Deep Shit Advisory
The National Weather Service trounces on “Hawai’ian-style” in the name of safety.
by Sharon Harrison
Ick! What’s that smell? It’s the National Weather Service, taking a big dump on at least a hundred years of Hawai’ian tradition. According to the Honolulu Star Bulletin, high-surf advisories were standardized as of October 30 to reduce injuries and death. In other words, the NWS scientists don’t think it’s very helpful that a wave they’d measure as twelve feet is called six feet by Hawai’ian surfers. Research reveals surf as the number-one natural-hazard killer in the Islands.
University of Hawai’i oceanographer Rick Grigg is heading this project and is also on the Governor’s Beach and Water Safety Task Force. Grigg claims waves were once measured by the face in Hawai’i, but lifeguards in the 50s developed a system for measuring the wave’s back in order to keep swells a secret from the general surf population. Grigg has said that Duke Kahanamoku’s famous 1.1-mile ride at Castles on a twenty-foot wave would be called a ten-footer by today’s local surfers.
And then there is the lawsuit factor-apparently those hurt in the 80s and 90s in surf-related mishaps have sued and won into the millions. Maybe their defense was, “But you guys said it was only five feet!”
So is a whole new generation of Hawai’i’s best just going to accept standardized wave measurements? Or will the on-air surf reporters be called on the carpet for telling listeners, “It’s twelve feet at Sunset today,” when locals call it five to six? Here’s what North Shore folks had to say about the new efforts to standardize:
Pete Johnson, 30, TW SURF’s Hawai’i editor: “I think it’ll change slowly-it’s gonna take some time. I don’t think kids are gonna change right off the bat! They’re saying they’ll stick with the old school. Tradition or macho-ness, that’s how Kelly calls it.
“I’m calling hogwash on the Star Bulletin’s report ‘lifeguards hiding the surf’ thing. That goes for measuring the backs, too.
“I think California is starting to call it like us! If it’s really three feet, now you guys say one or two. And then Florida has its own scale-you’d call it one foot in California, and they call it three.”
Tomayo Perry, 26: “Personally, I like the old style. When the first ’50-foot swell’ hits, it’s gonna be weird!
“Hawai’ian-style is not quite a full cut in half, but more or less. The buoy surf-forecasting Buoy One, stationed 250 miles north of the Big Island gets the swell right, like ‘fourteen feet at twenty-second intervals.’
“I understand that this change is more for safety for tourists, but I like traditional-judging from the back, not true face value.
“Here’s the scuttlebutt: you’re gonna get laughed at when you call it what they do-claiming 50 feet or whatever!”
Jamie O’Brien, 18: “I think it’s kinda dumb! When it’s 25, they’re gonna say it’s 40! I think they did it for the tourists.
“When the buoy’s readings are ten/seventeen, eleven/seventeen, Pipeline’s perfect-enough to break second reef. Sometimes the buoy’s readings are even bigger than the waves when they hit. Eight/fourteen can be four to eight feet.
“I just grew up with calling a wave what you call it. On a couple Web sites they have local or tourist wave sizes-just click! Keep it real!”
Jon Jon Florence, 9: “I like the old way. I kinda figured out how to call it growing up, and I want it to stay Hawai’ian-style.
“If someone is visiting from somewhere else and calls it bigger than we do, I think they’re just measuring different. For Hawai’ian size, I think it’s the back of the wave-yeah, that’s about two-thirds face size. If it’s like eight feet, it’s like a four-foot back. I don’t really listen to the reports, because I’m always watching the ocean to figure out the swell.
“About the change-I don’t think people really care!”
Jeff Johnson, Pete’s dad: “That measurement standardization is a good thing. Surfers have gotten carried away wiith how they call it. One day at Sunset I asked everyone watching how big it was, and they all said eight feet. Then I pointed out the windsurfer with a fifteen-foot mast, and the waves were bigger than that!
“I see no validity to that Star Bulletin about the back-of-wave measurement. A place like Waimea may be huge, and that wave has no back. Really, it’s more accurate to call it the way an oceanographer calls it, crest to trough.
“That said, I think tradition will prevail. The newspaper published the story, but already they’re reverting back to the old measuring method. That’s because they depend on observers to report surf. George Downing, who monitors surf for the Waimea contest, measures Buoy One wave height and interval, multiplies the two numbers, and then divides by sixteen. That equals a pretty accurate wave size.
“There’s a big difference between us and wave size in Waikiki! Whatever you hear about a Town swell, you have to divide by two and add one. How to cook a wave!”