Waves of Thalassa

So, you might ask, can we really surf on a planet like Thalassa? What does the science say? Believe it or not, this question has been studied and the answer is yes! But as a surfer a better question is what kind of waves would we find? In SOT I based the waves at the Slab and Colossus on the science from Mars’ oceans, since this is the only extraterrestrial ocean that has been studied. For this reason, and because small ocean planets will create monster waves, I made Thalassa close to the size of Mars (it’s actually 21% smaller).

A size comparison: Earth, Mars, Thalassa

Here I expand on three things:

1) How would waves on a planet like Thalassa behave?
2) Is the quest for big wave records really a thing?
3) Can we ride a 200 foot wave?

We’ll begin by an examination of what the waves on Mars might have looked like.

Surfing on Mars

Scientific research over the last 15 years has shown quite convincingly that Mars at one time had an ocean. Although there is still some debate you would have to go back  3-4 billion years but at that time there was likely an ocean, Oceanus Borealis, that covered about a third of the planet; about the size of the Arctic Ocean (see NASA, 2015). It occupied most of the northern hemisphere of the planet and was an average of 450 feet deep, but a mile in some places. Recent research by Dr. John Banfield at Cornell and his colleagues (Banfield et al., 2015) demonstrated that wind blowing across the surface of that ocean almost certainly produced wind waves, although the atmosphere back then was mostly carbon dioxide.

Changes in Mars’ Oceans over time. Source: Wikipedia.

But what would the waves have looked like? According to Banfield (see Choir, 2015)  they were likely large and moved significantly slower when compared to Earth. Since Mars has only 10.7% of the mass of the Earth its gravitational field is only 38% of Earth’s so it is easier to generate large ocean waves. However, gravity also acts to push waves along and determine their speed. Thus less gravity also means slower waves. Importantly, Mars also had more of an atmosphere at that time so it was both significantly warmer than today and perhaps more oxygen-rich (Astrobiology, 2013). Most likely all you would have needed is a good wet suit — not a space suit — and an oxygen supply, something like a rebreather. Given the reduced gravity of Mars, maneuvering would be awesome and aerials would be incredibly easy and unbelievably high (check out John Carter on Mars to get an idea).

This scientific research is the basis for the waves on Thalassa. In addition to being smaller than Mars it was almost entirely ocean, so the planet had a potential to generate monster-size waves; so yes I believe 200 foot waves would be possible but they would be slow moving and might double or triple up as they encountered a shallow reef. Additional factors, such as climate, the effects of tides (which include both Procyon and Hina effects), depth of the ocean basins, bathymetry, and the shape of the shoreline are likely to also be equally important. All these are described in the book. Here’s what I envision the waves to look like:

Another fact to ponder is that Mars was geologically young when there were oceans so you need to imagine a turbulent, more dynamic world, with lots of volcanism, flooding, and frequent bombardment by asteroids. The Procyon system, including Thalassa, is based on an early era in our solar system which is known as the Late Heavy Bombardment period when a disproportionate number of asteroids collided with the inner terrestrial planets, including  Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. Estimates are that serious environmental damage on these planets would occur about every 100 years.

Modeling of these impacts has estimated that tsunamis generated in the Martian ocean could have been as high as 400 feet and moved at rates up to 35 miles/hr in coastal areas (Iijima et al., 2014). So if you were surfing on Mars it could get very interesting, as it was on Thalassa. Although Thalassa was the age of Procyon A (1.7 billion years) the collapse of the Procyon B red giant 1.2 billion years earlier would have created a bombardment period that lasted to the present time. There’s more on that here.

Mars’ Ocean. Photo credit: NASA

The Quest to Ride Monster Waves

So is Sage and Milo’s competition to set a big wave record a thing? Most definitely yes! When you think of surfing you may envision the leisure sport of Hawaiian kings. Picture surfers floating peacefully offshore, riding gentle breakers to the beach. True. But the real action these days isn’t just surfing, it’s big-wave surfing, riding monster life-threatening waves. It is the apex of extreme sports and surfers are risking their lives pushing the limits to ride the biggest wave possible, every day. But is riding a 100 foot wave on Earth (or a 200 foot wave on Thalassa) possible? Let’s check it out and while we’re at it review how we got here.

You may have heard their names: Jaws, Killers, Waimea Bay, Cortes Bank, Mavericks, Nazaré. The epic waves at these surf breaks really are the holy grail of big-wave surfing. They’re like conquering the highest peaks of the Himalayas and just as dangerous. Over the last decades dozens have died from getting slammed on the bottom, drowned, or crushed by mountains of water for the slightest mistake. Everyone’s trying to set a new big wave record by pushing the physical limits of wave riding. It’s extremely dangerous, and the world is watching to see who will set the next record, currently at 80 feet. It’s a sport where you can make a career out of a single giant wave. Many have tried. But many more have failed.

So here’s a brief chronology of recent big-wave riding, the tech they use, and the escalating size records of waves surfers have set up to the present record (for the full history go here). It should be noted that given the imprecise calculus of wave-size measurement, comparisons of wave size, at least until recently, are difficult to make and often remain inconclusive. Most feel the official estimates of current size records are conservative. And maybe we’ll never know the true size of these monsters. In the past they were measured in increments of fear. In SOT they are measured precisely with a hand-held laser.

The Invention of tow boarding changes big wave surfing

In 1992 Buzzy Kerbox convinced Laird Hamilton to try tow boarding and big wave surfing has never been the same. Paddling into waves larger than 30 feet was always challenging and held many back from riding truly large swells. At that time, many felt some waves were too big, too fast, and too dangerous to ride. Tow boarding, which was invented and pioneered by Hamilton, Kerbox, Darrick Doerner, and David Kalama, revolutionized the sport. Towing early into a building swell at 40 mph gave the rider a tremendous advantage. Hamilton refined the sport using custom small boards with foot straps and tackled Jaws, a famous big-wave spot on Maui.

Tow boarding allowed surfers to ride much bigger waves

Tow-boarding was the inspiration for moto-boards in SOT. In the book, due to scientific advances, they are tiny, light, and capable of pushing a surfboard along at 40-50 mph. Are motor-powered surfboards a thing now? Yes, there are many companies pioneering so called “jet boards.” However, they are primarily used to cruise around and because of their motors are too heavy to ride waves of any appreciable size. But, in the future it is reasonable to assume these can be made light and super fast, just like in SOT, and will revolutionize big wave surfing.

Jet Boards: early prototypes for moto-boards

Jaws Becomes A Monster Wave Site

Record = 70 feet at Jaws (Peahi), Maui. Thanks to tow-boarding, everything changed in big wave surfing competition in 2002 when Billabong created the XXL big wave awards and assembled a professional judging committee with guidelines in measuring wave height. In addition to stimulating a horde of big-wave seekers to enter the fray, the shift to estimating wave faces using standardized methods made it difficult to compare waves to the past records because there was no official scorekeeper (Guinness stepped up with Cabrina’s wave in 2004). Even so, Peter Cabrina pushed the limit during the “swell of the decade” at Jaws and won the Billabong XXL award with a 70 ft. monster

Cabrina at Jaws on his record 70 ft. wave. Photo Credit: Erik Aeder/Billabong XXL

As Cabrina famously said:

From the first day of tow surfing at Jaws, one thing became crystal clear to everyone. By towing ourselves into these waves with a jet ski, we could catch, and hopefully ride, any sized wave that the ocean would send our way.

Peter Cabrina

With seemingly no limits, and with the media and financial backers firmly committed to filming monster waves, the race was on to push the envelope and ride the largest waves on the planet.


Cortes Bank emerges as the ultimate challenge

Peter Dixon’s book chronicling the discovery of Cortes Bank.

Record = 77 feet in 2008 at Cortes Bank, California. The mythical surf spot that is Cortes Bank, a rocky shoal located in the deep ocean 100 miles off southern California. In the 1990s a new spot was found and pioneered that could potentially hold the largest swell on Earth. It’s location and shape both contribute to its unique ability to converge and focus wave energy from the North Pacific. Importantly, the shape of the bank captures and focuses wave energy along the length of it’s gradual stair-stepping shoal, channeling the energy into the shallowest areas of the reef. Given the bathymetry, a 15-ft, 20-s period wave could easily grow to 4-5 times its height creating a 60-75 ft wave (Dixon, 2011). In a big swell, a perfectly shaped 100 ft wave could be generated; during a once-in-a-century El Niño-type swell, a 1,000 ft wave is possible. All the other big wave spots, such as Jaws, Maverick’s and Todos Santos, begin closing out at 50-100 foot heights into a hugeunrideable wave. In SOT, Cortes Bank is the model for the offshore shoals on the Bulge, although the actual wave is modeled after Nazaré.

In January of 2008, Parsons rode a wave from a monster storm which generated giant swells and buoy readings of 80-100 ft. With a second major storm bearing down, four of the most experienced big-wave surfers in the world — Mike Parsons, Greg Long, Grant Baker, and Brad Gerlach — jumped in a boat with two Jet Skis and headed toward the Bank. Slingshotting in at high speeds with weighted boards and flotation vests, the team endured horrific wipeouts and risked being lost in the mountains of white water before Parsons caught his epic wave (sound familar?). The surf session was so spectacular it made the New York Times. Greg Long describes the extreme conditions:

I’ve made some heavy missions out to Cortes Bank. But this time, it was all on the line: The biggest storm. The biggest swell. The biggest buoy readings ever seen. And as far as the risk factor, it was off the charts

Greg Long, New York Times (Jan. 2008)
Parson’s epic 77 ft. wave at Cortes Bank. Photo: Robert Brown.

As surfers watch Cortes Bank for the swell of the century, another surf spot became the new challenge.


Nazaré emerges as the largest wave on the planet

Record = 78 feet at Nazaré, Portugal in 2011. Enter Nazaré, possibly one of the largest surf breaks on the planet and the location of the current big-wave records. It’s a rocky point with a offshore submarine canyon that runs for nearly 100 miles. As waves approach the shore they move fast in the deep canyon and like a funnel are focused onto a shallow sandy bottom where they double up to create monster waves, many estimated at over 100 feet. In SOT, Colossus is modeled after this break but with two submarine canyons and a jagged rock reef (for added effect).

McNamara riding his record-breaking wave in 2011.

Garrett McNamara (or “GMAC”) spent years training and suffering injuries at Jaws, Mavericks, and Teahupo’o to set a new record; he even sought a tsunami from calving glaciers in Alaska. In 2011 he traveled to Nazaré and pioneered the unknown and seemingly unrideable break at that time with tow-ins, custom weighted boards, flotation vests, and an emergency air supply. In his autobiography, Hound of the Sea, he describes the epic wave that stunned the world:

The drop down the face is long. it feels endless. I rocket on down. The face is choppy, the wind is fierce. I can hear, as well as feel, the roar of moving water beneath me. … I breathe deep, stay present.

Garrett McNamara, in Hound of the Sea.

Many of these innovations and experiences at Nazaré were the basis for the surfing and surfboards in SOT. Due to its lesser gravity, a weighted board would be essential to ride big waves on Thalassa. Similarly, the use of flotation devices and emergency air are common now so would also be useful in the future but with innovations to keep them lighter and last longer, especially the re-breather. There are re-breathers now, like the Triton, but it has failed to function in any useful capacity due to the physics of supplying enough oxygen. In the future I assume they have these details all worked out.

The Triton: model for the breather in SOT. Photo: Triton/Indiegogo

Importantly, McNamara’s pioneering efforts attracted other big wave surfers to the massive and dangerous break at Nazaré and it soon became the go-to spot for new big wave records.


The current monster wave record is set at Nazaré

Record = 80 feet at Nazaré, Portugal. On November 8, 2017, Brazilian surfer Rodrigo Coxa set a new record three years after a near-fatal wipeout that forced him to stay away from the monster break for months. As reported in Smithsonian magazine: “Plagued by nightmares of being dashed on the rocks below Nazaré’s lighthouse, Koxa says he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He lost his sponsor. He had wanted to be a “big rider” since reading about the greats in surfing magazines as a boy, but Nazaré’s big waves had seemingly defeated him.”

It was only after surfing his mountainous wave that he realized he broke McNamara’s record by two feet according to Guinness and the World Surf League (WSL). But he set the new record at great personal cost and many others surfers have risked debilitating injuries, and their lives, chasing a potentially impossible dream . After several surfers expressed doubts about returning to WSL’s 2018 big wave event at Nazaré, the WSL had this to to say about the dangers of Nazaré

… wiping out at Nazaré can be life or death. Waves there can reach heights of up to 70 feet on the face, at which point they weigh 1,000 tons. It’s a place where breath-hold training, aerobic stamina and safety systems are essential for survival. But all of that also adds up to something else: a place where some of surfing’s most incredible achievements can unfold.

WSL, 2018

Coxa’s 80 foot wave at Nazaré


The Future of Big Wave Surfing

As to the question of whether a surfer could push the limits and eventually ride a 100 foot wave on Earth, the jury is still out. Although several surfers may have ridden one that big, including Tom Butler and McNamara, so far these have not been listed as world records. Maybe it will be Nazaré or Cortes Bank, or even some undiscovered surf break. Maybe it will be a woman such as Maya Gabeira who rode a 68 foot wave at Nazaré, five years after a disastrous wipeout.

The truth is, a 100 foot wave on Earth may simply be too fast and too big for someone to actually ride it. Of course, surfers have been down that road before: that’s what they said about Waimea Bay for years before Noll pioneered it in 1957. The truth is there is no limit to the courage of surfers, whether they can survive a wave that size or not. On Earth, we will see. On Thalassa we know the outcome.

References for Big Wave Surfing:

References for Surfing on Mars

  • Banfield, D., M. Donelan and L. Cavleri. 2015. Winds, waves and shorelines from ancient martian seas. Icarus: 368-383.
  • Choi, C. Q. 2015. Ancient Mars May Have Had Slow-moving Monster Waves. Space.com Retrieved Dec. 9, 2015.
  • Iijima, Y., K. Goto, K. Minoura, G. Komatsu and F. Imamura. 2014. Hydrodynamics of impact-induced tsunami over the Martian Ocean. Planetary and Space Science 95: 33-3
  • Nasa, 2015. NASA Research Suggests Mars Once Had More Water Than Earth’s Arctic Ocean. Nasa.gov

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