Sunday, June 24, 2001

A surfer sailed through one of the big waves at Sunset Beach in 1998.

Isle converts
to global
wave measures

Wave heights taken from
the front go against the
traditional method
of measure

By Greg Small
Associated Press

You'd think that when it comes to surfers bragging about their prowess, the bigger the waves the better.

But not here in Hawaii, where one out of every 10 people surf and, in a sort of reverse-machismo, surfers traditionally report wave sizes smaller than elsewhere.

While the rest of the world rides five-footers, those same size waves in Hawaii would be dismissed as three-footers.

"They'd say 10 feet Hawaii size, which means 15 feet if you're from New Jersey," said Randy Rarick, executive director of Hawaii's Triple Crown of Surfing and regional director of the Association of Surfing Professionals.

"You're downplaying it to downplay the seriousness of it," said Rarick, who's also association vice president.

But wave size is taken seriously by the National Weather Service, which had to contend with wave height observations reported by island surfers and lifeguards that consistently fell short of forecast predictions.

The problem: Scientists and surfers were using different methods to measure the height of waves.

The weather service forecasts are based on the international standard of full-face value, measured from the trough in front of the wave to the top of the wave crest, said Robert Kelly, weather service director of operations in Hawaii.

But when Hawaiian surfers look at a wave across the water, they calculate from median sea level to the crest.

"Hawaii had a uniquely local system," Kelly said.

An estimated 120,000 islanders engage in surfing and similar activities, such as bodyboarding. The surfing association in Hawaii has 150 active members at the pro level and 1,200 members at the amateur level.

The wave reporting system changed in April, when the weather service finally convinced observers to report the full-face value of waves, but surfers aren't entirely giving up their laid-back assessment.

Surf forecasts issued by the weather service were reworded to take the change into account: "Forecast surf heights are estimates of the height of the face or front of waves. This may be up to twice the surf heights traditionally reported in Hawaii."

Will the change mar the macho image of Hawaii's sun-drenched surfers?

"Most surfers shrug it off and go, 'Whatever,"' Rarick said. "As a long-time North Shore surfer and resident, I have to scoff a little bit."

Oahu's North Shore, home of the famed Banzai Pipeline and Sunset Beach, is where the best surfers from around the world gather each year for the three surf meets that comprise the Triple Crown.

Rarick said Triple Crown officials will go along with the change, but won't completely abandon local tradition. Competitors will be told, for example, that waves will be 8 to 12 feet high with a 15- to 18-foot face, he said.

One surfer, who asked not to be identified, lamented the change officialdom has imposed on Hawaii's laid-back surfing community.

"The culture has been assaulted," said the surfer, who's been riding Hawaii's waves since the 1960s. "It's been an adjustment for the surfers, and they're laughing."

Ralph Goto, Oahu's Ocean Safety Division administrator, stressed that estimating the height of incoming waves isn't an exact science, because a lot depends on whether the observer is in a lifeguard tower, on the beach or in the water.

"No matter how you call it, it's subjective," Goto said.

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