Nick Carroll On: The Flat Spell

16 Aug 2018 5 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Photo: Nick Carroll

Photo: Nick Carroll

COASTALWATCH | NICK CARROLL

It’ll drive you crazy, but it always ends. I hope.

It’s fucked up when the one thing that most feels like freedom to you is the thing that has you most trapped.

Oh dear, that sounds like something on social media doesn’t it.

Fact is we’re trapped in an epic flat spell.

“We” being almost any surfer between Gabo Island and the Goldie, with plenty of outliers, I suspect.

I know I am not the only one of us who in recent weeks has been through the classic flat spell phases. First you take your board out of the car because what’s the point. Then you drop back on the surf checks because, again, what is the point. Your wetsuit actually dries.

Then the dreams begin. I used to have surfing dreams a lot when I was a kid, mostly dreams about things I couldn’t do yet but imagined were possible, or about sharks, or surfboards.

I connect these dreams to the worst flat spell of my young surfing life, the winter of 1979. A year that started just fine, lots of east and nor-east swells, a couple of storms, a couple of early winter southerlies, then… nothing. The whole of July went past unbroken. Light winds turned westerly, began to turn south-westerly, then died. Six weeks of nothing. It was a hazy violent time; the few of my mates who had a semi act enough to go overseas could count themselves lucky to have missed some of it. One of ’em went to Grajagan for three weeks and we hated him until about 1983.

It was a learning time too, though. When a four-foot close range southerly swell finally broke through the haze, we were amazed to find there were no sandbanks left anywhere. All the sand had been wafted in by the tiny movements of a near-flat coastline; the only waves you could surf were on reefs.

I remember we almost couldn’t surf anyway, but we completely did not care. We went at it in shifts all day in that first swell, until we could surf again. It was the first time I remember seeing every local surfer at my spot, old or young, smiling — not just smiling, but smiling at each other. We knew exactly how we all felt.

It’d be a cliche to say flat spells test you. I don’t even know if it’s true. I know some of my friends are severely affected, Surf-Hangry you might say, but I bet quite a few surfers are secretly enjoying the time out. Maybe they are getting shit done that might otherwise not be done. Maybe they’ve gone down the snow, or to Indonesia. Maybe they don’t surf that much anyway. What I know for sure is that it fucks up my productivity. The time and space occupied by surfing in my mind and body can’t easily be leaked over and used for something else. It’s the part of me that wants just to surf, and if it can’t, well, it just sorta sits, a glass half-empty from which I can’t drink.

Not everyone is like that, I know. Flat spells can drive you crazy, but the memories of them can lead to crazy shit. A few days back I posted a pic of flat eastern Oz. I didn’t know what to say, so I called it an “embarrassment”. A great surfer called Charlie Kuhn, formerly of Florida and now of Central America, posted in reply: “Grow up in Florida and you’ll know what a flat spell really means!” A few days after that, Kelly Slater posted a follow-up: “ha ha ha what Charlie’s said. Welcome to my childhood!” Those Florida flat spells and Kelly’s dreams fell through the decades and landed right in Lemoore, California, where at that very moment, as he posted, Kelly was hosting a get-together of his old Florida buddies for an all day session at his $40 million miracle. Flat spells made him long for a wave so badly he ended up building one.

Yet flat spells are worth watching, just in themselves. You can do that — watch the air masses parading around the globe, spraying surf in every direction but this one. The upper-air bump in the westerly stream above the Southern Ocean, the thing they call the Long Wave Trough, takes around 40 days to move all the way around the world. It’s pretty much a guaranteed south swell in late winter, but in between, there’s no guarantee at all, and some years, you get what’s been happening here: deep storms in the far Indian Ocean, moving east under Australia, then subsiding as they travel past Tassie. Over eastern Australia, cool dry air sits undisturbed, slowly warming as the sun returns, yet drawing no moisture from the continent, because there’s no moisture left. Drought and flat spell lock together and lock us out.

Something like that must’ve happened in 1979. It sorta matches: 40 days is almost six weeks. But you couldn’t watch air masses at the time. All you could do was wait for it to end.

It did — end that is. So will this one. But it better not take six weeks.

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