The paradox of impossible knowledge

‘Looks like it’s going southerly,’ pointed out the surfer, as he gazed up at the clouds and sniffed the air.

‘Yeah,’ said the other, ‘There’s a warm front on the chart associated with a 985 sitting a few hundred miles west of Shannon.’

‘The K2 buoy is already showing ten feet at fourteen seconds,’ said the first. ‘I reckon it’ll pick up on the push of the tide – what is it anyway, springs or neaps?’

‘It’s a five point eight,’ said the second, after consulting a strange list of numbers screwed up in his back pocket.

To the innocent bystander, this sounds more like scientific terminology than the jargon associated with some sport or leisure activity. Yet this is the sort of language surfers throughout the world – you and I – use every day of our lives. You see, without realizing it, most surfers are also scientists. Surfers who have spent many years riding different waves in different parts of the world have, without any special effort, become meteorologists, oceanographers, geographers, linguists and cultural experts. Through an obsession with tapping the ocean’s energy to propel them along for a few seconds, surfers end up acquiring a large amount of peripheral information. All that watching, discussing, waiting and thinking gives us an insatiable thirst for knowledge, typical of scientists rather than sportspeople. This unique facet of surfing gives it a richness rarely found in other activities.

If you are a surfer, no doubt you will have asked yourself, while gazing out at the ocean or sitting in the line-up waiting for the next set, questions like these:


… Why is every wave different?

… Why are some waves more powerful than others?

… Why do some peel nicely and some just close out?

… Why, some days, do the waves come in sets of six, and other days in sets of three?

… How would this place work on a north, or indeed a south, swell?

… Why didn’t that low produce any surf?

… Where did that swell come from?

… What are waves anyway?

And doubtless some of us have asked many more obscure questions. Some of these are readily answerable; others take some thinking about. Yet others – a surprisingly large number – are much more difficult or impossible to answer even at top oceanographic research level. There are some concepts that surfers know intimately, in a qualitative way, that are barely acknowledged by the scientific community, typically through lack of demand for practical application.

For example, the groupiness of a swell has been studied by some coastal engineers for the design of coastal structures. But exhaustive details of the length of time between sets, the number of waves in a set, whether each set has the same number of waves in it, or how the wave heights are distributed throughout the set, are not required for such a study. For surfing, however, these details can be crucial, especially on a big day.

Likewise, the answers to some questions that surfers are constantly wondering about, have been sitting there in the scientific literature for years. A little knowledge about wave periods, for example, can explain the difference between a strong, powerful new swell and a weak, gutless old one.

Apart from simply wondering why the waves behave the way they do, we probably spend a lot more of our time wondering what the surf will be like in the near future. This has a direct practical application. Since we plan our lives around the surf, being able to predict what the waves will be like tomorrow or next weekend might save us a lot of time and effort. Nowadays, surfers already have access to many efficient ways of predicting the surf. Using these facilities is becoming easier and easier, but if we don’t have a rudimentary knowledge of meteorological and oceanographic terminology, and don’t know the meaning of all those lines and symbols on the charts, we still run the risk of missing something. Sometimes, by just using those easy-to-read, highly-simplified forecasts, we are left wondering why the surf didn’t quite turn out the way they said it would.

Many surfers are more competitive than they would like to admit. If you can sneak off and score perfect waves alone or with two of your buddies, while the rest of the surfing world is running around not knowing which beach to head for, then I’m sure you will. To stay ahead of the game, you are obliged – almost condemned – to know where to get the latest and best prediction, especially in places where crowding is an issue.

Within the world of wave and weather predictions lies a kind of paradox. If we knew exactly what it was going to be like every day, life might be a lot less interesting. Perhaps we actually need to be slightly in the dark to make things exciting. We need that degree of anticipation, that uncertainty, so that when that ‘perfect’ day does arrive, we appreciate it more.

Safe in the knowledge that we will never be able to predict the surf with one hundred per cent accuracy, we continue trying. In the process, we learn more and more about how waves work, what affects their quality and quantity, and what affects our ability to enjoy them; which, in turn, enhances our enjoyment of the waves and the natural environment in which they exist.

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