What to Expect From the Northern Hemisphere Big Wave Season 2020

Matt Rode

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Updated 38d ago

Ed's note: There's a solid run of swell on the way for Europe this weekend and into next week, that could kick off the big wave season for many of the usual locales. We've got running updates over HERE

With all that has happened over the past six months, between COVID-19 and natural disasters and the spectacle of modern-day politics, it has been easy to lose track of time. But whether we are paying attention or not, the seasons are changing—and for the northern hemisphere, that means big wave season is right around the corner. In fact, last week’s little north Pacific pulse served as the unofficial season opener for those who like riding big boards, with Mavs breaking for the first time in six months, Sunset Beach playing host to a couple of eight-foot sets, and even Oregon getting into the mix with some clean, oversized conditions.

Since then, both the north Pacific and north Atlantic have quieted back down, and there’s nothing too substantial currently showing on the long-range forecast. But that will all be changing soon, as the days get shorter and the storms start getting bigger. In the meantime, here are a few things to expect from this winter’s big wave season.

It would be great to see something like this during the winter.

La Nina is here and it’ll probably stick around for a while. Last week’s updated ENSO conditions show that “equatorial sea surface temperatures are below average across the east-central and eastern Pacific Ocean,” and the chances of La Nina conditions persisting throughout the northern hemisphere winter are 75 percent. So while historically La Nina doesn’t bode well for winter storms in either the Atlantic or Pacific, it is still possible that we will see a couple of blobs this season

What this means for surf depends on where you live—but generally speaking, expect the north Pacific to have stronger easterly trades and a more active typhoon season than normal, but slightly fewer XXL swell events during winter. Meanwhile, in the Atlantic, the record-setting hurricane season is likely to continue through the fall. Unfortunately, La Nina winters tend to be somewhat lacklustre in the Atlantic, due to a storm track that is historically more northerly.

All of that being said, if El Nino/La Nina has taught us anything over the past few decades, it is that they are largely unpredictable. So while historically La Nina doesn’t bode well for winter storms in either the Atlantic or Pacific, it is still possible that we will see a couple of blobs this season.

Competitive big wave surfing is well and truly dead—for now, at least. Between the WSL cancelling the Big Wave Tour and COVID-19 effectively canceling travel, it is very unlikely that we will be seeing any competitors’ jerseys in big wave lineups this winter. The Eddie has officially been cancelled, Hawaii is still technically under quarantine (Oahu will be lifting quarantine for those with negative COVID-19 tests on October 15, but the outer islands are still questionable, which means that as of now a Jaws contest is logistically difficult, at best), the Mavs contest has been dead for years—basically, we’ve reverted back to old days, when big wave chargers charged for love and glory, but not necessarily money or ratings points. Competitive big wave surfing may make a comeback someday—but it won’t be this winter.

Wouldn't worry though, we've a plan to bring you all the big wave action from some of the more gigantic swells this season. Stay tuned.

Most people will be charging at home which is to say, not a lot of swell chasing this winter. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to the world’s top big wave surfers over the past few months, and aside from a general tone of depression and angst, what I’ve heard the most is a resignation to stay home and hope for the best.

Australians can’t leave home without getting stuck with an expensive quarantine when they return (two weeks in a hotel, self-funded!), and as of October 15, Hawaiians can’t chase to the West Coast without having to pay for a COVID-19 test when they return home, which adds an extra expense and logistical concern.

Keep an eye on the North Atlantic swell chart HERE

“It seems like this season will be a bit different,” says Jamie Mitchell. “I think you will see a lot of the big wave guys and girls that usually travel and chase waves instead posting up in one region and staying there for the season. I feel lucky to be here on Oahu, as we can access Jaws and the outer reefs here, and hopefully Mavericks, Todos, and Nelscott . For me, personally, I'll just be focusing here in Hawaii and the West Coast if it fires up.”

Related content: Planning for the Weirdest Winter Ever with Natxo Gonzalez

Keala Kennelly has a similar plan, and is maintaining a positive outlook: “With no contests this year on the North Shore, I don’t think we will such a massive influx of surfers from around the world. I’m very much looking forward to less crowds. I’m planning on just staying at home in Oahu and surfing Pipe, Rockies, Waimea, and the outer reefs. I will be watching for Jaws swells with clean conditions, and if they pop up I will fly over to Maui.”

No matter where you find KK this season, it's going to be somewhere...maniacal.

No matter where you find KK this season, it's going to be somewhere...maniacal.

Europe is currently in the middle of another COVID-19 surge, and a lot of the crew there are simply planning to hole up for the winter. Chatting with Natxo Gonzalez this week, he said that times have been tough for European swell chasers. “We can’t even go to Ireland,” lamented Natxo, “so we are just staying here in Spain, hoping for waves at home.”

Meanwhile, South Africa’s Matt Bromley says he is “absolutely frothing to get back on a plane and chase a swell. But I’m currently a bit confused about our travel restrictions. I spoke to my travel agent and she says that South African borders are open for travel, but we’re not accepting people from red-listed places. The US, Hawaii, and Ireland are all on that list, which means no one from those places can come to South Africa. As a South African citizen I can technically visit those places, but then it’s questionable whether I will be allowed back into South Africa. We’re not accepting people from red-listed places. The US, Hawaii, and Ireland are all on that list, which means no one from those places can come to South Africa

"With the US having so many cases, I’m hesitant to go to Hawaii. My sights have been set on Ireland, but I just heard that they have gone under another lockdown, so I’m thinking an Irish storm chase might be off the cards for a while too. Worst-case scenario for me would be to get stuck in limbo—unable to get into Europe, but also unable to get home.”

Of course, there will be a few who find a way to chase swells this season—they will just have to get a bit creative and think outside of the box. Mavs stalwart and digital nomad Kyle Thiermann has become accustomed to chasing swells all over the world, but this winter he says he’ll be “living out of an RV and planning to chase swells to Mavs, Nelscott, and Baja. In some ways the travel restrictions are a relief—it’ll be nice not to have to deal with board bags at the airport for once!”

Greg Long is a calculated mathematician when it comes to picking off the right wave. He'll wait for hours, for the right crest, shape - everything has to align. And it is hard to fault the waves he does take off on.

Greg Long agrees: “Travel restrictions are obviously going to limit the amount of swell chasing that is going to take place this winter. In turn, I think we are going to see some rather uncrowded sessions at the breaks that typically garner an international cast of surfers. The upside to that is that people will likely be exploring their own backyards more than ever before. I won’t be surprised to see some new waves discovered this winter.”  

Long story short, expect to see the big wave elite posting up wherever they can this season, and then making the best of what they get. When the foam settles in March, we will see who scored and who got skunked.

Cover shot of Jaws by Miah Klein