As a surfer living in Hawai’i, the “surf report” is an essential element to knowing how to plan your life(style)…or at least the week. Unlike most mainland news stations, here every channel has a surf report, even radio stations give the daily update, and most of the reporters surf. But like the weatherman predicting rain for what ends up being a sunny day or calls for sun during a thunderstorm, this science isn’t always exact. Sure, forecasting the elements is complex and includes last-minute-variables that can come into play and effect the results. But there are some forecasters who not only have a comprehension of the importance of their work -for recreational and safety purposes- but realize how many people rely on them to use every faculty at their fingertips to get it right. The most respected man in the Pacific who not only surfers, surf pros, and contest operators alike depend upon for their oceanographic answers is Swell Master and NOAA Data Center Hawai’i Liaison, Mr. Pat Caldwell, whose report Hawaiian Surf Forecast for Oahu is found on the National Weather Service’s web site (you can always find the link from CoconutGirlWireless under “Surf” in the sidebar). We were lucky enough to get a break in the swells (ha) to talk to him about his life, work, and…how exactly one ends up becoming a surf forecaster. (psst. FYI…Comments are opinions of Mr. Caldwell and do not reflect NOAA or UH viewpoints.)
Where were you born? Kentucky – I was raised on a farm that’s been in the family since 1700s.
“I am the son of a farmer, and farmers are always talking about the weather…I have weather in my blood.”
How did you end up in Hawai’i? Surfing was my main motivation to move to Hawaii and I arrived in 1987. That was before I met my wife Diana and started a family.
I noticed on your resume it stated you are related to Mark Twain. Might you go into more detail… My great-great grandmother is Betsy Clemens, Samuel Clemens’ auntie. You know how it goes when there is someone of importance in the family line – the name gets passed around like butter. I’m the lucky one of my four siblings to get Clemens as a middle name. Nice to have a sense of humor in the bloodline, it may explain my habit of writing satirical surf songs.
Do you bodyboard or surf mostly? I don’t bodyboard at all. You may have me confused with the professional bodyboarder, Pat Caldwell, who grew up on East Oahu. Surfing is my main priority for water time, but if the wind is up, I’ve been into windsurfing for 25 years and now kitesurfing for about a month.
Ever compete? I did one contest of the Eastern Surfing Association in South Carolina, and even though I did OK – I got my little statue surfer trophy – it just wasn’t my style. I’m a soul surfer. I surf fringe locations to avoid crowds.
What did you want to be when you grew up? (simply because I never hear anyone say they want to be a surf forecaster). Well, when I was a kid, I wanted to be Underdog, that funny hero dog in the 1960s cartoons. But for my realistic youthful dream, yes, I did want to be a surf forecaster from within a year of learning to surf in my early teens. My parents split, and my mom being a California beach girl, moved us to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, a few blocks from the beach, where I became an avid surfer at age 14, between 8th and 9th grade. I had been playing football but didn’t want to continue into high school because I was well below height and weight to most folks my age then. The waves are small in South Carolina, so being a small person had an advantage. Surfing became my number one pastime. Plus I liked the people who surfed – more artistic and musical with lighter attitudes on life. I didn’t do any extra-curricular activities in high school – I only surfed. It didn’t take long to tie the connection between weather and surf. On my first surf trip to the East Coast surf mecca, Cape Hatteras, at age 15, we visited the weather service office to check on surf potential. It was at that moment the light shined down on me and I started my quest to be a weather/surf professional.
How did the process evolve to get you where you are today? What is your schooling? Did you become a meteorologist first? Oceanographer? Talking with high school teachers, they said push hard with the math and science. Then when it came time to choose a college, I picked the best meteorology program in the South – Florida State University in Tallahassee – where I arrived in 1978. Forecasting skills were greatly needed there, because FSU is two hours from the Gulf and three hours to the East Coast – too far to get burned by flat surf. So watching the weather charts and forecasts was a daily ritual. Relative to South Carolina, I was scoring much better surf in Florida. At FSU, my surf buddy Rob Yonover and I used to talk about going to grad school at the University of Hawaii (UH); and we both made it and are both avid soul surfers today! I got my masters degree at FSU first, worked in Saudi Arabia a few years as a climatologist -made lots of money to let them know its hot and dry- then arrived in Hawaii. I bailed from my PhD track at UH because a great job opened up; I still have the same job today. Now my title is Oceanographer since I work closely with oceanographic data. My primary job is keeper of the measurements – ensuring all data collected in the ocean are stored safely and made readily available. Forecasting is a small part of my job, but it helps with my primary duties, since I have to ask for contributions of data from researchers. Since I share my forecasts, the researchers are more likely to share theirs. You’ve got to give in order to receive.
Did you have any “mentors” (per se)? When I got to FSU, there were no surfers in the program older than me showing me the ropes. I was pretty much figuring it out on my own. Not to say I didn’t get plenty of help from my professors, who were wonderful. If I did have to name one, it would be Dr. Raymond Staley, my first meteorology professor. He would invite all the students to his house once a year for his famous lemon chicken and always have that warm, welcome smile. It’s not only a gift of communication that is needed with teachers – they need good personalities too, and he had it. As a grad student, I took an independent course with Dr. Staley studying literature on wave forecasting.
How long have you worked for the National Weather Service? I’ve been with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) since 1987. I’m in the satellite and data branch of NOAA. The National Weather Service (NWS) is a separate branch. That’s why my forecast is titled “collaborative”, since it involves two branches of NOAA. I began doing the surf forecast with NWS in October 2002.
How much time does it take for you to compile a day’s surf forecast? With quiet patterns, it takes about 20 minutes to sort through the weather/wave products. With busy patterns in both the North and South Pacific simultaneously, it can take up to an hour. I do all this from my office via the Internet. Then I go to the NWS next door, talk over the patterns with their experts, type in the values for the table, and write up the general discussion. This part takes about an hour. So the whole ordeal can take up to two hours.
How many people might you estimate rely upon your for their surf forecasting? including other surf forecasters ? How many hits does your site get a day (avg.)? I’m not exactly sure how many hits the NWS page gets per day. I asked once and they said about 200; I think that may be per hour. When I did a surf forecast page from a UH server, I was getting about 4,000 hits a day. I’m not aware of other surf forecasters looking at my work, except for my good friend Gary Kewley of Surf News Network. (Um, CoconutGirl uses it for CGW’s temperamental Hawai’i Island “forecast” -along with observations- ’cause it gives us enough details on degrees and such to, for example, get an idea if Maui will block, etc.)
Reporting the surf includes many variables… can you explain a little about the process; what you compile to get the proper forecast? Do you ever throw in a touch of intuition, maybe when all the data you need is not on hand? I start by checking all the present conditions: surf reports, cams, buoys, and satellite wind/seas estimates. Then I study the weather charts of the most recent few days to see what is next on the horizon. Finally, I sort through all the weather and wave models to see what is out beyond a day or two and into the long range. There is an aspect of intuition. Mostly this involves memory of similar patterns or knowing weaknesses of the various weather and wave models.
And considering that kind of situation, can you bring up occasions when you were the only one who forecasted the conditions properly, or times when you were totally off? Right, a little of both – I nail some and others just totally catch me off guard. Sometimes you may call the size just right, but miss the arrival time. For example, I missed the arrival time by about six hours for that March 13, 2007 swell that lit up Waimea and outer reefs during the last few hours of light. But I did see its size potential about five days sooner and likened the pattern to a giant episode of Easter 1999 – and it turned out to be very similar.
What are variables or changes in weather patterns that can affect quick changes in forecasting abilities? Surf forecasts are really open ocean wind forecasts, since it is the wind making waves. So it’s a close watch on modeled versus measured wind, with the latter getting greater weighting in decision making. The closer the storm, the less travel time, so the less confidence in a forecast beyond the time when one can get measurements of the winds. Some storms can be within 1-2 days travel, so forecasts made prior to that have lower confidence. Forecasts are all about degrees of confidence. The highest forecast confidence is achieved when the swells roll under the buoys, which gives us about a ½ day lead time.
Why are buoys out of commission so often? How does that limit you? Who is in charge of maintenance of those? It’s actually amazing that the buoys run problem free as long as they do considering their harsh environment. No easy way around that issue – electronics don’t do well in wet, salty places. It’s expensive to service the buoys, so that is the main lag. Write your senators and let them know how important the buoys are for your wellness (surf time) and safety. It’s just a matter of allocating priority to keep them running and ideally expanding the spatial coverage. When the buoys are out, I just have to wing it as best as possible based on all the other information. There is no doubt that the buoy data are the best means to fine tune a near-term forecast. There are several groups that maintain the buoys. NOAA is the biggie with buoys 51001-4 and 51028 on the equator. UH maintains the Waimea and Kailua buoys, and soon one south of Lanai. Jerome Aucan gets most of the credit for these. He does most of the deployments and maintenance. There is another wave sensor, part of the Kilo Nalu Reef Observatory, just off Point Panic in Honolulu that is maintained by UH.
What are some of the technological changes in weather/surf forecasting since you have been involved in the process? The two biggest advancements over the past 15 years have been the arrival of estimated ocean surface winds and seas from satellites and improvements in weather and wave models.
Can you talk a little about the process of accurately measuring the height of a wave (including variables)? What’s the difference between measuring the swell and measuring the wave height? The first distinction one needs to make is between the terms “seas”, “swell”, and “surf”. Seas are the waves in the wind-generating area. These waves have varying lengths and periods, which are the distance and time intervals between successive crests, respectively. They have more peaky shapes with a random, confused pattern. Swell is the term used for waves that have left the generation zone. The seas unravel, with the wave groups with the longest wave periods traveling fastest, thus, leading the successively shorter wave period groups behind as they spread out across the ocean. Swells are more orderly, the long-lined, corduroy pants effect, because any given batch has similar wave periods and lengths. Finally, Surf is the word used for the breaking motion caused by shoaling waves, that is, waves in shallow water. In the deep ocean, buoys measure waves using the acceleration of water past the buoy. Since each passing wave causes a circular motion of a water parcel, these circles are related to the wave height and length. Fancy mathematics turns the accelerations into a wave spectra, which is the distribution of wave energy with varying wave period. Finally, statistical formulas turn the wave spectra into various quantities such as significant wave height and dominant period – the parameters most commonly found in buoy data and talked about by surfers. Surf heights are more difficult to measure. Waves break in water of similar depth so bigger waves break in deeper water. Also, waves are bending with the sea floor with differing surf heights along a given reef, so stationary instrument packages do not work well. The best available historic surf data are based on visual observations.
What was the impetus of your site being taken down in 2002 and the petition to bring you back? Any idea how many people signed it? I saw the online one with hundreds of signatures with commentary. Peter Cole wrote: “Pat Caldwell’s forecast must be brought back for the exact safety reasons sited by NWS to terminate the service.” The site was only down two weeks before they brought you back – can you explain some behind-the-scenes? Did that effect people wanting collaboration on the scaling system? How much effect did you have on that change? What were your feelings during the “controversy” of calling the wave height from the front of the wave (mainland style) instead of calling them from the back (local style)? Right, one of the primary reasons for shutting down my UH surf forecast page was because I presented surf heights as both trough-to-crest (face scale) and Hawaii scale (local scale). At that point in time NWS had adopted the face scale. NWS desired all NOAA products using the same scale for consistency, and since I used both, my page was shut down. The aftermath of shutting it down was quite shocking. This was just a casual page I did as a hobby, but tied in to my job – I had no idea how important it was to so many people. Obviously the NWS did not predict the tidal wave of furor either – who wants to sort through hundreds of angry emails and phone calls. Of course, your everyday watermen and women of Hawaii were the main users. I remember seeing the petition – thanks folks! I don’t know the head count. But there were also commercial ventures, engineering firms, coastal researchers, and transportation sectors that were using my forecast, and having been very pleased with the accuracy, were upset enough to contact their senators when it was shut down. So the ball came rolling down from above to NWS who quickly decided a compromise was needed, and the collaborative surf forecast was born. It was an emotional ordeal but I’m glad it happened, because it allowed me to officially forecast as part of my job, and dedicate time to improve the accuracy – thus it was best for everyone. I used to just forecast surf heights on the UH page, but in the collaborative forecast, I focused on forecasting the deep water, nearshore swell height, period, and direction. This required a new way of thinking. And with the new buoy off Waimea, it made it easy to validate. This led to my research on estimating surf heights based on deep water swell, and in turn, has greatly improved the accuracy. The collaborative forecast only gave deep water swell during the first two years, but after I had my research accepted by a peer-reviewed science journal, surf heights with very explicit definitions in time and space are part of the product. This publication is coming out in print this summer or next fall. The heights that are given in the collaborative forecast table are face scale, but are directly tied to Hawaii scale, in the sense that the historic Hawaii scale data were used to fine tune the formula to estimate surf from deep water values. Another aspect of my research was translating the Hawaii scale heights to face scale using photographic evidence. Assuming face height is defined as the trough to crest height at the moment of maximum cresting at the highest portion of the wave front for waves in zones of high refraction, or basically the highest surf spots for the given wave direction, then the translation is a factor of two for the full range of wave heights in Hawaii, given a 20% margin of error. So when you look at the collaborative forecast table and want to translate to Hawaii scale, just divide by two.
Do you think that’s helped tourists be more cautious? No. Tourists are by and large ocean clueless; they don’t need numbers. Plus many are coming from countries that use metric and don’t translate quickly from feet. They just need to know if a given beach is safe enough to swim. Color code is the best way to go, that is green GO, yellow CAUTION, red STOP, etc., which is already being employed by a project of the Honolulu Water Safety Division and UH researchers. See Oahu Beach Hazard.
Did that inspire you to write “The Validity of North Shore Oahu Surf Observations” in The Journal of Coastal Research? Right, that paper was the starting point for doing surf research – we need data on the surf. The best available set was the visual observations made by surfers for surfers in the Hawaii scale. But how valid are they? That was the focus of the paper. I compared the surf observations to buoy data. The results showed the Hawaii scale observations are consistent over time with about a 15% margin of error. The paper also presents the North Shore surf climatology based on the 1968-2002 data set. The publishers sells copies online. See a link from my website: www.ilikai.soest.hawaii.edu/HILO/.
Do you feel a responsibility to get the info to the surfers? to people enjoying the ocean safely? It’s a good karma thing – surfing gave me my livelihood – I’m stoked to give back.
What’s one or two of the most gnarly situations you’ve gotten yourself into in the water? When I was in high school and was used to small fry South Carolina waves, I went to the Bahamas over Christmas break. A giant swell came in, likely around 8-12 Hawaii scale, breaking on outer reefs. I borrowed a gun, which was a 7’2”, a gun relative to the trend at the time of the late ’70s with those round-shaped twin fins. I was the only one that made it through the shore break. I paddled all the way to the outer reef, about a mile out, and got clobbered by a clean-up set. It snapped the leash. When I came to the surface, I had to knock away all the floating foam to breath. I saw the tip of my fin above the foam about 20 yards away and raced to it, bear hugging it just in time to get swallowed by another round of breakers. I held on and the next thing I knew I was going down the face at the middle break. I stood up and rode awhile before it backed off in deep water. I made it back to shore and was hero for the day. The fearless days of youth. When I got to Hawaii in my late 20s, I slowly worked my way up to bigger waves, but those fearless days of youth were pau. I’m in the mortal realm, i.e. I like the typical 4-8 Hawaii scale range. I’ve had some hairy moments in the mortal realm though, like getting caught inside on a big day in front of a mysto windward side shallow reef, and somehow going over the reef to the inside channel, then looking seaward and seeing that reef go dry. The hands of God carried me to safety, give thanks!
Did you ever ignore your own “high surf” kinds of warnings? When traveling are you ever frustrated not able to get decent forecast of waters you’re visiting? I’m a lot more careful in my adult years about staying in my size boundary. During warning conditions, I leave the giant stuff to the likes of Clark Abbey and Ian Masterson, my big wave hero friends – and I surf around the corner where the waves are smaller. These days when you travel, as long as you can find an Internet café, which is easy enough, even in small fishing villages of northern Peru, you can get the wave model products and make a good enough forecast.
Any funny anecdotes about the North Shore: old days to now – how it’s changed? I’ve always liked less crowded places and certainly select sections in country that used to be quiet on weekends can now be zoos even on weekdays. Sure ain’t funny! But Oahu has so many breaks thankfully, always a plan B. The Kam Hwy along the North Shore between Haleiwa and Sunset is choked on weekends – wasn’t that way a decade ago except on giant swells. It is a fight to keep country country – like that issue with the massive Turtle Bay expansion now – write your representatives and get that nonsense stopped! See Keep The North Shore Country (and scroll down to check out my “Keep the Country Country” anthem).
Who are your favorite surfers? Who do you enjoy watching and who do you enjoy paddling out with? I live in Kailua and surf with the windward folks mostly – Jeff Cotter, Tom Deir, Kaleo Ahina, to name a few. My surfing circle of friends stays small because I don’t like to show up at a break with more than one, well at most two people. It’s one of the downsides of soul surfing – if you make it too social, then the line-up is too cluttered, and you can’t satisfy your soul. I’ll save the socializing dry dock time. My favorite surfers to watch are Keala Kennely, Iron Bros., Slater, Betheny Hamilton, Jamie O’Brien, Melanie Bartels, to name a few. I make it to most of the big pro contests on Oahu – I like watching all the surfers rip it up. It’s especially fun to take note of the up-and-coming shredders.
What are your favorite spots to surf? Mysto windward side spots. A few other off-the-path country spots. You won’t see me in the pack, unless I’ve got a visitor who wants to surf the big name place.
What does the ocean/surfing do for you, personally? It’s the combination of the physical and mental. I like a good work-out and the only regular exercise I get is through surfing, wind/kite surfing, or wave-skiing. Nothing like the thrill of making a drop and seeing the wall line up, or catching the breeze with a sail/kite and feeling the acceleration. The experience stimulates the senses. I thinks it’s tied to my keiki time growing up on a farm, when I would get a rush just by running through a wide open field – the colors, smells, textures. Same-same in the water – especially with light and waves every changing – just can’t get enough.
Will you continue indefinitely with your surf forecasting for Hawai’i? Any other projects (extracurricular) that you are involved with and want to promote? I’ll be doing the NWS forecast until I retire from NOAA at 58 and ½ (just over a decade to go). Likely I’ll do it as a consultant low-key style after that. I’m still doing surf research with two papers now being prepared for an upcoming wave forecast workshop at Turtle Bay in November 2007 (“8th International Workshop on Wave Hindcasting and Forecasting“). One paper focuses on South Shore surf climatology and a special technique using buoy data for estimating the Shore Shore surf size. The second paper looks at how often and for what duration do extreme swell and Spring high tides coincide on North Shores. I get great pleasure doing the research.
Do you have any conservancy/environmental concerns regarding the ocean? Yes, we don’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Nature is a delicate balance with each living thing big or small having an important role – that leads directly to the well-being of all flora and fauna, including humans. Ecosystems need to be monitored and protected. I’m proud to work with NOAA that makes this objective their mission and I support various environmental initiatives. I’m certainly a major fan of Jack Johnson and give him mega praise for his Kokua Foundation.
Thanks so much for your time Pat! A Hui Ho, Cheers!
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If you’d like to meet Pat in person and don’t know his secret surf spots, check him out August 21st at The Science Café presentation of “Cowbunga! Surf-stoked Science with Pat Caldwell” at Oahu’s Bishop Museum. As Pat explains, “They have this massive sphere about 10 feet in diameter that rotates and upon which images can be projected, such as global cloud patterns or output from global wave models. We’re doing a case study of the giant surf that hit on the First Annual North Shore Tow-in Championship – Super Bowl Sunday, 2006. Important weather and wave products will be shown with a discussion on how the forecast was made. Xtreme TV (Zon3.com) is donating some footage of the Tow contest.” Admission is free but reservations are required: email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 808/847-8203. Check out the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology and the Bishop Museum website for more details.