Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Memory of a nearshore freaque wave encounter in 1963

I was privileged to talk on the phone this morning to a retired gentleman, Michael Varvel. He told me a fascinating encounter with nearshore freaque waves in Pt. Conception, CA in 1963 when he was 14 years old. Not able to quickly jot down down what he was telling me, I asked him to write it up and email me the whole story which he kindly and promptly accommodated. I sincerely appreciate his willingness to share his memory with us. Here is his story:
As you know the scientific community and the world at large are now more accepting of the old sailor's tales of waves reaching 30-40 m in height. It's almost asking too much to believe that water could be piled up that high given its nature, but yet, I personally experienced a freak wave of this magnitude in 1963.

At the age of 14, we were living in the Lompoc, California, a small seaside community 5 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Fishing ,surfing, and other general contact with the ocean, where, and almost daily occurrences due to our proximity to the ocean. Of particular interest to my father and me, was collection of abalone at Point Conception, California. Since we are not scuba divers, these were collected off the rocks at low tide and the lower the tide, the bigger the abalone it seemed. This was quite an adventure for a 14-year-old teenager, have to scale cliffs climb down rickety ladders that shouldn't have held us at all. Then spend the day collecting abalone in 50 pound potato sacks and have to bring them back up the same dangerous cliffs and rickety ladders.

On this particular spring day in 1963, we are doing what I've already mentioned when my father who is a sailor noticed on the horizon what appeared to him to be a rather large wave. My father instantly warn me to hightail it to higher ground as he felt this way it was uncommon in size and that we were in grave danger. Me being a kid, I ducked into a hole thinking that I'd be protected. My father, thank God for his wisdom, reached and grab me by the hair and pulled me out of the hole. With no emergency in his voice. He pushed me and prodded me up the cliffside till we were as high as we could possibly get, in an effort to get out of harm's way.

Please remember that this was occurring at low tide, meaning that the water was probably 15 to 20 feet lower than normal at this point in time. We had a fishing partner with us, who was on the other side of the cliff when my father yelled to him to get out of harm's way. Instead of going to higher ground, he opted to go down to the beach and scrambled to the highest point of the beach, where beach meets Cliff. Just as we reached what my father felt was a safe area, we turned to look and watch the wave as it broke.

The point upon which we are standing at its lowest is approximately 80 to 90 feet above sea level, at slack tide. So by dead reckoning, we were actually somewhere between 90 and 100 feet above the sea level. I actually witnessed with my own eyes, this wave break over the surface of the cliff, and watched with amazement and fear as the Tower of water crashed down upon our fishing buddy on the beach. For what seemed an eternity, we lost sight of him. Then, as the wave ebbed, we saw him some 20 to 30 yards further down the beach lying in the sand completely drenched. His tackle box and fishing gear gone, his string of fish gone, but his life spared.

I've kept this memory with me for all of these years without sharing, because I didn't feel that this was something that was of interest. But then the current wave of interest that's generated on the Discovery Channel and science Channel have brought the recollection of this incident to the fore - front of my mind. I doubt I shall ever see another freak wave occurrence such as the one I have described, and quite honestly hope never to again. After everything is settled back to normal, and we resumed our abalone harvesting and fishing, my father pointed out the hole to me that I had climbed into and noted that it was now full of water 8 feet deep. Thank goodness I hadn't stayed in there I would most likely have been washed out to sea.
Here's the GoogleEarth image he sent along to show where the encounter took place:I don't think anyone would ever have any doubt about what had happened to Mike, his father, and their friend on that spring day in 1963. Thank God everyone survived so that Mike can now recall it vividly and tell us the story 44 years later. Probably because it is a happy ending case, it did not become a news item and life goes on. As the old tree-fall riddle goes: "If a tree falls in a forest with no one to hear it, then does it make a sound?" The answer is most certainly a yes! But it still needs someone around to tell the story. We can reasonably surmise that it is likely this kind of nearshore freaque wave event happens more frequently than we expect. When it happens while there are people around, results could be hazardous imperilment that needs rescue efforts or even tragic and gets into news. Or it can be just a frightening, nightmarish encounter so only those who were there during the encounter know and remember. What we'll never know, however, is how often it happens when there is no one around. At any rate when a tree falls in the forest, there will always be sound whether or not there's any one around to hear it. The moral of this story is still to let everyone beware, whereever or whenever around the edge of the ocean, watch out for the freaque waves!


For those of us who are not familiar with Pt. Conception, I found this satellite image of a section of the California coast. Pt. Conception is located around 34-34-38N and 120-39-06W where the primary direction of the coastline abruptly shifts from north-south to east-west. The image shows clearly the upwelling of cool, presumably nutrient-rich waters around the point – where abalone will be plentiful there.

And the following are two scenic views of the light house of Pt. Conception from this site that tells us all about Pt. Conception:

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