Ever since Hawaii forecasters began taking detailed measurements of swells 45 years ago; there are dates by which all other swells are measured: Dec. 1 and 4, 1969, Feb. 23, 1986 and Jan. 28, 1998. Those three years in particular serve as barometers for all future surf, including the massive swell that's currently on the horizon.
NOAA surf forecaster Pat Caldwell has been tracking the enormous swell for days now and has pinpointed its arrival early Wednesday morning. Caldwell says the swell may not rival the '69 events, but it could be on par with the swells of '86 and '98.
"There's a lot of ways that it can be slightly different, but it's certainly in the caliber that would be on the order of a decade turnaround," said Caldwell. "It should reach giant levels, which would refer to outer reefs getting a peak face over 40 (feet) on the sets, pre-dawn, say around 5 a.m."
During the back-to-back swells of '69, extensive wave run-up caused severe damage on Oahu's North Shore, as well as the west side of the island. Caldwell says the swell expected to hit later this week will be a once-in-a-decade event and even though tides will be low, run-up could still be an issue. That's because a smaller background swell and wind swell will coincide with the larger swell's arrival, encompassing a wide range of swell periods.
"What you get is a pile-up of water in the near shore area because it doesn't have time to flush," explained Caldwell.
The Hawaii chapter of the American Red Cross visited the North Shore on Sunday and Thursday to survey the area and talk to homeowners. The agency says it will make supplies available, should they be required.
"We have items we can give out if they need them, like tools, tarps (and) shovels," said Penny Lindsey, a Red Cross disaster services volunteer. "As of right now we haven't given anything out because it wasn't requested.
During the swells of '86 and '98, Ke Iki Beach Bungalows near Sharks Cove was swamped by a surge of white water. Lindsey said the Red Cross can set up shelters in as little as two hours if homeowners on the North Shore should need a place to stay.
"We do have people on hold and on call, so it should be much quicker than something that came up out of the blue," she said.
The North Pacific storm that generated the upcoming swell is a massive system that would blanket much of the western United States. Its close proximity to Hawaii, about 1,000 nautical miles, also means the swell's energy will be amplified. The swell is expected to remain in the extra-large range well into Thursday.
"It could be two full days of well above average surf and so that compounds the coastal issues when you have that much waves coming through," said Caldwell.
Late Monday organizers of the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau big wave surf contest said the competition would be a no-go on Wednesday and Thursday because of windy, blown-out conditions.
"We have taken all the time we can to assess the developments of the next big swell and it does not look favorable for us," said Eddie organizer Glen Moncata. "The size is there but the quality is not due to strong, adverse winds. We will continue to wait for the right conditions."
The last time the Eddie was held was on Dec. 8, 2009, when Californian Greg Long won the event. The contest has until Feb. 28 to run, requiring just one day of quality surf with waves face heights of around 40 feet (20-foot open ocean swell). The Eddie has only been held eight times in its 29-year history.