The African Coin Flip 

East or west, let the conditions call it—heads you bake, tails you freeze.

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If you place your fingertip on the map of southern Africa and draw a line from Skeleton Bay straight across the continent to the edge of Mozambique, you will be connecting two of the world’s finest sand-bottomed pointbreaks. One’s a left, the other a right. Both are temperamental prospects at best. They are however, tantalizingly close when it comes to a strike mission from South Africa. The question is, do you head east or west?

Unlike Namibia, the water in Mozambique is bath-warm and the barrels are blue, earning the right-hander the title of the African Kirra. The name is equal parts truth and irony. Easily comparable in quality to its Gold Coast namesake, it breaks minus the ever-present crowd that The Superbank has become synonymous with. In fact if you do luck into a swell here, chances are you will be surfing alone.

Due to its fickle nature, the African Kirra of Mozambique boils down to a game of watchful waiting.
Wind is rarely a problem at the African Kirra. The sandspit faces into the predominant south-southwest breeze, grooming rogue energy into clean offshore lines. The real issue is swell, which ideally has to come from the north-northeast—essentially the polar opposite of the dominant direction.
The bathymetry along much of the Skeleton Coast sees the ocean floor plunging to the depths of the Walvis Trench—which means there is little slowing down the long period swells required to kick Skeleton Bay into gear. The result is, pound for pound, one of the heaviest sand-bottomed waves in the world.

“When we first came here, there was just a little shack on the beach selling beer,” says Ryan Ribbink, a South African surfer who has been exploring Mozambique for 20 years and is dialed into the coastline’s infamous vagaries. “I’d heard there was a wave, but it was hard to imagine. The way the bay faces is completely opposite to the normal southerly swell direction.”

In case you’re not reading between the lines: that means it’s fickle. Like, really fickle, only lighting up on erratic cyclone swells that bounce around the Mozambique Channel between December and April. The best chance of success is when one of these tropical storms beelines straight across the channel from east to west. It’s these cyclones, however, that pose the highest risk of making landfall and wreaking havoc.

In a sense, this makes the choice relatively easy. Unlike the cyclonic summer action needed for Mozambique, the frigid lefts of Namibia rarely kick into gear before the start of the southern hemisphere winter in May, and only when the deepest South Atlantic depressions produce swells large enough to slam into the spit with the brute force it’s become renowned for.

The key to all this power lies in Skeleton Bay’s bathymetry. Not far offshore from the desert, the continental shelf drops rapidly to the Walvis Ridge, which reaches over 5,000 meters at its deepest point.

“If you look at the bottom topography around Skeleton Bay, it suggests the wave doesn’t lose much energy to friction on the sea floor,” says Dr. Björn Backeberg, manager for the South African Data Centre for Oceanography. “You’ve got quite a deep ocean. And all of a sudden the sand just lifts up and deep ocean swells, which have lost hardly any of their energy, explode onto the bank. Then it boils down to the angle of the coastline in relation to the swell, and that’s what makes it so special. With a west-southwest swell, it literally runs straight down the point like J-Bay, but it’s a sand point which has less jagged edges, making it even more perfect.”

The downside is the relentless current that develops along the spit, where there is no channel to transport all that trapped energy back out to sea. But this exhausting conveyor belt is also a key ingredient to what makes Skeleton Bay so unique. “As the wave bends in, instead of just breaking, it starts draining the excess water (from the current),” says Backeberg. “That’s probably why you see it growing taller or getting thicker and mutating as it moves down the point, because there’s more water being sucked up into the wave from further upstream.”

The irony of Skeleton Bay is that despite being one of the longest waves in the world, it offers the surfer scant room to move due to the incredible amount of water sucking up from the trough. According to Koa Smith (pictured), a quad setup is essential. “The wave is so round that most of the time you only have two fins in the face. I tried to ride a thruster but it was hard to keep a solid line.”
The African Kirra needs a low tide to turn on, with high water drowning it in a cruel manner. Creed McTaggart (pictured) was still in the water when the waves went from overhead and grinding to dead flat in a matter of minutes. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” he recalls. “From pumping, standup pits to dead flat. It was like the ocean had flicked a switch.”

Unlike most other sand-laden points around the world, there seems to be no limit to what the spit can handle. In May 2014, an intense frontal system broke off its usual south-to-north trajectory and spent a couple of days swirling in the South Atlantic Ocean, growing more intense as it flung a deep purple blob toward the west coast of Africa.

Sean Holmes, former winner of the Red Bull Big Wave Africa, was on the beach the morning the swell made landfall. He was joined by a contingent of professional tube hounds who had jetted in from Hawaii, Europe, and Australia, but nobody was quite prepared for what greeted them as the fog lifted.

“I have never stood on a beach with a bunch of other pros looking at empty, perfect waves without knowing whether any of us actually wanted anything to do with it,” recalls Holmes. “Some waves were quite simply impossible to paddle into. Sitting on the beach, watching in awe seemed the most manageable thing to do.”

“There’s a section at Desert Point,” says Craig Anderson (pictured), “that’s about ten meters long with similar speed and shape, but nothing comes close to the length and intensity of the barrel at Skeleton Bay. Plus you’re constantly contending with the elements—the wind, the relentless current, the power of the open Atlantic Ocean. I put it alongside the heaviest, most challenging waves in the world.”
While not as brutal as its western counterpart, the African Kirra is perfectly capable of dishing up flat-bottomed, shallow sand caves—a fact to which Jordy Smith (pictured) will happily attest.

[Feature image: Given the grueling paddle, the relentless waves, and the long, forced march back up the foreshore, it’s a given that the Namibian desert eventually prevails over interlopers.]