A photo by Erik Aeder of Paige Alms surfing a big wave, courtesy of www.paigealms.com
A photo by Erik Aeder of Paige Alms surfing a big wave, courtesy of www.paigealms.com

Surf’s Up – The Big Waves

Paige Alms, by Erik Aeder. Courtesy of www.paigealms.com.

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About This Episode

Aloha, Dudes and gremmies! It’s time to shoot the curl when Gary O’Reilly and Chuck Nice dive into the serious science of surfing the big waves. Their guides: California surfer – and NASA oceanographer – Dr. Bill Patzert, and, from Maui, pro surfer and the first female Big Wave World Champion, Paige Alms. First up, we get the science of big waves from Bill, who’s been surfing for 50 years. Find out how big waves are generated by the winds of big storms based on three factors: storm duration, wind strength, and storm fetch (or area). Explore how NASA can predict perfect surfing conditions around the world almost a week ahead of time. You’ll learn how giant storms generate waves of many wavelengths, from a few inches to giants with wave lengths up to 400 feet that can travel from the oceans around Antarctica or India to reach the coast of California. Investigate the difference between the first waves to hit the shore, the smooth, long period waves that surfers love which last less than a day, and the storm surf, or slop, that hits the second day. Discover the unique conditions like reefs and canyons on the ocean floor that generate monster waves, including the tallest wave ever ridden – a 78-footer off Nazare, Portugal in 2011 by Garrett McNamara (who has since ridden a 100-footer in the same place, but which hasn’t yet been certified by the Guinness Book of World Records). Bill describes how big wave surfers constantly change their center of gravity on the board to balance the forces of gravity and buoyancy in the face of the dangers posed by the high velocity of the giant waves and the force and weight of the water towering over their heads. Finally, in our last segment, Gary and Chuck talk with Paige Alms about what it was like to be the first female surfer to barrel at Jaws, a feat she’d dreamed about for years. Paige explains the science and design of the boards she uses, and how a shorter, wider design allows her to use the rail line of the board to knife into the water at high speeds, applying the techniques of small wave technical surfing to big wave riding. You’ll also hear about the role of understanding wave physics vs. the intuition of an experienced surfer in big wave riding. Paige shares about the ubiquity of wipeouts in normal surfing compared to the dangers of wiping out riding a “moving mountain” – can you say broken shoulder? You’ll also learn why physics shows it’s impossible to “surf a tsunami,” and Chuck gets excited about “wave sex.”

NOTE: All-Access subscribers can watch or listen to this entire episode commercial-free here: Surf’s Up – The Big Waves.

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