The Science Behind The Sand Behind Sandy: The Garden State’s Run of All-time Waves

Between “Superstorm” Sandy and New Year’s, the East Coast experienced a run of swell that will probably become Tri-state lore. Yes, the window of opportunity was unusually lengthy. Yes, the Mayan calendar was involved. But the main reason why we’ll be talking about Dirty Jerz’s “Doomsday swell” and its siblings for years to come is that when they hit the ravaged coastline, they turned into immaculate, occasionally monstrous waves. Waves for days, you might even say. The likes of which haven’t been seen around here in, well, possibly ever. Some may call it divine justice, but it’s more like environmental recompense: It turns out that there’s scientific evidence that Sandy is actually behind the Right Coast’s firing good fortune.

“That swell before Christmas (the “Doomsday swell”), I think that might have been the best I’ve ever seen Bay Head [New Jersey],” says Billabong rider (and local legend) Sam Hammer. “There was like a four-hour period there where I’d never seen it consistently that size with the shape it had. And it wasn’t getting smaller. That just… doesn’t happen,” he laughs. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen it look like that.”

Sam says every five minutes, another bombing set rolled through. “And it wasn’t just breaking on one jetty or another,” he continues. “It was breaking [throughout] the whole state. And then the following swell, which was a few days after Christmas, it was smaller, but it felt bigger because there was more water moving. It was a lot heavier. For the first three hours, people were just getting launched–not making anything. I had a few [nasty wipeouts].”

New Jersey’s Clay Pollioni thought he was going to have a gruesome wipeout himself on the day the world was alleged to end. Instead, he ended up with one hell of an epic photo and a legitimate candidate for Jersey wave of the winter–if not decade. Slate-green water modeling itself after Backdoor Pipeline. Double overhead and clean.

“I remember paddling as hard as I could and thinking, ‘This thing is gunna pinch,’ as it bottomed out,” he says, “but it stayed open. There were so many good ones. Wave after wave, three to four-wave sets! Some of the most perfect 6 to 8-foot Jersey I’ve seen.”

Clay nabbed a 60 Seconds feature on Surfline for another flawless barrel a few weeks later.

New York-based photographer Matt Clark (of Quiksilver Pro New York poster fame) drove down for both major holiday swells. He drove home with Ansel Adamsy proof that New Jersey cleans up nice. “I wanted to practice shooting water shots in the biggest, best surf possible,” he says. Powerful drift aside, he says “swimming around out there didn’t raise any concerns, though the following swell, on December 27th, I saw a telephone pole with lots of metal hanging off of it in the lineup.”

With 15 years of experience in the area, Clark says he’s seen waves like this “many times before in New Jersey,” but he concedes that “this swell was a pretty good one on my scale.”

“It looked like a really good day at Puerto [Escondido],” Hammer says. “You don’t see too many days that are that perfect anywhere in the world.”

According to Dr. Cheryl Hapke at the U.S. Geological Survey, we can thank that heartless broad, Sandy, for the slew of ridiculous, if exotic, surf. With everything Sandy devoured, she, at least, decided to leave us with a more agreeable sea floor.

Dr. Hapke, who I like because she talks about beaches as if they’re humans, with preferences and emotions, has been working with the United States Geological Survey for 15 years, and has spent the last eight on the East Coast of the U.S.. Her research focuses on barrier islands.

“What generally happens during extreme storms like Sandy is that the sand in the nearshore area (including the nearshore bar) gets moved into a flatter profile and material is also transported into deeper water,” Hapke explains. “The cleaner waves are likely due to the smoother, deeper profile that exists right now (and may persist through the winter storm season).”

She points out that the way in which Sandy affected the sea floor is distinct from your everyday sand movement, or even hurricane-level sandbar dynamics, because it was just so incredibly powerful. “Sandy was such a big storm, and it was such a long duration storm, that it caused a lot more displacement of material than anything that we have–in recorded history, really.”

In places like Hawaii, where the waves travel long distances in deep water and then suddenly hit a shelf, they break with notable ferocity. Sandbar systems in places like New Jersey slow the waves and cause them to break earlier. “When you don’t have that, they come into shore much more quickly,” Hapke explains. “So yeah, that could equate to being stronger.”

During the winter months, the beaches are broken down anyway, before rebuilding in the summer. This summer, it may take longer for the sand that’s been dragged out to sea to return to the beach. “Some of it may have been pulled so deep that there’s no way it’ll come back on its own,” Dr. Hapke says. So, Jersey folks could be seeing can’t-believe-it’s-not-Cali waves for a while yet to come.

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