19/03/2009 | by Alex Dick-Read
Searching for surf on St. Helena – by Bryson
Frequent blog followers will be privy to our search for a mystical barrelling right hand point break on St Helena Island, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. When we arrived after 12 days at sea, we almost fell over ourselves getting off the boat, into a rental car, Sitka boards on the roof, Globe sandals on, Livity hats on and driving to the beach.
Lets back up a bit, so why did we think there would be waves on St Helena? Generally, in order for there to be waves on a certain island, there are a few prerequisites: swell exposure, favorable bathymetry and lack of wind exposure. There are huge amounts of other factors that come into play but these are the most basic ones.
Well, St Helena sits in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean with an interrupted swell exposure to both Northern and Southern Hemisphere swells. Low-pressure systems forming off Terra Del Fuego, Patagonia are infamous for their strong winds and huge swells. These systems slowly move eastwards around the Southern Ocean, and are responsible for most of the ocean swell in the entire Southern Hemisphere. The rough, tempestuous seas in the actual storm slowly begin to organize themselves as they move away from the creation area (the low pressure). Generally, much of the swell in the South Atlantic ocean travels in a North East direction, referred to as a South West swell (where it comes from). The further the waves travel, the longer the period of the swell (time between each wave crest) and it slowly decreases in size. In the case of St Helena, the swells have almost 4000km to organize themselves into a perfectly groomed long period ground swell. There are no land masses between their generation area and St Helena to cause the swell to bend, refract or generally deteriorate. Prerequisite number 1: Swell exposure, check.
Bathymetry is nothing more than a fancy word for underwater topography. Bathymetry describes the ocean floor elevations, the contours of reefs, the rapid rise and fall of oceanic seamounts, etc. In order for a decent surf break to exist, numerous factors must come all work constructively to create a rideable wave. In the very, very basic sense, you need a curved section of reef/beach /coral for the wave to run along. The orientation of this section of reef will define what swell direction is required for it to break. The slope up to the reef cannot be too steep or too shallow, it must be just right … This section is worthy of it’s own blog, so stay turned for that at a later date, but back to the case at hand. St Helena rises like a tower straight out of the South Atlantic, generally not a good bathymetrical case … Fortunately, according to our charts there were several bays with decreased seafloor slopes that showed some potential. Prerequisite number 2: Favorable Bathymetry, hmmm … well, not perfect but has possibilities.
Lack of Onshore wind exposure: Hmmm… there are two bays on the northern side of St Helena which would have perfect offshore winds 24 hours a day, 10 months of the year. However, the bays with the best bathymetrical possibilities were situated right in the teeth of the trade winds. Oh well, we were more than ready to surf any waves. Prerequisite number 3: Lack of Wind Exposure, less than average situation.
Looking back at our checklist, we have one positive (swell exposure), one maybe (bathymetry) and one bad (wind exposure). The next and maybe most important factor to take into play is the surfer. He/she will sometimes disregard all signs pointing to no surf potential, and waste endless hours of everyday searching for surf that doesn’t exist, at great personal cost, both financially and with regard to relations with his/her significant other. In the case of St Helena, the surfer effect was at an all time high and we were going to find surf no matter what anyone told us.
First step, ask the very official looking Customs agent, if he knows of anywhere to surf on the island. He replies, “No surf on St Helena.” First thought appearing in surfer’s mind, is that he is lying and trying to protect his surf spot from overcrowding seeing as St Helena is only 4000km from nowhere and doesn’t have an airport. Next, ask Immigration official, Port Control officer, Tourism Agency employees, store-keepers, and random pedestrians if there is any surf on the island. All of them trying to protect their secret by saying “no”, but surfer is not deterred.
Finally surfer must take matters into his own hands. He rents a car and gets an accurate map of the island highlights, detailing Napoleons grave site, a waterfall, and all the ancient castles on the island, but no contours, road types, or distances. Off he sets to the other side of the island, waving at all the friendly islanders, smugly smiling to himself secure in the knowledge that soon he/she will soon be riding the waves that all the islanders have worked so hard to protect. After getting lost on many of the unmarked circuitous “roads” on the island, he/she finally begins descending into the bay with the perfect barrelling right hand point break. Along some dusty, dirt roads with definite evidence of other vehicles (probably the guys who got there early for the dawn patrol, he muses), he arrives.
There is no surf on St Helena. Trust me …