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On the Bubble

Detailing wave energy and tube exit strategies.

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It’s been a fascinating period, such that I have been afforded one of life’s most precious gifts: time. And with that time, I’ve been able to explore my most consuming passion: waves. Specifically those of the hollow variety.

To enjoy that passion, I went on numerous solo bodysurfing sessions at a shorebreak near my home in Hawaii. While observing breaking waves and musing on the infinite forms of their kinetic energy, I was taken down a rabbit hole the likes of which I had not experienced in my 50-plus years of sliding around in the surf. Inquisitive by nature, I can become engrossed with discovering how things work. So I began recording these sessions in an attempt to un-blur the line between how I imagined barrels functioned, and how they functioned in reality. 

The rabbit hole only grew deeper after closely inspecting one photo in particular, which clearly showed a vortice, or the tubule under a wave created by the impacting lip. Then I began noticing them in other shots, made visible by the lensing effect of the radiused lip and trench transition. Though I could clearly see where the vortices ended up, I couldn’t quite make out where they originated. My thinking was that if the lip creates the vortice, then the beginning of this should also be visible from inside the tube. But this was not the case. The answers lie somewhere beyond the lip. 

To explore this idea, I had to shoot from under the lip, a location that proved to be precarious. With each subsequent session and additional imagery, however, more curiosities were raised than the photos answered. After experimenting with entirely new angles, I was able to record enough footage to come up with some answers. The intricacies of a breaking wave became clear in a way that was a revelation to me, despite the decades of time spent studying them intimately. 

Fig. 2


On a typical peeling wave, you can utilize the side-wave-like effect of the shock wave to project you forward. But in a closeout, there is rarely a benefit to gaining forward momentum. 

There is an opportunity, however, to exit a barrel through the back side of the trench. To access it, you must first navigate the tube-trench transition. This is done by overcoming the shock wave, perhaps the most dangerous and difficult part of the wave to transcend. Many injuries, some fatal, are believed to be the result of this unsuspecting oncoming wake, especially on waves too deep to make when surfers are bucked off their craft and into the ceiling of a barrel and then thrust to the bottom. If you are able to anticipate the buck, you can slow down and negotiate the shock wave, or at least be aware of it and utilize it to fall in a more controlled way. As such, you’ll be more likely to end up in the right place of the trench in order to ultimately get out the back of the wave. This is exponentiated if you are able to transition and ride along the trench.

The difference between shock-wave height and trench depth will determine your fall distance. At times, you can use the shock to bump you up so you more deeply impale the trench surface. Caution is required over shallow reefs or on waves with thick lips, as the trench will be deep and close to the bottom. Trench textures will be affected by lip thickness and texture. Crumbly, whitewatery lips will have less boundary pressures and fewer vortices. Glassy, thick lips onto glassy surfaces will create abrupt pressures and vortices. The trench will be easier to impale if it has been aerated from multiple vortices that have exhausted into the tube, thus breaking the surface tension. The more aerated whitewater in the trench, the softer the landing. 

Fig. 3

Here, vortices are visible entering the tube and affecting the trench texture. The underside of the lip, as it presses forward, shows the bottom of the wave’s V. The solid column of water deflects off the wave face and bounces up, creating a view into the whitewater explosion. The vortices, which began through the initial lip impact, have now been projected up on the leading edge of the V that trails the edge of the whitewater. If conditions are right when the lip impales the wave’s face, a vortex is created on both sides of the lip. While the lip presses the vortex under as the barrel rolls forward, some of the vortices get pressed under the tube and expire behind the barrel as it moves shoreward. The leading edge of the vortice gets stretched in the whitewater plume. Various forces, compressing and stretching, interact with the air. That mixture and exchange stretches into vortices that die out once the forces subside or the air supply gets cut off. 

Fig. 4


This is a view of the leading edge of the impact bulge and the inside of the low-pressure bubble. The lip bounces upward and disintegrates into whitewater plumes, which jet up and over and create a low-pressure air cell. By carefully monitoring the thickness of the lip and the curvature of the wave face, you are better able to determine the size and location of the low-pressure bubble, essentially a tube in front of the initial tube. These occur in front of most hollow waves, but are difficult to identify, as they are typically obscured by the white- water explosion

The larger takeaway, of which I now have visual evidence, is that there are common forces playing out in waves that mimic other phenomena in different scales of time, size, and medium—but are all bound by the laws of our universe. And if you let yourself wonder, as I do, perhaps structures could be revealed in the inner workings of breaking waves themselves that unlock ideas of hidden architecture in other systems in the universe, albeit infinitesimally small or prodigiously large. 

To that end, I presented these images and my thoughts on them to physicist Katelin Schutz, Ph.D, a professor at McGill University and an expert on the topic of dark matter, who said, “I think there’s potentially an analogy to be made with dark matter in that it underpins the entire spatial structure of our universe, but we can only tell indirectly. Maybe we can observe it directly if we are able to look ‘below the surface.’ [Regarding] which parts of the wave are safe to ride versus which parts are hazardous, there is a fairly direct way to know that these vortices are there, but explicit knowledge of them has so far gone unnoticed, that we know of [until now].”

I also showed the images to another physicist, Allan Adams, a renowned string theorist and lecturer at MIT. When questioning Adams on what exactly string theory is, he explained it as a heavy-handed reduction in three principles: 1. There are no coordinates in the universe, 2. Causality in the world is preserved, and 3. Quantum mechanics is real. 

Of the wave captures, Adams added, “While the seemingly infinite dynamics of the particles and forces are incidental to boundary conditions, the different vortices in a new underlying fluid is the same in these images. It’s the shape of the water and the ground—the boundary conditions—that create these innumerable forms and phenomenon—all still borne of relatively simple rules.”

In a more practical application for surfers, I’ve broken down some of these images to hopefully serve you when you find yourself in or around the tube. The first step in avoiding calamity is to have a better understanding of the playing field, in this case the hazards and dynamics of a breaking wave.

[Feature Image: Fig. 1 Getting out of a closeout doesn’t have to be more hazardous than getting out of a normal tube. As the wave moves shoreward and degrades, the falling lip runs into the whitewater explosion, which begins to press into the tube cavity. Whitewater within the tube begins to circulate up and over, while the trench separates the shock wave. The shock wave, in turn, begins tumbling into the trench. As the lip pulls over, the water becomes stretched, creating a barrier. If you are able to remain in the tube until this happens, it becomes less likely that you’ll be tossed, as most of the wave’s energy has passed. In the best cases, you’ll slip out from under the shock wave into the back side of the trench, which will bury you in a foamy mixture while the remaining wave energy passes over. Then you’ll simply float to the surface.]