Earlier this month we brought you a potted history of pop-culture’s obsession with the concept of tsunami surfing; spanning appearances in old Hawaiian folklore, through TV ads and Hollywood cult classics, to an alleged feature in one of youtube’s first viral videos.
Here, we’ll tell the story of what it’s actually like to be surfing when a tsunami hits.
The third day of Tom Gogola’s Samoan surf trip began much the same as the first two.
He woke up at 5.45 am to the sound of Tim the surf guide knocking on the door of his beachside fale to let him know they were heading out to the reef before breakfast.
He jumped out of bed, did a quick stretch, waxed his board and said goodbye to his girlfriend Rachel, before stepping out into the pre-dawn glow. Just seven steps and a row of towering palm trees, motionless that morning against the inky sky, separated his front door from the soft white sand.
He waded into the water and passed his board up to one of the eight passengers already on the boat as the bath-warm South Pacific sloshed against his knees. He was a long way from the estuarine waters of his home break in South Devon.
As he climbed aboard, Tom remembers enquiring as to the whereabouts of a German and two Danish surfers who were staying at the camp. Apparently they’d been up all night ill, possibly from the dinner, so wouldn’t be joining the early expedition.
The boat set off west across the inner reef, headed for a fun left-hander named ‘Sales’, which breaks hard off the corner of a coral shelf before running into a deep channel carved by the river that flows off the land just a kilometre away.
After 15 minutes they arrived at the pass, dropping anchor just as the sun rose above the horizon. The surf was glassy, 4 foot, with the best ones running off for 100m or so. Tom was first off the boat.
“This is paradise,” he remembers thinking as he made his way to the peak. “Twenty-seven-degree water, good clean surf and not a care in the world.”
“I caught the ﬁrst few waves of the day before the rest of the guys had paddled out and was stoked about surﬁng better than I was the day before,” he recounts.
After about an hour, another boat turned up and added a few more surfers to the lineup. Despite some terse words about moorings between the boat’s driver and Tim the surf guide, the vibes in the lineup were high.
At around 7am, with thoughts turning to heading back for breakfast, Tom noticed a rogue wave hit the reef.
“I was paddling back out at the time,” he says, “as the wave hit the reef it jacked up in height and had this real square, unsurfable look about it. I remember looking at the coral and thinking, shit that was really shallow.”
As he reached the peak, he glanced back towards the inside. “The water was bubbling as if a 100 foot wave had just detonated. We were all really puzzled.”
“After that, the whole lineup started ﬁzzing and surging violently,” he continues. “Then a guy from the other boat said casually, ‘I think the waves are done for the day, best get off the reef, think there’s a tsunami coming.’”’
Tom remembers feeling more skeptical than panicked as he put his head down and followed the rest of the pack as they paddled off towards the channel.
“By the time I got to the deeper water, there were only 3 guys left out the back,” he says.
Looking around, he was surprised to see some of his group already a distance away, paddling frantically back towards the land. “They were swimming like they’d just seen a shark,” he remembers. “We shouted for them to turn around and come back but they didn’t.”
Tom remembers contemplating whether or not a big tsunami was really on its way and briefly discussing with the others if they’d be better off paddling back to the boat. Just as they decided to stay put, the other boat in the channel roared to life and sped off out to sea.
Right then, the water level started to drop dramatically. “It was like someone had pulled the plug out of the ocean,” Tom remembers. “Within the space of a minute, the reefs that had been one metre deep were suddenly four meteres above sea level, with the millions of gallons of water rushing off them creating violent waterfalls all around us.”
“The guys that were paddling in were stuck in the middle of it, in a gap of only 20 meteres or so between two reefs.”
“It must have been extremely scary for them,” Tom reflects.
Further out, he and the others spent the next hour and a half paddling in the deep water, trying to hold position against the currents as the ocean surged back and forth.
“We were waiting for one of two things,” he says matter of factly, “either for it to ﬁnish and level itself out, or for a big tsunami wave to kill us all like the one in Indonesia.”
“I came to terms with the idea that we were going to die and there was nothing we could do about it.”
“Thankfully the wave never came for us,” Tom continues. “Instead the surges carried on. One minute everything was calm and seemed normal then the next it was like Niagara falls unloading off the reefs, leaving turtles, sharks and ﬂapping fish dry on the coral.”
After each surge, the water rushed back off the land, carrying logs, plastic drums and coconut trees, forming huge standing waves as it met the incoming swell.
In the distance, Tom could see their boat rocking violently in the vortex just a few meters from the edge of the reef. There was no sign of the other group…
Cover photo: Waterways Travel