South swell largest and most consistent in decades

 UPDATED 8:22 AM HST May 21, 2013
Halona Blowhole_Greg Knudsen
HONOLULU -

Together, Brian Benitez and Bobby Fernandez have more than 70 years of experience surfing the waves of Oahu's South Shore, and both say the swell that began last Thursday evening is the most consistently large surf they've seen in a decade or more.

"You know, last time it was somewhere in the '60s or the early '70s," Benitez said of the last time the South Shore was so big for so long. "We used to have back-to-back swells like this, but for nowadays this is very unusual, but unreal."

"I haven't seen it like this in a while, maybe 15, 16 years ago I seen it big for like a whole week," added Fernandez, as another eight foot set crashed on the outside reef at Ala Moana Bowls.

Although surfers have a tendency to exaggerate the size of swells in years gone by, the National Weather Service says experienced surfers know exactly what they're talking about - the south swell that began late last week is producing among the most consistently large waves to hit Oahu's southern coast in quite some time.

"To see a single day of surf like we've had in the summer is not all that uncommon, maybe we get that about once or twice a summer that'll peak out at the sizes that we've seen," said Derek Wroe, a NWS forecaster. "But, what's really unusual about this event is that it's lasted so long. It's been going on for over four days now, and that's the really unusual thing. You'd have to go back quite some time, probably decades, since you've see something like that happen."

NOAA surf forecaster Pat Caldwell agrees with Wroe’s assessment. Caldwell looked back at surf observation archives dating back to 1972, and found that only three other swells remained as large as the current south swell for several days. One large south swell in 1976 lasted four days, while two others in 1980 also hit the four day mark. “So, it’s been 33-years since we've had such a pattern,” Caldwell wrote in an email to KITV4.

The large surf has kept Ocean Safety lifeguard busy, to say the least. In the first three days of the swell, 345 rescues and assists were performed on the South Shore. Lifeguard Buck Giles told KITV4 that more than half of those taking advantage of the waves are experienced surfers, but there are some common themes in how people get into trouble, or need some help getting back to shore.

"Most of the things that we've been up against have been people breaking leashes, losing their boards getting caught in currents and needing assistance getting back to shore," said Giles. "There have been some incidences where people got too close to the shore and got swept in."

Lifeguards patrolling the South Shore have brought in an extra wave runner crew to respond more quickly to surfers or swimmers in distress, but of course they can't be everywhere, even with two rescue teams in the water. That's why Giles said he's so appreciative of those members of the public that have been acting like extra sets of eyes gazing at the horizon. "We've gotten a few 911 calls from people from shore or buildings saying, 'Hey, we have a person in distress, lost their board.' So, the community has helped out a lot as well."

On Tuesday, surf on the South Shore is expected to drop to the 2 to 5 foot range, but a high surf advisory remains in effect until 6 p.m. Another swell hitting Wednesday is expected to take waves back up above 6 feet.

Giles says beachgoers should remain vigilant and be on the lookout for waves that could knock them off rocky ledges, which is what happened Saturday at the surf spot China Walls in Portlock when a group of people had to be assisted by lifeguards and a Good Samaritan.  

"Watch the waves (and) be aware of the signage," said Giles.

Wroe said the large, consistent surf is the result of a blocking pattern in the southern hemisphere that has allowed powerful storms to track into a "sweet spot" for wave generation just east of New Zealand. Although it's too soon to predict with certainty, the same weather pattern could send another large swell to Hawaii south shores the first week of June.

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