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History of Surfing Blog

WAVE SCIENTIST WILLARD BASCOM: MINING DIAMONDS, BEATING CANCER, DROPPING KNOWLEDGE

March 15, 2017

Big-wave pioneer Wally Froiseth knew better, but told this story anyway. “In the mid-’30s, when I was 15 years old, they were going to have a surf contest at Waikiki. The first day the waves were too small, so they brought a Kahuna down to the beach, right in front of the old Outrigger Canoe Club. I watched while he chanted and beat the water with pohuehue [morning glory] vines late in the evening. The next day we had First Break waves and the contest was on and a great success.”

Froiseth, an eminently practical man, chief of the Pearl Harbor Fire Department, believer in science, one of first surfers to know his way around a millibar chart, liked the whipping-vine story for the same reason any of us would—it puts some voodoo into the sport. Makes the sport more than a sport, in fact. We want that mystery, that esoterica, that hookup to God or Lono or whoever. Arise, arise ye great surfs! Well up, long raging surf!

We were stubborn on this point. Very stubborn. Held on way past when we should have let it go.

Tom Blake gets a pass, of course. Trying to figure out waves in the Depression, before weather satellites, before ships could beam storm info back to shore—that’s a tall order. A wave in the 1930s was an effect with no visible cause. Blake took his best shot. “The wind has nothing to nothing to do with big surf,” he wrote in his 1935 book Hawaiian Surfboard. “Big surf seems to be caused by disturbances in the earth, such as earthquakes. Great swells are started from the place of the quake and travel just as ripples travel to the edge of a pond when a stone is cast in. A few days before a recent big surf, newspapers carried daily reports of earthquakes in Japan, Italy and elsewhere. Prior to this, the bay at Waikiki was like a millpond. But overnight it changed and for four days we had some fine surf-riding.”

You get where Blake’s coming from. Maybe not the part about Italian earthquake surf in Hawaii. But the idea of tremblers creating surf . . . that must have felt right in 1935.

Ron Drummond, the well-bearded canoe surfer of Dana Point, had the same idea. “Local earthquakes undoubtedly have a great effect on the size of the waves,” Drummond wrote in his 1931 booklet The Art of Wave Riding. “During the Venice earthquake of September, 1930, the waves were unusually large along the Southern California coast.” (A bit further down the page, however, Drummond allows that “large ground swells may [also] be the result of a bad storm many miles distant.”)

Jump ahead 25 years, and Lord Gallo, the college-educated surfer in Gidget, puts a nuclear spin on wave formation. “With all those H-bomb blasts you get them [big waves] more often.”

So there we were, all us First Boom surfers, multiplying like fruit flies in the 1950s and ’60s, some of us maybe kinda understanding that open ocean storms cause waves, some crossing their fingers and waiting for a 7-something Richter event in Japan, or another Bikini Atoll blast. “Most surfers,” Surf Guide magazine noted in 1963, with what to me sounds like a sad hint of resignation, “are unaware of what waves really are or how they originate.”

Willard Bascom, Scripps oceanographer, did more than anybody to change changed that. Bascom himself didn’t do the heavy lifting in terms of figuring out how waves are formed, how they travel, and how they react to the coastline—Walter Munk, “Einstein of the Oceans” and Bascom’s wave-science collegue, was the main figure there. (Munk, by the way, turns 100 this October—raise a glass.) But Bascom brought the word down from Science Mountain. He explained waves to the rest of us—surfers, boaters, fishermen, anyone fascinated by the ocean. Bascom’s Waves and Beaches: the Dynamics of the Ocean Surface, published in 1964, laid everything out in reasonably clear language: storms, wave height, period, orbital motion, reflection, refraction, the whole show in all its energy-transporting glory. A bit steep at $1.45 in paperback, granted. Not a page-turner, and not much use in terms of forecasting, as weather satellites weren’t in play yet. But any surfer who read Waves and Beaches could keep that vine-swinging hoodoo in his mind the same way he might keep a rabbit’s foot in his pocket—just for fun—and meanwhile stake his wave-making belief in hard science. Best of both worlds.

Bascom himself, meanwhile, was a man in full. Wrote poetry, made movies, painted. Worked as a Colorado miner. Drank wine and talked late into the night with John Steinbeck and biologist-philosopher Ed Ricketts. Found a sunken galleon or two. Dug around the ocean floor for the De Beers company and pulled up 20 million carats’ worth of diamonds. In the early ’50s, after he was diagnosed with bone cancer, Bascom self-administered radiation at a level higher than any human had ever intentionally absorbed. Suffered horribly, but took out the disease, and lived another 48 years. Bascom pissed off first wave Los Angeles environmentalists in the ’70s and ’80s, not without reason, after saying DDT and PCB levels in Santa Monica Bay at that time were acceptable. Then followed up by claiming the local sea life was better off for the LA’s lack of secondary sewage treatment facilities. Offshore discharge outlets, as Bascom saw it, were basically fish buffets. “You’re putting food out,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “You’re feeding animals.”

But let’s get back to waves. Let’s tip our hat to the man who shined a light of science into our semi-atavistic little backwater—and then had to grace to acknowledge that his field of study had so much to do with the spirit. “The inner peace that comes with the quiet contemplation of a beach on a still calm morning,” Bascom wrote at the conclusion of Waves and Beaches, “or the feeling of exhilaration that comes from riding a great wave in a small boat, is more reward than most men ever know. Every wave is a masterpiece of originality. It will ever be so. Go and see.”

[Thank you to surf historian Malcolm Gault-Williams and Legendary Surfers]

  • George Chin

    Thanks so much for this backstory gem. I just happened to stumble across a copy of Waves and Beaches a few months ago and although a very science and data heavy read, it is your backstory that really shines light on this guy.

    • Matt Warshaw

      Bascom deserves a way longer piece than I did here. You can find some obits online, they’re worth checking out!