into what is really a foreign environment.
But how does one determine the height of a wave?
Generally speaking, wave heights are measured from the crest to the trough. This is also known as the wave face.
In the pre-internet era I worked as a reporter for a service that provided information on surf and wave conditions.
It was a phone number that people could call. They would subscribe and for a fee would receive this important information. I was a reporter for this immediate area.
I was instructed to determine wave height measured from the crest, or top of the wave, to the trough, or bottom of the wave. The reference was to be of a six-foot man.
As an example, a waist-high wave would be considered three feet. A chest-high wave five feet. A head-high wave six feet, so on and so forth.
In this manner at least a scale or standard was set.
Sounds easy enough, right? Well, not quite.
It seems to be different in certain areas of the world, namely Hawaii. This is where any standard gets totally skewed.
A wave could easily be double overhead, 10 to 12 feet on the face, and it’ll be called two, maybe three feet.
Or in the language of pidgin – “two, tree feet, no big ting.”
I remember reading a story about Mike Eaton and how George Downing escorted him out to sizable Waimea Bay.
Downing figured the waves to be about 20 feet. Eaton thought it much bigger with the comment, “George’s feet must be pretty big!”
I have the greatest respect for Hawaiians and anybody who will challenge themselves in sizable surf, but let’s be real.
Is it a macho thing? Is it just to keep crowds down?
Some say that the idea is to measure the back of the wave. I’ve yet to see anyone ride the back of a wave.
Some slab waves can be huge on the face and have no back at all.
A good friend of mine who moved to the North Shore of Oahu some time ago is a master plumber and an avid surfer.
He’s told me that when he shows up on a job and is asked about the size of the surf he never, ever says it’s more than five feet no matter how big it is!
So I guess in the end it’s all relative. Relative to one’s experience or what one gets use to over a period of time.
One’s perspective will have quite a bearing as well.
I keep a record on a calendar of the day’s conditions and instead of describing wave size by numbers I’ll use terms like knee-to-waist, or waist-to-head high, or overhead.
Let’s be honest. In the real world five feet is five feet, 10 feet is 10 feet.
It’s a standard that most people can understand.
But perspective, once again, can mean a great deal. As for the Hawaiians? Maybe “two, tree feet” is just fine!
– Dave Dalkiewicz is the owner of Ocean Atlantic Surf Shop in Ocean City.