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The Sands of Walvis

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Francois Loubser is built like his vintage Land Rover. Tough. Solid. Made to last against the elements with a motor that runs on stamina and guts.

“I hope you brought enough boards with you,” he says in a deadpan as we load the coffin bags onto the trailer. “Because this wave, she really likes to eat boards.”

He pushes his foot down on the accelerator and the engine roars to life. 

Skeleton Bay lies just to the west. On a map, it looks straightforward. But there is no direct route to get there. Instead, we follow a thin vein of tar south from the town of Walvis Bay that cuts deep into the Namib Desert before veering off-road through a maze of salt pans. Eventually, it spills onto the coast where we double-back along the beach to find the wave. 

As we grind onward, Loubser explains that the indigenous San people originally named this coastline, “The land God made in anger.” The landscape is bewildering. It’s an endless expanse of caramel-colored sand that has buried the bones of ships long run aground and that waits to swallow 4×4s. 

Average rainfall is less than half an inch per year. Any form of life has either adapted to survive or perished in the process—like the jackals that prowl the shoreline waiting to ambush seals that are too slow to escape, or the fog beetles that push themselves up on their front legs each morning to collect water droplets that trickle down their backs and into their mouths.

The Namib is also the oldest desert in the world, and one grain of sand can date back a million years. Added together, this stretch of coast is made up of billions and billions of years’ worth of sediment. 

But unlike the barren wilderness that surrounds it, Skeleton Bay is an infant in geological terms. Historical satellite imagery shows how the sandspit that gives life to the wave only came into full existence around the start of the millennium. Geologists believe a shift in the predominant wind direction in the 1970s caused sand to be deposited at a new angle along an older, existing spit. As the new spit grew out into the Atlantic Ocean, sand filled in the hollow on its leeward side and coaxed swells to carve a path farther and farther down the bay.

It’s unclear whether this same pattern of creation and destruction has played out before in the distant past, but it’s not unlikely. Namibia has one of the most active coastlines in the world, and there may well have been previous iterations of Skeleton Bay etched into the vast sea of sand that makes up the Skeleton Coast.

What is certain is that a wave like this had never been surfed until recently.

The Originals

Born and bred in Namibia, Loubser doesn’t surf. But through decades of fishing and leading expeditions along these sands, he understands the nuances of Skeleton Bay as intricately as any geologist. He claims to have first seen the wave back in the 1990s while kayaking inside the bay, and has since become the fixer for many a traveler seeking cylindrical enlightenment. 

His nephew, Shaun Loubser, is part of the second-generation of Namibian surfers. While his pigdog technique is no surprise, he’s reluctant to claim surfing the wave first.

Perhaps no other wave on Earth present more opportunity for global tube hunters like Craig Anderson. Photograph by Alan Van Gysen.

“My uncle mentioned it to me,” he says, “but the first guys to ride the wave were Carlos Figueiredo and Naude Dreyer, bodyboarders from Walvis Bay. I started joining them around 2002, after they told me how fast and perfect it was. Back then it was more like the Waimea shorebreak, breaking extremely close to the beach with fat barrels running into closeouts. We used to argue about who got the longest closeout. We didn’t think it was a world-class wave.”

Dreyer claims the bay looked very different before. “We used to come fishing here back in high school and it was completely sheltered,” he says, describing how the fishhook of sand curled back in on itself. “Then the finger of the bay grew, and the hollow closed up.”

By 2005, the wave had become makeable and surfers were getting dialed into the lineup, including locals Jock Currie, Torsten Gossow, Lesley Koen, and the legendary Speedy. But nobody quite grasped the full extent of what the spit was capable of. 

“It was only when Cory Lopez came over in 2008,” says the younger Loubser, “and we saw what the pros could do that we realized we had one of the best waves in the world in our backyard.”

The Challenge

A reader contest in a surfing magazine. An IT specialist from Orange County. A pin-drop on a map. Who could have known it would lead to lifting the curtain on one of the most phenomenal waves in surfing history?

“We had a contest that we did every year called The Google Earth Challenge,” recalls Evan Slater, former editor of Surfing magazine. 

The contest called on readers to look for the most promising setup they could from the lofty heights of Google Earth, then cross reference this with as much intel as they could find on the ground. One destination was selected and the winner got to join the magazine on a trip to their virtual discovery.

“In 2008 we received a bunch of entries,” says Slater, “but the one that was a clear frontrunner was submitted by Brian Gable from Irvine. He did an incredible amount of research, scouring countless miles of coasts on the Google Earth program, and finally landed on the point that we now know as Skeleton Bay.”

What you couldn’t tell from 20,000 feet was the relentless fickleness of the wave. Skeleton Bay only lights up on huge southern hemisphere swells that sweep up from Antarctica during winter, sometimes only breaking once or twice an entire season.

“We kind of went in there blind,” says Slater. “We didn’t plan around a swell, and when we first got there it was dead flat. But we were in awe of this endless sand point and the vast dunes going off into the horizon. It felt like another planet, really.

We kept going back morning after morning, but it was always 1 foot and running off too fast.”

The crew spent close to two weeks kicking around in the sand until serendipity intervened on the very last day of their trip.

While sand can be traced back millions of years, the surf setup is a much more recent point of fascination. Photograph by Alan Van Gysen.

“We pulled up at first light and what we saw was surreal,” says Slater, recounting the sight many others have since struggled to process when they first lay eyes upon the spit in full cry: the proximity to shore, the sheer length of ride, the endless intensity with which the waves grind into the desert. “As a surfer you’re always looking for the perfect wave, but you’re never satisfied.

At Skeleton Bay, it exceeds all your expectations. When you get a tube there, it’s this overwhelming emotion of knowing you’re never going to get a better wave than that in your life.”

The Next Wave

After the first images of Lopez riding Skeleton Bay reverberated around the surfing world, the two names became synonymous. Here was the modern-day answer to Bruce’s Beauties, with a surfer and wave so perfectly in sync that, for a brief moment, the spot became known as Corey’s Left.

It didn’t matter that Lopez had in fact been skunked on his first trip to Walvis. He was part of the original Surfing expedition, but left early to surf in the US Open and didn’t score on their magical last day. But after seeing what he missed, he returned on the very next swell, filmed a viral YouTube video with …Lost, and secured his place in surfing’s Valhalla. 

Soon, a trickle of global surfers came chasing their fortune. Then the trickle became a flood, and the exposure that followed cemented Skeleton Bay’s status as the perfect wave of the decade. 

For professional tube hunters like Benji Brand, Brett Barley, and Koa Smith, connecting with a swell at Skeleton Bay became a notch in the belt, marked with mind-numbing POV footage of their logged minute-long, multi-barrel rides. Craig Anderson famously shot the closing section of his signature film Slow Dance there, and still claims he got the wave of his life earlier that day, unseen and undocumented, behind the mist. The wave quickly became a media darling. 

Despite its appeal, the wave itself is nothing short of an expert-only affair. South African Dale Staples fits that bill. Photograph by Alan Van Gysen.

But what you don’t see from the safety of a computer monitor is how the raging current drags you down the point as soon as you fling yourself into the briny Atlantic. You can’t feel the near-impossible lurch of the takeoff, the breakneck speed at which the wave runs off, and how your arms soon turn limp from paddling desperately to try to stay in position. The photos don’t show the frigid Benguela Current seeping through 4mm of rubber, or the grueling mile-and-a-half-long trek back up the point with the wind shrieking against you. It doesn’t show you the carcasses of dead seals strewn in the sand, some with gaping bites taken out of them, the very same seals that pop up next to you in the lineup then dart around unseen beneath your feet.

While Skeleton Bay has now been documented from every conceivable angle, nothing can capture how it puts your insignificance into stark relief until you make the long walk up the spit yourself.

Nearly Gone

It wasn’t so much the size of the wave that was astounding. It was the girth of a 12-foot slab of ocean breaking for a mile on nearly dry sand.

“It’s what I would imagine the physics of a tsunami to be like,” says photographer Alan Van Gysen, describing the endless wall of water that surged through the lineup on the morning of May 29, 2014, which flooded the spit and pushed water across to the lagoon on the other side. “Up until then, we’d always thought it was a 4- to 6-foot kind of wave. But that swell recalibrated everyone’s expectations of what Skeleton Bay is capable of delivering.”

Perfection driven by power. Photograph by Jordy Masters.

Van Gysen would know. He’s documented nearly every significant swell there over the past decade. At first, he says, the fear was that the sheer ferocity of the swells, like in May of 2014, would lead to the fragile spit being breached, destroying the spot. Instead, the real threat seems to be more sand.

It’s estimated that as much as 1 million cubic meters of sand flows along Skeleton Bay per year, enough sediment to fill 400 Olympic-size swimming pools. Together with unpredictable variables like El Niño and changing wind patterns, some locals believe more sand is being deposited along Skeleton Bay than ever before, and they fear the wave may be suffocated in the process. A recent study revealed that Sandwich Harbour, a vast network of similar spits to the south, is coming apart.

“Over the past three to four years,” says Van Gysen, “there’s been a berm of sand steadily building up inside the bay, growing outward and splitting the wave in half. This past season, before the big swell hit, I actually thought the bank was finally breaking up.”

Arriving back there in 2019 seemed to confirm his worst fears. The waves looked perfect as they rounded the top of the point, but once the swell hit the berm it would trip over itself as it tried to find the missing curve in the bay, either sectioning down the line at impossible speeds or running for a couple hundred meters before shouldering off. But as the swell built over the course of the day, Van Gysen watched the point being reshaped before his eyes. 

“By late afternoon, these massive waves were exploding into the berm, turning inside out on themselves and moving football fields of sand.”

By nightfall, the entire edge of the point where he’d stood earlier had disappeared entirely.

“When we arrived back the next morning I looked down the point and, from top to bottom, the bank was straight again, a perfect curve,” says Van Gysen. “I’ve never before witnessed such a raw display of how dynamic nature can be.”

The High-Water Mark

Time doesn’t expand in the tube at Skeleton Bay. Rather, it’s an infinite loop, played on repeat. As Koa Smith says, “It’s that feeling of looking down the line and not knowing how long you’re going to be in there.”

Smith is well versed in this uncertainty. He’s credited as riding a number of the longest tubes ever documented along this stretch of the Namib Desert, with one wave in particular that stands out. He still remembers it vividly.

A layer of fog had formed a dense wall between the beach and the ocean that morning in June 2018, making it impossible to see the waves from shore. Smith paddled out and, like a biblical prophecy, the clouds parted, the sun came out, and he found a corner that would become the high-water mark in Skeleton Bay’s short history.

“It was actually a smaller inside wave,” he remembers, “but it was so perfect. I dug in and scratched as hard as I could. Almost every wave there you’re falling out of the sky, hoping and praying you stick it. That’s why I only ride quad-fins out there. The wave is so round that most of the time, you only have two fins in the face. As soon as I took off I could see it growing down the line, and I started sprinting. Those are my favorite barrels at Skeleton Bay, because you’re as deep as you can be, but the bowl keeps pushing you along. The entire ride was so smooth I felt like I was surfing through glass, pumping down the line as fast as I could go. Then I’d take my foot off the gas and let it just carry me, praying the wave would let me out of each section. Then I’d set up for the next one.”

The wave lasted one minute and 56 seconds from start to finish, with Smith traversing the length of the point—over a full mile of surfing—as he pulled in and out of the tube eight times.

“My goal is to get a one-minute barrel,” he says, “where you’re actually in the barrel for one minute. I reckon you could get an even longer barrel if you got the right push of water. But you really need to be smart about your wave choice and conserving energy. You’re getting so worked all day—getting smashed by waves, paddling against the current, walking back up the point. It’s like doing a marathon. It’s all about endurance. You don’t want to be tired and cramping up, then fall when that wave finally comes along.”

The Future

A makeshift graveyard of boards has sprung up among the caravan of 4×4 vehicles parked along the spit. Most of the victims have been snapped in half, their remains wedged upright in the ground like tombstones. 

Surrounding them, the beach is criss-crossed with tire tracks and people with bloodshot eyes huddled around cars telling stories of waves and wipeouts. Others are trudging up the point, surfing, watching, recovering. But aside from the flood of pilgrims whenever a swell hits, not much else has changed along this two-mile stretch of sand since it was unveiled over a decade ago.

Sandbar-powered casualties. Photograph by Alan Van Gysen.

Skeleton Bay falls within the Dorob National Park and is strictly controlled by conservation authorities. When visiting surfers started ferrying each other up and down the point, disrupting the shoreline ecology and rhythm of the lineup, the locals stepped in and instituted a no-lifting rule. The wave, by and large, takes care of the rest.

“There was a lot of fear that surfers would overrun our other spots,” says Dreyer, who runs kayaking tours around the northern tip of the spit. “But this has never really happened.” 

He admits the influx of visitors is good for the tourist-driven economy, but the fickle nature of the wave and unforgiving environment make it almost impossible to base any steadfast business around surfing. 

“Namibia is not really a beach holiday destination,” Dreyer says wryly. “The wave evolved so quickly, and maybe in a few years it will be gone again. The only thing we can be sure of is that it’s changing all the time.”

Should it all disappear overnight and return to the random stretch of closeout beach break it was barely a decade before, Francois Loubser will still be there. He and his custom Rover—both ideally suited for the rugged landscape—will continue giving tours of this coast to the curious and adventurous, sharing whatever dark secrets might reveal themselves from the sand.

For all its quirks and challenges, Skeleton Bay offers tubehounds like French-Caribbean surfer William Aliotti the ultimate test and reward of their skill and luck. Photograph by Alan Van Gysen.