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At AllWaves, we have the knowledge & technology to create any wave we like. In doing so, we are inspired by nature. In this series, we will explain how the world’s most famous waves come to be, based on science.  This time, we explain the waves at Pipeline. By understanding the science behind the (water)curtain, we can create our own custom waves in our wavepool. So, read further if you want to look smart to your friends.

Today, Pipeline and the North Shore are considered the epicentre of the surfing world. But it wasn’t always that way. While modern surfing has been around since the 1930s, the first wave at Pipeline wasn’t surfed until 1961. Basically until someone gathered the courage to venture out. That’s because the wave is extremely shallow and below the surface lies jagged coral reef eroded in sharp channels & caves.

Wave Refraction

As a start, we explained in a previous post how water particles in ocean waves move in an orbital motion. Read more about it here. The water column in which the orbital motion moves persists as deep as half the wave length; this is how waves can “feel” the bottom of the ocean. When there’s a shallower part in the ocean floor, the orbital motion experiences friction from the seabed and slows down the wave. However, the section of the wave that doesn’t encounter this shallow spot, continues at the same speed. The difference in speed & the subsequent ‘fracturing’ of the wave is a phenomenon called “refraction”. That’s why you see waves bend-off towards the beach even when the waves come from the side in a 90 degrees angle.

wave refraction

Bathymetry affect waves

The next word you need in your vocabulary is “bathymetry”. It is the study of the “beds” or “floors” of water bodies, including the ocean, rivers, streams, and lakes. Now what happens at Pipeline is thanks to its unique bathymetry. Pipeline consists of a series of flat reefs that lead you stepwise deeper into the ocean. They are oriented in such a bow-shaped way that it refracts the waves & focuses their energy at 1 point on the shoreline. There, the “faster” and the “slower” parts of the wave coincide again for the grand finale. Channels miraculously located at the exact right place, then move the water back out.

It’s not only refraction & bathymetry though, but the wavelength (aka period) needs to be big enough, so that the orbital motion goes deep enough, to “feel” the unique shape of the reef and bend off.

pipeline swell direction

Storms influence surf

It’s not a coincidence the surf competitions at Pipeline are held during winter months. Because big storms in the North-Pacific create swell coming from the North. On the contrary, in summer, Pipeline does not exist, the ocean is as quiet as can be and beaches fill up with sand. During big winter swells you clearly see there are 3 reefs, outer reef (3rd reef), second reef & pipeline. Moreover, in very big swells, waves already break at outer reef! Resulting in a huge mass of white-water all the way to shore. In conclusion, without outer reef, Pipeline wouldn’t exist. Outer-reef “pre-conditions” the wave (unintentionally of course), building its shape & height. When they come closer to shore and it’s 15 feet deep (5 meter), they are pushed upward again and shaped further at second reef. And finally, when it’s only 2-8 feet deep (less than 1 meter) at 1st reef, they become very hollow, creating the most legendary & deadly wave on earth.

pipeline reefs
Pipeline reefs

So to conclude: it’s the combination of refraction + bathymetry + swell size. So next time you look at Pipeline, don’t only look at the surfers. But look beyond, to second & third reef and witness the uniqueness & greatness of nature.

So what’s in it for AllWaves?

At AllWaves, we are inspired by these creations & forces of nature. We made sure we can pre-condition waves with our proprietary algorithm & wavemaker. This means we cannot only choose height, but also shape & speed. Which results in endless combinations and really the possibility to create “all waves” for all surfers. That’s the reason we call our employees “waveshapers”. The unique bathymetry of an AllWaves wavepool is patented and ensures high-quality waves by meanwhile dissipating the remaining energy to avoid backwash.

Hope you enjoyed our read,

Keep surfing!

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