Big Clean Swell at Gibson Steps

A storm deep in the Southern Ocean created swell which quietly arrived on the west coast of Victoria on Monday. It was not a keenly anticipated swell event. Swell was forecast, but not in the exceptional category. Monday was a cloudless autumn day and a gentle offshore wind was working its magic on the ocean. The current closure of the Twelve Apostles lookout and visitor centre and the pandemic travel restrictions took care of the traffic one might otherwise expect on the Great Ocean Road on such a day, and it was all but deserted. We didn’t expect to see any swell out of the ordinary, and indeed Apollo Bay was without swell when we left.

But Castle Cove was indicating the presence of a some swell and excited our optimism about conditions further west. But it was not until we stopped at Gibson Steps that it became clear that this day the planets had truly aligned.

The swell at Gibson Steps on Monday morning

Not satisfied with the faint lines of swell to the horizon and the waves of consequence breaking well offshore at Gibson Steps, we drove on to check out Two Mile from the clifftops hoping for bigger things. But it was not to be. A couple of surfers had paddled out at Third Reef and were floating and paddling around in swell but the break was not firing. A jet ski and surfer had come out from Pt Campbell to Two Mile to find similar regular swell lines. But they gave it away after a lot of circles, parking and a couple of swims in clear water and swell that failed to reach the size required to light up Two Mile.

So after an enjoyable half hour swim in the bay at Port Campbell and lunch on the foreshore in cool air under blue skies, we headed back towards Apollo Bay planning to check the swell at Gibson Steps on the way home. This is what we saw. Ruler-straight swell lines to the horizon, and it had built since the morning.

The afternoon swell

A bit of rainbow action on the right hand end of the spray.
Close-out.

The Gibson Steps neighbourhood

The Twelve Apostles photographed through the anticyclonic haze from 11kms away. Gibson Steps is to the right of frame in this image.

The second image shows the point at the eastern end of Gibson Steps beach. All the wave photos in the post were taken looking about ninety degrees to the right of the direction in which this photo was taken.

Locals on the beach at Gibson Steps

Sooty oyster catcher possibly feeling on the outer of this group of silver gulls on Gibson Steps beach.

Foam ball

When a wave breaks and forms a barrel, the airborne spray and white water deep inside the barrel can be expelled forcefully with the air as the wave collapses. Surfers call it a foam ball.

Sizing up the swell

The swell showed no signs of fading while we were there.
We were lamenting that there wasn’t a surfer or two out there to give a scale reference for these mighty waves.
Then there was. A solitary local surfer drove into the car park and without delay got into his wettie and headed down the stairs and straight into the water. He too had given away Two Mile. He told me he had spotted a left at Gibson Steps directly out from the stair case on the cliff which he thought would be worth the paddle out. It turned out he was right. Surfers have a distinct preference with waves of this size for paddling over them before they break. Getting caught inside by a breaking wave of this size can result in lengthy hold downs, being carried some distance underwater, being pushed back towards shore and getting a general flogging under water. Surfers can duck dive under a breaking wave while on a surfboard and reduce the extent to which they are pushed back. But there are limits to the size of wave where a good result from duck diving is guaranteed.
This surfer repeatedly appeared to just make it over large waves that were about to break. So much so in fact that I was forced to conclude that it wasn’t luck, but the benefit of water knowledge and experience that I was witnessing. I didn’t see him caught inside once or needing to duck dive under a single wave. He seemed to always be in just the right spot.
A combination of his paddling speed and the crest of the wave starting to break just as he reached it saw him pop through the top of this wave to clear water beyond (or at least to the next wave) as shown.
Up at the eastern end of Gibson Steps this left was working with mechanical precision. I have seen it surfed, but not on this day. The next photo was taken a few seconds after this one.
This is the same wave breaking with its peeling long left going unridden and with white water exploding back up above the height of the unbroken wave.
Taking the drop on one of the earlier rides. This surfer caught a number of well chosen waves, and rode them all with style and finesse. In my humble view he was a talented surfer, completely at home surfing solo in these waves of consequence at this wild and remote location. Gibson Steps is fully exposed to the swell which powers in from the roaring forties in the Southern Ocean.
Building up speed as the crest of the wave starts to break ahead of him.
A sizeable wave threatening to break on the surfer. He made it over this one too.
Timing it perfectly, the surfer reaches the top of the wave just as it starts to break, and pushes through the lip easily to keep paddling. Had the wave looked like breaking on him, he would have duck dived under it with his board, as deep as he could, to minimise the impact of the wave.
Looking quite relaxed between waves in the middle of a solid set.
Looking a bit interested in the wave starting to lift him. But he rejected this one and took one a few waves later. It was a good choice.
This seems as good a photo as any as a basis for offering a view on just how high these waves were. Surfers use a measuring system which consistently understates the height of waves. Two big wave surfers I spoke to separately at Gibson Steps told me with straight faces that this surf was ‘solid 8 foot’. The surfer in this photo is about 6 feet tall….
I measure wave height from the lip to the flat water just in front of the wave. This is the distance a surfer about to take the drop when catching a wave would fall if he came unstuck. I have looked closely at the photos on this post and using the surfer as my measure, my view is that the faces of many of these waves were over 20 feet.

The wave of the session (sequence of 8 photos)

The drop.
Building up speed.
A good look at this powerful turn off the lip of the wave

The three photos on the left show the turn as seen through the telephoto lens from the shore. The photos on the right are cropped details to show the turn up close.

The speed with which he entered this turn can be gauged by the angle of his board, which has the rail buried as he tightens the turn. Centrifugal force is sticking him to the deck of his board.

Stylish completion of this radical turn throwing spray high into the air
What a spectacular turn. I’d score this ride a 10 on the basis of this turn alone.
All these wave photos were taken from the lookout at Gibson Steps, using a Nikon D810 and a 150-600mm Sigma Sports telephoto lens. The surfer was a long way offshore. The water’s edge was not an option because it wasn’t much closer horizontally than the cliff tops, and the waves were of a size that meant from sea level I couldn’t see anything past the closest breaking wave.

Returning to shore

After the waves break well offshore, white water, waves, chop and currents are generated as the waves’ energy dissipates further over the reefs, channels and sandbars in the final 300+m of the journey to shore. Transport for a surfer from the end of his last ride to shore is basically a matter of taking anything and everything on offer, as shown.

The footprints show where he stopped, unhurried, and turned to have a look out to sea. I had a chat to him and didn’t get the impression this was a standout session by his standards. I suppose with his experience on breaks like Gibson Steps and Two Mile, this is understandable.
Respect.

The Glenaire Valley

The natural wonders of Gibson Steps and the surrounding coast and ocean do not overshadow the contrasting quiet beauty of the rich hinterland. This is the Aire River flowing through the Glenaire Valley after a period of good rain. It’s just starting to spill over its banks. This location is only a short distance from the coast about 25kms west of Apollo Bay and only a couple of kms from Castle Cove.

[With the exception of the photo of the Twelve Apostles, which was taken in the morning all photos are posted in the order in which they were taken.]

3 thoughts on “Big Clean Swell at Gibson Steps

    1. Thanks Georgie. Yes, you guessed correctly. I did have a chat to the surfer before and after he paddled out. I’ll send him a few of the highlight shots. He’s a local surfer and as I said in one of the captions I got the impression from talking to him that this session was nothing out of the ordinary for him. But he seemed to like the idea of seeing a few photos of this session.

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