Long read: The Secret of Wave Pilots!

So good you'll weep!

Open ocean navigation fascinates me. Have you ever been far out to sea, playing against wind, tide and swell, pointing at some dot on a computer screen and trusting that it is your port? It always feels amazing to actually arrive. To have beaten back expansive uncertainty and be where you set out to be.

But do you know what astounds me? To do the same thing using only stars, sun and moon. Have you heard of the Hawaiian vessel Hokulea? They are doing the almost unthinkable by sailing without modern instrument around the entire world. It is a story that brings a gasp to even the most hardened cynic’s lips.

I read one better today though. The story of the ri-meto from the Marshall Islands. Pour a drink and enjoy.

At 0400, three miles above the Pacific seafloor, the searchlight of a power boat swept through a warm June night last year, looking for a second boat, a sailing canoe. The captain of the canoe, Alson Kelen, potentially the world’s last-ever apprentice in the ancient art of wave-piloting, was trying to reach Aur, an atoll in the Marshall Islands, without the aid of a GPS device or any other way-finding instrument. If successful, he would prove that one of the most sophisticated navigational techniques ever developed still existed and, he hoped, inspire efforts to save it from extinction. Monitoring his progress from the power boat were an unlikely trio of Western scientists — an anthropologist, a physicist and an oceanographer — who were hoping his journey might help them explain how wave pilots, in defiance of the dizzying complexities of fluid dynamics, detect direction and proximity to land. More broadly, they wondered if watching him sail, in the context of growing concerns about the neurological effects of navigation-by-smartphone, would yield hints about how our orienteering skills influence our sense of place, our sense of home, even our sense of self.

When the boats set out in the afternoon from Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, Kelen’s plan was to sail through the night and approach Aur at daybreak, to avoid crashing into its reef in the dark. But around sundown, the wind picked up and the waves grew higher and rounder, sorely testing both the scientists’ powers of observation and the structural integrity of the canoe. Through the salt-streaked windshield of the power boat, the anthropologist, Joseph Genz, took mental field notes — the spotlighted whitecaps, the position of Polaris, his grip on the cabin handrail — while he waited for Kelen to radio in his location or, rather, what he thought his location was.

The Marshalls provide a crucible for navigation: 70 square miles of land, total, comprising five islands and 29 atolls, rings of coral islets that grew up around the rims of underwater volcanoes millions of years ago and now encircle gentle lagoons. These green dots and doughnuts make up two parallel north-south chains, separated from their nearest neighbors by a hundred miles on average. Swells generated by distant storms near Alaska, Antarctica, California and Indonesia travel thousands of miles to these low-lying spits of sand. When they hit, part of their energy is reflected back out to sea in arcs, like sound waves emanating from a speaker; another part curls around the atoll or island and creates a confused chop in its lee. Wave-piloting is the art of reading — by feel and by sight — these and other patterns. Detecting the minute differences in what, to an untutored eye, looks no more meaningful than a washing-machine cycle allows a ri-meto, a person of the sea in Marshallese, to determine where the nearest solid ground is — and how far off it lies — long before it is visible.

In the 16th century, Ferdinand Magellan, searching for a new route to the nutmeg and cloves of the Spice Islands, sailed through the Pacific Ocean and named it ‘‘the peaceful sea’’ before he was stabbed to death in the Philippines. Only 18 of his 270 men survived the trip. When subsequent explorers, despite similar travails, managed to make landfall on the countless islands sprinkled across this expanse, they were surprised to find inhabitants with nary a galleon, compass or chart. God had created them there, the explorers hypothesized, or perhaps the islands were the remains of a sunken continent. As late as the 1960s, Western scholars still insisted that indigenous methods of navigating by stars, sun, wind and waves were not nearly accurate enough, nor indigenous boats seaworthy enough, to have reached these tiny habitats on purpose.

Archaeological and DNA evidence (and replica voyages) have since proved that the Pacific islands were settled intentionally — by descendants of the first humans to venture out of sight of land, beginning some 60,000 years ago, from Southeast Asia to the Solomon Islands. They reached the Marshall Islands about 2,000 years ago. The geography of the archipelago that made wave-piloting possible also made it indispensable as the sole means of collecting food, trading goods, waging war and locating unrelated sexual partners. Chiefs threatened to kill anyone who revealed navigational knowledge without permission. In order to become a ri-meto, you had to be trained by a ri-meto and then pass a voyaging test, devised by your chief, on the first try. As colonizers from Europe introduced easier ways to get around, the training of ri-metos declined and became restricted primarily to an outlying atoll called Rongelap, where a shallow circular reef, set between ocean and lagoon, became the site of a small wave-piloting school.

In 1954, an American hydrogen-bomb test less than a hundred miles away rendered Rongelap uninhabitable. Over the next decades, no new ri-metos were recognized; when the last well-known one died in 2003, he left a 55-year-old cargo-ship captain named Korent Joel, who had trained at Rongelap as a boy, the effective custodian of their people’s navigational secrets. Because of the radioactive fallout, Joel had not taken his voyaging test and thus was not a true ri-meto. But fearing that the knowledge might die with him, he asked for and received historic dispensation from his chief to train his younger cousin, Alson Kelen, as a wave pilot.


Parker: Broken Dicks and Broken Hearts!

An inauspicious start to 2016…

I woke up to a message from my mother-in-law this morning. “Happy Four Year Anniversary!”


We don’t really celebrate, the wife and I. Dated for eleven years before tying the knot, really only did it for insurance and tax purposes. We don’t wear rings, she didn’t take my name. Lobbied hard to make me take hers, though.

Other than the aforementioned tax and insurance implications, marriage is largely bullshit. Doesn’t change nothin’. Unless you’re a member of some weirdo cult and never got in each others’ pants. Then I’m sure it comes with a bunch of awkward fumbling, sexual malfunction, and eventual divorce. I only ever fucked one virgin, and it was terrible. Swore I’d never do it again, only skeevy sluts from thereon out.

While I had no idea that today’s our wedding anniversary, I’m not about to miss a chance to win a marital battle.

“Happy Anniversary, baby?”

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s been four years! Don’t tell me you forgot?”

Got inside her head for a minute, but I forgot to delete the text. It was on her phone, since I’ve still never owned a cell. Totally blew it, could have used her supposed insensitivity for all sorts of leverage.

Fun Fact: Our dog died the morning after we married. Very auspicious.

Good thing I don’t believe in that stuff. Yeah, I spout plenty of colloquial nonsense about luck or karma, because it was beaten into my head by society, but I’m aware that life just happens, not much you can do to control it.

Which is too bad, life’d be a lot more fun if magic really existed. Every time something bad happened you’d be thinking, “Who’s responsible for this? Did someone put a hex on me?”

The investigation into Phil Toledo’s broken dick would be a treat. Especially when the WSL discovered it was ADS who hired some brazzo witch doctor from the deepest darkest to conjure up a dong curse.

But life is boring, the mundane reality most likely involved lurking on the wrong side of the official WSL Competitor Area glory hole with a hammer in hand.

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Surf Snowdonia’s $US1.5 M Reboot!

Adds giant catapult and obstacle course!

Do you remember when Wavegarden’s first commercial pool opened in the little Welsh village of Dolgarrog last August? The pool, called Surf Snowdonia, was built on the site of an old aluminium smelter, cost $US17 million, and for a moment, was spangled with the gold of expectation.

The energy drink company Red Bull held a contest there (Albee Layer won), surfers engaged back and forth on its merits (one surfer wrote eloquently about having his “worst surf in two years” , another said, Welsh surfers should learn to shred not complain) and, it seemed, everyone was making plans to jump into its frigid fresh water next time they were near Europe.

Then it broke down, the liner was ripped and the pool was closed. Twice. Sixty casual workers and eight full-timers were sacked.

In December, Kelly Slater appeared with a wavepool that was merciless in its superiority. It was enough to sap the morale and break the will of a king!

At the time, Matt Warshaw said, “Wavegarden just went Betamax! Wavegarden execs are standing on office building ledges, crying, looking down at the sidewalk!”

But, today, Surf Snowdonia reopened after a $US1.5 million refit that includes a Crash-and-Splash obstacle course and a giant catapult. 

And the waves?

Andy Ainscough, managing director of the Surf Snowdonia, says: “The number one thing we wanted to get right during our winter downtime was the addressing the reliability of our Wavegarden, and we’re confident that we’ve delivered on that. Leitner has made some very specific modifications to the motors which have optimised the mechanics of creating consistently powerful waves, day in, day out. The last six weeks have been entirely dedicated to putting the motors through their paces and testing their resilience under pressure.”

Does the idea of surfing a Wavegarden still excite you like it did three years ago when it was still a secret in the Basque hills?

Or are you holding your cards until you can get to a Kelly?

Donnie Frankenreiter, Ben Stiller and Andy Irons cameo in the Taj Burrow biopic Fair Bits.

Surf Quiz: What Would You Do?

Broke and cry-baby pals, choking turtles to death… 

Rory Parker’s new series What Would You Do coiled BeachGrit reader Travis Bible into action. In a recent email, he wrote: “It brings me back to my days at college talking about ethics, but with surfing. While we used to ask big questions, like, is it acceptable to allow the Warren Jeffs and his FLDS crew to run entire cities or is it ethical to keep large marine mammals in zoos, the topics were too abstract to really matter.

“The questions posed by BeachGrit are accessible to me. They are the kind of bar-room philosophizing my sunburned cohorts could comprehend. But I found that despite the realistic premises, I had never actually been in any of the circumstances. Maybe it’s my boring life, but I figured we could use more benign What Would You Do? scenarios.”

And which point, Bible surrended his own What Would You Do’s…

Scenario #1

You’re driving to the next major surf spot over from yours (about an hour away) and want some company. The aspiring artist musician type tags along, but conveniently forgets his wallet. While a few bucks for gas would be good, it’s not too big of a deal. However, you find that after a marathon five-hour session you’re starving. With the long drive ahead, and knowing you’ll have to feed the penniless friend as well, what do you do?

Scenario #2 

It’s a top five day of the year at your local spot. The sun is out, the crowds aren’t bad, and the water is perfect. One of your buddies is going through a rough patch and is telling you all about the wife that is leaving him, his shaky  job, his sick mom, when the set of the day pops up on the horizon. Do you listen contently and let perfection pass you by or paddle towards the set?

Scenario #3

It’s a cold winter day and you have an hour to get your surf fix. You make it out into an empty line-up and find a clear plastic bag floating right next to you. You know turtles frequent your beach. Your wetsuit has no pockets and the bag is falling apart so you can’t tie it around yourself. There is a bit of a current so you have to choose: do you summon the eco warrior within or say fuck it let evolution sort out the wheat from the chaff?

Just in: The Inertia causes dementia!

A hard medical fact!

Parody is such a fine form of comedy don’t you think? The most wonderful author of Lolita, Vlad Nabokov, sure did and once said, “Satire is a lesson, parody a game.” And who don’t want to play a game? The chuckles, the back slaps, the soaring spirits!
It is particularly great because we can laugh laugh laugh while winking at general truths. Donald Trump’s candidacy is a grand parody of American politics, for example, and ADS’s championship run a pitch perfect parody of the World Surf League’s judging criteria. Do you remember the Lunada Bay parody posted by Rory Parker just days ago? Of course you do! You loved the way it lampooned the aggressive/weird/silly brand of localism festering just outside of Los Angeles.
Apparently readers of all-inclusive mountain/beach website The Inertia did not love it though, nor did they understand it at all. They took it completely seriously and raged against the terrible form portrayed.
“Real tough standing on a cliff so this loser can run away to his mommy before these two guys busy him up. What a punk. I’m 6’4″ 230. Try me assholes.”
“This is rediculous hes lucky a real man doesnt come by and shut his mouth !”
“It’s KOOKS not COOKS …you kook.” (Because the title of the piece was COOKS GO HOME)
“Without cooks we’d all starve.”
“Inertia I am glad you have the anti localism attitude as well. We are all locals to the Earth!!!!”
Etc. You must do yourself a great favor and read the rest of the comments here!
Oh how funny! But also begs the question…does reading The Inertia regularly cause dementia or other major neurological malfunctions?