As we pull into 2019, the North Atlantic is looking, let’s say, a little dismal for this time of year. While we are waiting for it to get moving again it's time to recall some of the most significant swells that rumbles 2018.
During the first few days of last year, the North Atlantic was pumping out continuous swell, a complete contrast to this year.
January: The New Year's Bomb
During the first few days of 2018 the North Atlantic was delivering continuous swell. In other words, it was nothing like 2019 so far. Around New Year’s Eve, a tight low deepened just west of Biscay and generated a short-lived pulse of swell for northwest-facing spots. Conditions were clean in Portugal with a 15-foot, 15-sec swell hitting Nazaré on New Year’s Day.
Then another system appeared, hard on the heels of the previous one, deepening west of Ireland on Jan 2 and producing a more lined-up, longer-period swell. Periods initially hit 20 secs as it reached Nazaré late on the 3rd, with the north-westerly direction favouring those epic A-frames. A light onshore wind made things a bit lumpy.
Meanwhile, at Mundaka, a dreamlike combination of factors came together on the morning of the 4th, including a 15-foot, 17-sec swell, fresh offshore winds funnelling down the valley, a super low tide and a sandbar in good shape. Needless to say, there were some barrels.
The North Pacific also pumped practically all the way through January. But there was an exceptional swell on the weekend of 13th and 14th.
A complex area of low pressure developed in the northwest pacific just south of the Aleutians on 10th January. (Complex lows are multi-centred systems that ‘revolve around themselves’ and often persist in the same place for several days). The system gradually moved east and maintained a tight fetch on its southern flank, which sent a huge, long-period swell towards Hawaii.
The swell hit Maui early morning on 13th January, hitting 10 feet at 21 secs from the north-northwest, quickly filling in to a colossal 18 feet at 19 secs. At Peahi, breaking wave heights were hitting 40 feet, with windless conditions or light onshores. The massive swell held throughout the 14th, and then steadily declined over the next few days.
Around the middle of January, another exceptional storm appeared in the North Atlantic, with storm-force winds stretching from one side of the ocean to the other. Ireland was smashed by the storm itself, but a huge, long-period swell made its way south. It reached Nazaré on the 17th with periods up to 20 secs and wave heights over 30 feet, but strong northerly winds. The next day, conditions cleaned up and, even though the swell dropped a notch, some humungous waves were ridden.
February: The Valentine's Day Love Bomb
On Valentine’s Day, February 14, a low centred just south of Iceland with a strong westerly fetch on its southern flank generated a large pulse of northwest swell for southern areas. The first long-period forerunners hit Nazaré late on the 15th before the swell filled in on the 16th at 13 feet, 16 secs. The swell direction was good and the wind conditions held up all day, with light southerlies.
The next big storm was a bit unusual. A low formed just off Newfoundland on February 25 but instead of tracking east-northeast (which is what they normally do) it tracked east-southeast. It deepened as it passed southwest of the Azores, and an area of storm-force northwest winds on its southwest flank started sending swell towards Morocco and beyond.
Morocco and the Canary Islands were big, but hampered by poor wind conditions. Cabo Verde, on the other hand, had all-time surf, with Ponta Preta hitting 10 feet at 19 secs on February 28. The abnormally-south position of that low helped to weaken the northeast trades in Cabo Verde, so local wind conditions were perfect.
There was another similar swell in the North Atlantic during the second week of March. This time, a low pressure developed off the eastern seaboard of North America and tracked across the southern North Atlantic, deepening just west of Galicia on March 10.
A strong westerly fetch on its southern flank meant big, onshore surf in Portugal but it also meant a long-period swell for areas further south. Safi, for example, hit 20 feet at 17 secs late on 11th March and settled to around 15 feet at 15 secs the next day.
A bubble of high pressure developed over northern Morocco just as the swell arrived, keeping local conditions perfect, with light variable winds.
May: The Swell that Changed Fiji Forever
While the North Atlantic and North Pacific moved into summer mode, things started stirring in the southern hemisphere. Around the end of May, a large South Pacific swell produced surreal conditions in Fiji.
There were two pulses of swell. The first came from a low which developed way south of New Zealand around the 21st and then passed close to the South Island. A strong southerly fetch in Tasman Sea persisted for about 24 hours and sent the first pulse of swell northwards, towards Fiji. The second system was hard on the heels of the first one, with a squeeze of isobars that moved up through the Tasman Sea and pumped a second, larger pulse of swell.
The first pulse arrived during the 25th, levelling out at 10 feet, 16 secs and producing epic surf through 25th and 26th. The second pulse hit overnight on the 26th and continued through the 27th, peaking at 13 feet, 18 secs. At Cloudbreak, wind conditions were perfect, with light to moderate offshores throughout.
July: The Century Swell for XXL Indo and Teahupoo Rumbles to Life
Early July saw another large South Pacific swell, this time generating a super-gnarly swell at Teahupoo.
A low pressure that initially developed southeast of New Zealand around June 25 moved slowly east. By June 28, it had developed into a large, complex system. An area of strong southwest winds on its western flank began sending a pulse of long-period swell straight towards Tahiti.
The swell arrived on July 1, around 6 feet at 14 secs, gradually increasing in size throughout the day and into the next day. It peaked at 10 feet, 14 secs around the middle of the day on the 2nd, with light variable winds or light offshores at Teahupoo.
Then, a week later, it was the South Atlantic’s turn to send a swell to Cape Town, South Africa, the likes of which hadn’t been seen for decades.
A large low pressure system started forming off Argentina on July 3, with an area of storm-force westerly winds on its northern flank. The storm tracked slowly east, stalled in the middle of the South Atlantic and then completely dissipated before getting anywhere near the African coast. It generated a large, long-period west swell heading straight towards Cape Town.
The first forerunners arrived late afternoon on 6th July, with periods of around 20 secs, and very westerly direction. The swell filled in on the 7th, peaking around the middle of the day at around 12 feet, 17 secs. This doesn’t sound much, but breaking wave heights at Sunset Reef and Dungeons were well over 20 feet, with the long period and westerly direction really coming into their own. Wind conditions were good throughout at Dungeons, with light north-easterlies.
At the end of July, an incredible swell hit Indonesia, the biggest people can remember in many years. Indo had already been pumping continuously for days and days, but then on July 24 and 25, a truly exceptional swell arrived.
The combination of two low pressure systems was responsible for that swell, the first developing southwest of Madagascar on July 17 and then a second, much bigger system on 19th, almost directly south of the first one. This resulted in a very long southwest fetch with a squeeze of isobars that ran along the fetch pumping energy into the waves. A huge, long-period, long-lasting swell arrived in Indonesia a few days later.
Early on the 24th, wave heights were already around 8 feet at 16 secs, but then that pulse arrived, pushing periods up to 20 secs, and steadily pushing the swell up to 15 feet (still at 20 secs) by the end of day. It only very gradually tapered off for several days afterwards. Wind conditions at many spots, such as Uluwatu, remained perfect throughout.
November: Hurricane Oscar's Tirade
Back in the North Atlantic, the first really big autumn swell came from ex-hurricane Oscar at the beginning of November. After hanging around in the Caribbean for some time, Oscar drifted north and hitched a ride on the North Atlantic jetstream, finally deepening into a massive system northwest of Ireland. A tight area of storm-force westerlies on its southern flank generated some large swell as the system tracked north-westwards.
Northwest Ireland got the bulk of the swell and Mullaghmore was hitting 20 feet at 19 secs late in the day on 3rd November. Some large swell persisted into the next day, and winds blew fresh from the south-southwest.
A couple of big Atlantic lows in November pumped some massive swell down into southern areas of Europe. First, a low centred mid-way between Cape Farewell and Ireland, with a northwest fetch pointing straight towards Portugal, generated a 15-foot, 16-sec swell at Nazaré. The swell hit on 9th November, with the northwest direction producing some epic A-frames. Conditions were good at first but deteriorated later with fresh southwest winds.
Then, a much bigger system appeared on the charts around 16th November. This was a complex area of low pressure virtually covering the entire North Atlantic. There was an area of storm-force westerly winds west of the Azores with open-ocean wave heights of up to 50 feet. The swell reached Nazaré late on the 17th at around 16 feet, 18 secs, and persisted through the next day with superb wind conditions. However, it wasn’t all-time – the swell was too west to produce those really huge A-frames that Nazaré is famous for.
December: Nazare Dominates
Around the second week of December another large swell appeared in the North Atlantic. A moderate-strength low arced its way around an anticyclone sitting west of Biscay, and pumped some good swell into mid and southern areas. At Nazaré the first forerunners arrived on 9th December with periods of up to 22 secs from the west. The swell filled in and progressively shifted more northwest on the 10th, with around 10 feet at 15 secs and super-clean conditions.