Surf's Up! Exploring the Place Where the Sea Meets the Land
By Tamia Nelson
Stand stable here
And silent be,
That through the channels of the ear
May wander like a river
The swaying sound of the sea.
W. H. Auden, "On This Island"
November 16, 2004
The "swaying sound of the sea." The gentle swoosh
and hiss of spent waves washing
rhythmically over a sandy beach, minute after minute, hour after hour, year
after year. It's a pleasing image, especially when the window over my desk
frames nothing except bare trees and gray skies. But the sea is changeable. One
day, the beach is a placid paradise. On the next, towering waves totter and
collapse, gnawing away at
the land where they fall.
This drama plays out in a rough-and-tumble strip of seacoast called the
surf zone. It's a fluid boundary at best, bracketed between the outermost
line of breakers and the most recent high-water mark. Fluid or not, though, it's
where the action is, where waves wash or crash ashore, and where beaches are
born, grow old, and die. If the bleak November days have got you thinking about
sea kayaking, then the surf zone is where you'll first wet your blade in salt
Sounds good, doesn't it? But don't just shove off and hope for the best.
Experienced river paddlers know it pays to scout
any water that's new to them. And the same applies to sea kayakers. There's
simply no substitute for local knowledge. But it's not easy to scout the surf
zone from shore. So let's head down the pier and see if we can find an old salt
who'll help us make sense of the surf.
We're in luck. Pelé's heading out for a little fishing, and he'll be
happy to take us along. What's that? You don't see anyone else on the pier? Just
a pelican? Right on! That's our bird and don't let him hear you dissing
pelicans. What Pelé doesn't know about the waters hereabouts isn't worth
knowing, and when he's airborne he's got the best seat in the house for the
OK. Ready to fly? Good. It's a great day for it, too. Visibility's unlimited,
and gentle swells are rolling in toward the beach. Let's follow one and see what
happens to it when it first "feels the
bottom." There! See that? The crest of the roller is rising as it climbs the
gradual slope of the foreshore. Soon the wave is standing tall, and the crest is
starting to collapse. Now white water is spilling down the face. A minute later,
and all that's left of the wave is a sheet of water and foam washing up onto the
beach. But by the time this wash drains away, another wave is already rolling
Pelé's going farther out to grab a bite to eat now, so let's land on the
beach and see what we can see from shore. You could call this studying surf-zone
processes if you wanted to impress your friends, but we'll leave the equations
and wave-tank experiments to the pros. What matters most to both pelicans and
paddlers is what we can understand with no other tools than the Mark I
eyeball. And that means going eyeball to eyeball with
This beach would be a good place to launch or land, and today would be a good
day. A gently-sloping shore, not too much wind, and no storms far out at sea
all these add up to moderate surf. The waves are breaking, sure, but
they're not hammering down. They're "spillers," in other words. As each wave
comes ashore, its crest spills down its face. Spillers can get big, but however
big they get, they still break easy. That's why they're welcomed by both
kayakers and novice surfers alike.
Of course, not all waves are so accommodating. Storm swells driving against a
steeply-shelving shore often break hard. The crest curls over in a hurry,
trapping an air pocket that extends along the entire face of the breaker. Then,
as the crest topples shoreward, this "tube" is caught between the tumbling mass
of water and the unyielding bottom. Squeezed between a wave and a hard place,
the air in the tube has to do something, and it does. It explodes skyward.
Kayakers call these waves "dumpers" for good reason. More prosaic folks call
them plunging breakers. Whatever you call them, they're no place for a small
While we're talking about eyeballing the surf, let's see if we can't answer
one of the most-asked questions on any beach: How big are the waves, anyway? No,
you don't need doppler radar to figure this out. Simply walk up the beach until
the tops of the breakers touch the horizon. Now estimate the height of your eye
above the swash line (the highest place on the beach reached by water surging
forward from the surf). That's how high the waves are. Try it yourself. And
don't just measure one wave. Take several minutes and size up each wave that
comes along. No two waves will be the same height. It seems chaotic. After a
while, though, a pattern often emerges. Ten or more small waves will be followed
by three or four really big ones, only to be followed by another comparatively
quiet interlude. This alternation is known as the beat of the surf, and a
kayaker who takes the time to get in sync with the beat can spare herself a lot
of grief in launching and landing.
Are you wondering what causes the surf to beat? To begin answering that
question we'll have to go back
But Pelé's still on his lunch break, and a lot of the action's
underwater, in any case. So let's swim along with a real-life ancient mariner
a sea turtle.
Verda may be the last of a vanishing breed, but she's not ready to give up. In
fact, she's just laid a clutch of eggs in the beach sand. Now she's ready to go
home. First, though, she has to make it out through the surf zone. And we're
going with her. Hope you're ready. There's not a minute to lose. Verda's already
wading into the swash.
We're through the surf before we know it, but it's hard to see much, isn't
it? Even though the breakers are spilling, the constant beat of the waves still
scours sand from the bottom. Happily, the water clears as we move away from
shore. Soon we're approaching an undersea dune a longshore bar, in fact.
It runs parallel to the coastline, and if the incoming rollers were much bigger,
there'd be a heavy surf over the bar, too. Today, though, there's only an
What'd you say? You think Verda's slowing down? That's no surprise. She's had
a hard night. Now she could use a little help getting over the bar and out to
sea. And she's in luck. Look over there on our right. See the cut through the
bar? It's a channel, and it's there for a reason. Verda's seen it, too
she was looking for it, in fact and she's already heading toward it.
We'll tag along. Watch what happens.
Wow! It's sort of like being on an escalator, isn't it? We've caught a
The bar acts like a dam. Water piles up inshore, and it wants to get out. So,
sooner or later, it cuts a channel through the bar and flows back out to sea.
And we're going along for the ride. Once we're past the narrow cut in the bar,
the current will slow down. But by then we'll be out of the surf zone.
That's it. Verda's on her way home. And we ought to be getting back to the
beach. There's no need for us to buck the rip current, however. All we need to
do is swim parallel to shore for a while. Once we've put a little
distance between ourselves and the cut in the bar, we'll turn our backs on the
sea and ride the waves in without having to fight the rip.
It's good to be back on land. Now I'm going to get some shut-eye in the shade
of the tarp.
Damn! Is that the time? The beach sure is a lot wider than it was when I
dozed off. And where'd that low ridge just offshore come from? Of course. It's
the crest of the bar that we crossed earlier, when we were following Verda. The
tides gone out. Now it's easy to see the channel cut by the rip current. No
point in posting it to warn unwary swimmers, though, is there? The only thing
that's constant in the surf zone is change. By next week the cut may have moved.
By next year, the bar itself could be gone. Some things last, though. Like
The Beat of the Surf
Think back to what we noticed earlier. Remember how three or four big waves
came along after every ten or twelve small ones? Look at the breakers. It's
still happening. And what's the explanation? It's easy, really. The ocean's a
big place. Wind makes waves, and wave trains move at different speeds. When one
wave train overtakes another, and crest overlaps crest, they add up. The waves
grow. (If crest meets trough, however, the opposite happens: they cancel each
other out.) The surf zone is where it all comes together. Each swell rolling
inshore is the product of thousands of mid-ocean encounters. The result is the
beat of the surf. Geography plays a part in setting the tempo, too. Gentle
slopes make for extended surf zones, like those along the coast of Java, say, or
even Hudson Bay. A kayaker may have to do battle with spilling waves for a good
part of an hour before breaking free into open water. On the other hand, steep
foreshores concentrate all the action in a narrow band. Then, when the surf's
up, it can be impossible for paddlers to break through at all.
Whether the foreshore is steep or gentle, though, the beat goes on.
The message is plain to anyone whose ears are open to the "swaying sound of
the sea." The only thing constant in the surf zone is change. Each shift in the
wind and every turn of the tide remixes the music. Walk a mile down the beach.
Conjure up a storm. Whatever you do, the surf zone will be different than it is
here and now. That's the enduring challenge of the place where the sea meets the
Copyright © 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights