Remembering The Most Famous Swell in Surfing's History: Hawaii 1969

Tony Butt

by on

Updated 32d ago

The swell that hit Hawaii between December 1 and 4 1969 wasn’t the biggest, longest, or gnarliest, but it was the most famous swell in the history of surfing. Even now, more than half a century later, the legend lives on. There are several reasons for this, most notably because of a wave that Greg Noll rode at Makaha; a wave so big that shortly afterwards, Noll hung up his striped shorts and called it a day.

The surf literature is full of articles about the Big Swell of '69. The vast majority centred around Noll’s wave and whether it really was as big as they say, and whether Alby Falzon or Shaun Thompson will one day dig out the photo that is said to exist of Noll actually surfing that wave.

Forecast: Pipeline

But there are other sides to the story that haven’t been talked about so much. For example, the fact that there were really not one but two storms. And how these storms developed in the North Pacific, and what made the swell so big. There is also the severe coastal flooding that occurred all along the North Shore, with the ensuing destruction of human properties, which made the event into a tragedy for many people, some of whom had their lives changed forever.

Animated swell chart for the first swell, showing the swell growing fast as the low tracked east-southeast towards Hawaii.

Animated swell chart for the first swell, showing the swell growing fast as the low tracked east-southeast towards Hawaii.

As I said, there were actually two storms. The first one produced massive waves and coastal destruction along the North Shore, and the second was responsible for Greg Noll’s famous wave at Makaha.

The first storm started off on November 27 as a weak disturbance just north of Japan, associated with a large, complex ‘mother’ system slow-moving in the north of the North Pacific. The disturbance quickly developed into a full-scale low pressure system and moved north-eastwards into the open North Pacific, where it deepened steadily over the next 36 hours.

By late on November 29, the system turned towards the east-southeast and began to deepen explosively. On its southern flank there was a huge area of storm-force winds pointing straight towards Hawaii. It continued to move east-southeast until December 1, generating a massive swell. When it got to about 1500 miles north of Hawaii, it accelerated northeast and began to weaken, dissipating somewhere around Alaska by 3rd December. Because the system swung away from the Islands just in time, the swell didn’t arrive accompanied by strong onshore winds.

Not many real-time wave measurements were taken (don’t forget this is 1969), but the famous Scripp’s Institute Floating Instrument Platform (FLIP) happened to be about 350 miles north of Oahu on December 1. Scientists aboard the platform reported open-ocean significant wave heights of 14.9 metres with much higher peaks, and periods of between 16 and 20 secs (HERE).

Superimposed wind charts for the first swell, showing how a broad area of storm-force winds tracked towards Hawaii, creating a gigantic ‘virtual fetch’ –  the main contributing factor to the massive swell that hit Hawaii

Superimposed wind charts for the first swell, showing how a broad area of storm-force winds tracked towards Hawaii, creating a gigantic ‘virtual fetch’ – the main contributing factor to the massive swell that hit Hawaii

Two factors added to the already substantial capability for that storm to generate a very large swell. First, the windfield was exceptionally broad. A broad windfield means that there is a higher probability for swell to arrive at the destination from the same direction as the wind that produced it. Due to the way circumferential spreading works (HERE), this swell is less diminished than ‘tangential’ swell leaking from either side of the windfield. If the windfield is really broad, there is relatively more direct swell and relatively less tangential swell.

Second, the windfield moved in almost exactly the same direction and at the same speed as the waves it was generating, which pumped extra energy into the swell. This is a classic example of dynamic or captured fetch, which I’ve talked about many times before (HERE). Dynamic fetch effectively extends the length of ocean over which the wind is generating swell – resulting in a ‘virtual fetch’ much larger than the real one. Without doubt, it was this dynamic fetch that was the major contributing factor to the size and destructive power of that first swell when it hit Hawaii.

Meanwhile, the second storm tracked across the North Pacific from west to east, passing north of Hawaii around 3rd December. The windfield was smaller in area than the first system but contained winds as strong if not stronger. However, it wasn’t travelling directly towards Hawaii, so the dynamic fetch effect would have worked better for spots directly east of the system. In fact, California did get some huge swell from this second system. Hawaii only got the tangential swell off the southern flank of the system, although, of course, it was still gigantic. Also, the low deepened quite close to Hawaii, so frontal systems would have crossed the Islands, resulting in poor wind conditions.

The first swell began to arrive on the North Shore on Monday morning, December 1. The day before had been small: “Not more than four feet” according to veteran big-wave surfer Ted Gugelyk who, as I’ll describe in a moment, lived through the worst nightmare of his life.

The swell continued to build throughout the day on 1st, probably peaking sometime late that evening after causing utter devastation all along the North Shore. A handful of people including Randy Rarick, George Downing, Buzzy Trent and a 14-year-old Shaun Thomson – but not including Greg Noll – rode big, clean Makaha that morning.

The second swell arrived early on Thursday 4th December, filled in during the day and peaked in the afternoon, which was when Noll rode his wave at Makaha. The second swell was huge, but not quite as huge or consistent as the first; and the wind conditions at Makaha were reported to be onshore.

Things weren’t the same for Greg Noll after he rode that wave. He could see that surfing was changing – for the worse in his opinion. So, he decided to bow out in style. It was a way of saying, in his own words, “one last fuck-you” to the surfing community.

But that swell changed other people’s lives too. Ted Gugelyk had been one of the big-wave elite of that time in Hawaii, charging giant Waimea and Sunset Beach whenever it was on. But that came to an end on Monday December 1, 1969, when the waves destroyed his home and nearly took his wife and two daughters. After that, he said goodbye to Hawaii and goodbye to big-wave surfing forever.

Gugelyk struggled back from Honolulu that night, almost not making it along the flooded Kamehameha highway that runs along the North Shore. When he got home he just about managed to get his family to safety: “I remember struggling through hip deep water, forcing myself against the moving water, uphill, back to the home. Our yard had turned into a shorebreak. My wife was screaming. She and my daughters had been swept through the glass doors on the mountain side of the home.

"My youngest daughter lay under a wooden wall and a plate glass window. I could see blood gushing from my wife’s arms and legs. I pulled on wood, trying to lift part of a wall off my little girl and get her out from under the broken glass, all the time thinking that another wave would hit us soon.”

Wind chart for December 3, showing the second storm as it passed north of Hawaii travelling eastwards.

Wind chart for December 3, showing the second storm as it passed north of Hawaii travelling eastwards.

In the end, around 60 properties were destroyed along the North Shore that day. Homes that had been constructed in precarious locations too close to the waves. The Hawaiian members of Ted Gugelyk’s family weren’t surprised that he lost his home. They explained to him that the ancient Hawaiians would never, ever build their houses that close to the ocean. Instead, they always tended to live up towards the mountains, away from the sea: “My wife and mother-in-law had a right to be angry. Why did we live there? I had been warned. Hawaiians never lived that close to the sea. After World War II the Haoles moved in, planted trees, built homes, brought in dirt fill, sand was trapped, a wide beach was created, but it was all artificial. Now the sea took it back. ‘Only a lolo (crazy person) would live there’ my wife’s mother scolded. She was right.”

Cover shot: Greg Noll at Makaha captured by Dutch Vandervoort.