On the island of Oahu in the early 60’s, the story of the man who surfed a tidal wave was just one that everyone knew.
“Everyone always used to say, ‘Hey, have you heard that story?’” remembers a Hawaiian woman named Kris Sellin, who’d first been told it way back in elementary school.
“This guy, he lived out in the country… or somewhere along the eastern coast of Oahu,” she recounts to folklore collector Tanis Thorne, “and his whole family had evacuated up into the hills and everything; and then he forgot his money under the floorboards of his house, you know, just this shack on the beach. And he ran back down to get it and like right as he was getting his money out, he saw this wave was just coming straight to his house; so anyway he grabbed his money and he grabbed the floorboards from the house and supposedly he surfed in on the tidal wave; he just rode the wave in and the water at the time went in about half a mile maybe.”
“Most of the surfers whom I questioned were familiar with the tidal wave and floorboard motifs as the essence of the story,” says Thorne.
While Kris Sellin thought the account was supposed to have taken place during the 1960 tsunami that hit the islands, Thorne managed to unearth versions dating back to almost a hundred years prior, with the earliest written in 1872 by Henry Whitney, one of Hawaii’s first journalists.
While there’s no way of knowing how long the story has been around, the cultural fascination with the idea of tidal wave surfing has continued to this day.
Tidal waves, or tsunamis as they’re now more accurately known, are the result of huge displacements of ocean, caused by events such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, underwater explosions, or even meteors. How a tsunami manifests as it bowls towards land depends on a multitude of factors, including the shape of the seafloor, distance from the epicentre and the geography of the coastlines they hit. Sometimes they appear as a series of huge breaking waves, while others look more akin to a giant tidal surge (hence the misnomer ‘tidal wave’). While these distinctions are vital to the scientists who spend their lives studying the phenomena, they’ve proved less important when it comes to pop-culture’s many depictions of tsunami surfing.
Like, for example, this scene from 96’ box office clanger/ cult classic Escape To LA, where injured anti-hero Snake Plissken is encouraged by an acquaintance known as ‘Pipeline’ to catch his attacker by surfing a ‘bitchin’ Tsunami (which looks suspiciously like a FlowRider) through an apocalyptic city-scape (artfully animated by early 90s CGI).
A more convincing attempt at depicting the feat came in 2002 from the talented marketing team behind naughties sports drink Powerade. The ad layers a combination of two real Mavericks surf clips, featuring Flea Virostko and Zach Wormhoudt, over what looks like news footage of a storm making landfall, while a newscaster narrates the episode.
While it got a bit of reaction during its original airing on TV ad breaks, it turned out to be a viral video before its time. In the 18 years since, it’s been stripped of its Powerade branding and circulated widely across the internet, popping up after each high profile storm or tsunami, accompanied by claims it features that tempest being tamed. And, despite its basic cut and paste special effects, it continues to fool people on the internet to this day.
The concept of tsunami surfing reached its cultural zenith in 2006 when a clip of Mike Parsons getting whipped into a 60-foot wave at Jaws was uploaded to Youtube with the title ‘Struck in Tsunami’.
The website was just over a year old and the idea of a viral video was still fairly novel.
However, with the horror and devastation of the 2004 Asian tsunami fresh in people’s minds, the triumphant tone of the video struck a chord with the public. Views skyrocketed, comments sections cascaded with awe and the video quickly took its place as an early viral sensation, alongside classics like ‘Charlie bit my finger’ and ‘The evolution of dance’.
Views skyrocketed into the millions, comments sections cascaded with awe and the video quickly took its place as an early viral sensation, alongside classics like ‘Charlie bit my finger’ and ‘The Evolution of Dance.’”
Although the original upload now boasts a whopping 39 million views, platforms across the internet are full of copies of the clip, meaning the true view count is probably much higher.
Since the mid-naughts, more people have got to grips with the difference between a tsunami and a big wave created by wind and swell, however even now, comments sections on videos of Nazarè, Jaws and Teahupoo still light up with shock, awe and confused assertions that it must be ‘tsunami surfing’ on display.
Within the surf community, conversations around the viability of surfing waves created by earthquake aftershock similarly appear from time to time, usually spurred on by videos and photos featuring what look like tow-surfable waves (we’ve included some below). And although the answer from the scientific community as to whether it’s possible to surf a tsunami remains an unequivocal “No,” there are many old news reports stifled away in outdated corners of the internet that claim to tell the story of people who have. So over the next month, we’re going to investigate them one by one.