Coastalwatch's Chief Swell Forecaster Answers Hard and Easy Questions
COASTALWATCH | INTERVIEW
Hey everyone, come and meet Ben Macartney. He's Coastalwatch's Chief Swell Forecaster AKA the guy who dropped in on me one time when I had the perfect line to backdoor a tube at Little Avalon. I'll never forget that day. Less importantly, he's the guy in charge of all the egghead things that lead to detailed forecasts and apart from that day at Little Av, he's a pretty swell guy (get it, swell, ahhh, sorry). We asked Ben a bunch of questions to get a better understanding of what it's like to forecast swell for a living and he answered them. Here they are:
How long have you been forecasting for, both professionally, and personally?
Professionally, with CW for over 12 years now. Prior to that, I guess I really started delving into it in the mid to late 90s.
How did you find your way into doing forecasting for Coastalwatch?
I got pretty obsessed with forecasting while I was at uni back in the early noughties. The uni I was at wasn’t far from the coast, so I was getting into forecasting to identify the arrival of new swells or favourable wind-shifts to score good waves during the week, between lectures – or for trips down the coast on weekends. A friend of mine who was working for CW at the time asked to come and try my hand at it professionally back in 2005.
Is forecasting like any other niche profession or sport, are there heroes of forecasting? Who is the Michael Jordan or Kelly Slater of forecasting? Is it you?
I think that would be the late Sean Collins, who founded Surfline. He was onto it well before the arrival of the Internet. He was doing it before I was born actually.
How did you learn? It’s something to do with military maps, right? Is that what it is? I can’t remember.
Well, I guess you’re alluding to the fact that the origins of wave charts do stem from the US war machine. Apparently in the wake of WW2 they needed swell forecasts so their troops didn’t get pounded in the shorey during beach landings. I’ve learned about all the facets of forecasting along the way, doing my own research and absorbing as much information as I can over the years.
Can you take me through your typical day? How do you update every day?
My day always begins with observations – ideally from the surf - otherwise by checking a local beach and by looking at various CW cameras to get a handle on current conditions. Then I’ll start running through various computer modelled forecasts and weather charts etc. to see what’s in store for the short to mid term, then start looking at the various atmospheric models for insights on long-term surf potential. I’ll update a combination of graphs, forecast summaries and detailed discussions - all of which are available in the CW forecasting section and on the app.
Do you have any quirky forecasting facts or insights?
Well, there’s one that springs to mind. I think the hype of an impending swell-event often focuses on the first or biggest day of the swell – and it’s logical that people make plans and set aside time for that day. But sometimes it’s the second and even third days of the swell that are the best; once it has settled down a little, cleaned up and even backed off - and usually the hype has also died down a bit.
Do you ever under forecast something, perhaps in an area where you surf regularly, to limit crowds?
No mate, it’s my job to nail it as best I can, not to obfuscate or mislead. I take it pretty seriously in that regard.
When I go surfing and I can’t get any waves because there’s too many people in the water, is it your fault?
If anything, I reckon people use forecasting and forecasters as scapegoats for their frustration with crowds. Surf forecasting is now a fact of our surfing lives and it’s logical that the majority of the surfing population will use it to plan their surfing time. In that sense it’s a level playing field again. If you really want uncrowded waves, you can still find them, you just have to set aside some time and get behind the wheel. The last time I was more than a few hours drive outside of Sydney, I found an awesome right hand beachbreak with no one out. There was a local guy checking it and he asked me to wait for him until he ran home to grab his board because he was just stoked to have someone to surf with.
I’d put overcrowding down to bigger picture things like the burgeoning human population, the proliferation of surfing as a sport and our high living standards. And now as soon as an amazing conditions or an incredible sand bank pops up, the word is spreading virally on phones/ social media, so within a couple of hours the whole world knows. In a crowded situation your place in the pecking is always a factor.
Is seeing and identifying a swell as it forms akin to catching a rare Pokemon, hitting a nice drive down the fairway, cutting open particularly perfect avocado?
Well, I don’t go for Pokemon or golf and although I love a good avo, I’d say it’s more like watching a flower bloom or something.
Do you take time off work when there’s good waves?
Well, when it’s pumping I’ll always make sure I set some time aside to get in the water, you know unless its 10ft closeouts. When I can get one of our other forecasters to cover me I’ll definitely take time off to chase a swell up or down the coast – and sometimes further afield. That’s kind of what it’s all about.
Do you have a folder of screenshots of all-time favourite weather maps in your computer, like Winter 2004, or something?
Yes, lots of folders full of charts. To this day I think one of my all time favourite is still the Tasman low of early July 2001. It set up three or four straight days of big, clean easterly groundswell in the 8 to 12ft range – and some spots got even bigger. Back then the BOM had these forecast charts called LAPS (limited area prediction system) that had really closely spaced isobars. I remember the isobars were so compressed just above New Zealand they were almost completely black. That was one of the first major swell-events I can remember forecasting and setting time aside for, knowing it was going to be big. I surfed the three biggest days of the swell but I was pretty under-gunned for most of it.
Remember that time you were on the front page of the Daily Telegraph kicking out at Bronte? That was fun.
Yes, that was a hell of a day and an awesome photos by Bill Morris. It was definitely the biggest, cleanest Bronte I’ve ever been out in. I paddled out early during a bit of a lull and within half an our it picked up into the 8 to 10ft range and the tide dropped out, so suddenly it was too big for anyone else to paddle out. Except for Tom Whittaker - but he wasn’t even waiting for the sets – he was just taking off further inside on 6 to 8ft waves like it was any old day. Otherwise there was just half a dozen of us sharing these big, clean rights. But it was heavy. Eventually I took off on a closeout and got washed in.
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