Mike Parsons is obsessed with swell forecasts. The former Championship Tour competitor-turned-big-wave-hunter-turned-high-profile coach and now Big Wave Tour commissioner has built his life around tracking waves. It's an obsession he absorbed through old friends who are sadly no longer with us: The first was Surfline's late, great forecaster Sean Collins. The other was photographer Larry Moore, a longtime friend and collaborator of Collins's, who ran point at Surfing Magazine for more than 30 years.
In the 1980s and early '90s, during Surfline's fledgling years in the business, Parsons, Moore and Collins spent hours each day consuming local weather patterns, swell windows, wave intervals, bathymetry, barometric pressure, swell fetch and dozens of other nuanced, weather-related issues as they made preparations for strike missions to places like Todos Santos in Northern Baja and Cortes Bank, 100 miles off the coast of California.
Not surprisingly, the knowledge gained has served Parsons well, especially now that he's got his pilot's license, too. With wings at his fingertips, his ability to find empty perfection has risen exponentially. "Snips" won't admit it, but he's holding on to some pretty good secrets.
But none of his knowledge relieves him of any pressure when it comes to making the call on Big Wave Tour events. There's a tight-knit community of big-wave surfers looking over his shoulder in a role like that. It's safe to say they're equally obsessed, too. When swells appear on the charts, Parsons gathers as much insight and opinion as he can when determining whether to make the call, but as you'd expect, there's no shortage of opinions or agendas. "That's definitely the toughest part," he laughs. "Everyone weighs in, but when it comes to making the call they all want to sit on the fence, because nobody wants to be wrong. And once you do make the call that's when the madness begins."
Big Wave Tour events are military-grade invasions. Dozens of surfers stay on call for months on end, and they're matched by an amazing team of ground crew and broadcasters behind the scenes who need to get all the pieces in place within a 72-hour window once the light goes green.
"Sevety-two hours is the magic number," said Parsons. "Call it any later than that and a bunch of the surfers and broadcasters may not make it there. Call it any sooner and the forecast could easily change for the worse, which happens a lot. So about five days out we go on an internal yellow alert, and let everyone know we're seriously considering the upcoming swell."
This season, three of the four scheduled events have run. Each comes with its own set of challenges. We asked Parsons to take us through his check list for each one.
The Puerto Escondido Challenge
"Puerto is the easiest one to call because you can see the swell coming from so far away. That gives us a ton of time to dial it in and really assess the size. We're looking for the really southerly direction swells that form just off of Chile, because those make Puerto's right-hander do it's thing, and give it better shape overall. But the risk factors with Puerto are severe too. Tropical systems can flare up locally at any moment, and the predominant wind can be brutal too. The wind and tides play right into water safety, too, which is crucial when you have surfers pulling into huge closeouts. They're taking gas out there. It's such a heavy wave. Kai Lenny charged it so hard. He really deserved that win."
The Pe'ahi Challenge
"The Pe'ahi call was pretty crazy because we made it right in the early part of the waiting period. That caught a lot of people off guard, but we had to do it, because the swell was hitting all the right markers. Kevin Wallis at Surfline was confident. I was confident. We were looking at photos of previous swells that had the same height and the perfect 325 degee angle you need for it to be good. That said, there were two sketchy things about it. The first was we knew the swell was going to peak overnight, so we knew we were going to have to milk it over two days, which is always a gamble. But what scared us even more was 24 hours after we called the event on, and everyone was on there way there, the wind forecast took a serious turn for the worse. That was a nightmare, because paddling into choppy windy Jaws is horrible. Fortunately, 24 hours later it turned positive again, and as we saw, that was one of the best big-wave events ever. I don't think I've ever seen a barrel like the one Ian Walsh got. That was an incredible day."
"Nazaré is by far the toughest event to call for a variety of reasons. The biggest is how close the wave generating storms are to the break itself. It's the exact opposite of the Puerto Escondido situation, where you can track a swell coming all the way up from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, nearly 10,000 miles away. With Nazaré, we're talking about 2000 miles. The Atlantic is super active, too. So everything is compressed. And it has a bunch of other challenges. One is the local wind. You want winds out of the east/north-east, but the prevailing wind is north, which is brutal. The good winds are usually found in October and November, but we didn't get the swells then. On the flip side a lot of the swells there are too big. Anything over 12 feet at 17 seconds on the buoys turns into a tow day, which we've seen a lot of this winter. Anything under 8 feet at 14 seconds isn't big enough. The other big factor for safety is tide. We need a high tide midday just so the safety guys can get in there. We got hit pretty hard by winds this year, and we would've liked to finish in bigger waves, but Lucas Chianca was a super popular champion of that event, and the local community there is amazing. They love the fact that their wave is such a global phenomenon, and they're really embracing it."
"It's been a really tough year for Maverick's. We've gone yellow a couple times but unfortunately there just hasn't been that magic day we need. With Maverick's, we're looking for storms that get all the way across the North Pacific, travel across the date line, then park it about 1,500 miles off the coast. If they don't make it across the date line you'll get these huge swells in Hawaii, but California stays flat. The best direction for the bowl there is 280 degrees out of the west, and a 15-foot swell at a 17-second period is the sweet spot for size. We went yellow on January 15th, but the forecast started calling for strong south winds, which are devil winds at Maverick's. The wind never came though, and there was actually one day where it was glassy all day and fun, but by all accounts it was entry-level in the size department, and the sets were super inconsistent, so it would have been pretty underwhelming by Maverick's standards. Then you had that crazy day where it got 50 feet. The morning was out of control, as that boat sinking proved. Peter Mel couldn't even get a wave, which says a lot. The bummer is that afternoon got perfect for a few hours when it dropped. Unfortunately, we need a lot more than an afternoon to run the event. The good thing here is we'll have a much bigger event window next year. We only had two months this year, which really isn't much. A lot of the good Maverick's swells usually happen earlier in the season, when the winds are good. The later it gets, the worse the wind factor becomes. If you're going to run at Maverick's, you want it to be epic."