There’s nothing better than a quality, consistent wave—one that serves up the goods day in and day out, every season, just like clockwork. These setups are our bread and butter, the staple of our surfing experience, and there’s a reason we build communities and eventually cities around them. But despite their dependability and familiarity, we don’t tend to obsess about these sure things. Instead, it is the novelty lineup that we dream about—the protected sand bar or temperamental reef that becomes the stuff of legend.
Fickle waves have captured our imagination for as long as surfing has existed, and it’s no wonder why. We always want what we can’t have, especially when it is epic, and many of our rarest waves are exactly that. Even the ones that aren’t world-class still take on mythical status simply because they break so infrequently that we tend to remember them as being better than they actually are.
Whether they are as perfect as their reputations suggest or simply the product of hype, here’s a list of 15 of the world’s most fickle waves.
Cape St Francis, South Africa
Bruce’s Beauties has always been a hoax—it was never as long or as perfect as Bruce Brown made it out to be in The Endless Summer. But Brown still needed footage to knit together in his edit, and he got those clips by lucking into one of the few days per year when South Africa’s original right-hand point break happened to be pumping. Since then, the wave has only become more fickle, with coastal development changing sand flow. Still, once every few years, Bruce’s Beauties turn on—and when they do, they are a beautiful sight to see and you can find out when it starts working, HERE.
Due to the fact that they usually break along exposed coasts during winter, big wave spots are typically plagued by challenging wind. Scoring swell isn’t a problem, but scoring swell on a clean day can be next to impossible, a fact that makes big wave spots notoriously fickle. Located 100 miles off the coast of Southern California, Cortez Bank may be the most fickle of all, as even the smallest amount of wind chop is magnified due to the wave’s exposure. Scoring Cortez essentially requires an XXL swell and oily glass conditions hours away from the nearest landmass, which only happens once or twice per decade.
Double Island Point, Australia
One of Australia’s worst-kept secrets, Double Island Point is a long, symmetrical right-hand sandbar that can be world class on its day, when the sand is good and the swell is pumping. But the odds of that happening are pretty small, which means the sandbar is more likely to be surfed on a longboard than a step-up.
It isn’t hard to score clean Cloudbreak, and it also isn’t that hard to score Cloudbreak big. But to get both at the same time is extremely rare, which is why we have only seen a handful of days over the past 10 years that featured legit XL paddle sessions on the reef off of Tavarua.
Tasmanian River Mouth
We won’t bother naming this one, but suffice to say that there is a right-hand point on Tasmania that goes absolutely bonkers about once every three or four years, when the right swell approaches the island from the right direction. Those who know the conditions the wave needs to fire never miss a swell—and the rest of us never know it has broken.
Coronado, San Diego
Typically a walled-up beach break that is largely protected from swell by Point Loma, Coronado has been known to light up on occasion, typically when a large, steep south swell pushes up from hurricanes off of Baja. You wouldn’t know it to look at it, but during Hurricane Marie this stretch of sand was as good as anywhere in California.
Alex Gray’s Alaskan Slab
Anyone who has been to Alaska on a surf trip knows how fickle it can be, but they also know the potential to strike gold—if you happen to be at the right place during the right time, when the right swell and wind conditions correspond with the right window of tide. Alex Gray managed to accomplish all of that—with a filmer in tow—and documented the best session ever surfed in the AK. Want to go? See our spot guide, HERE.
Padang Padang, Bali
Bali has a lot of good waves, but when it comes to barrels, Padang Padang is it’s crown jewel. Unfortunately, the left-hand reef break only fires on swells that are big enough and from the right direction, which means that legit sessions at Padang Padang only happen a handful of times per year.
An entire country rather than a single wave, Italy actually has a number of quality sand bars and reefs on offer. The only problem? They are all located in the Mediterranean Sea, which is essentially an oversized lake. This means that waves are always going to be generated by local wind swell, making it virtually impossible to score clean conditions. But for those who know where to look and how to read weather charts—and who are willing to wait patiently all winter—there are gems to be unearthed. Spot guide, HERE.
The Right Lake at the Right Time
Somewhere east of Washington there’s a two-mile-long lake located in a high mountain bowl, hundreds of miles from the coast and thousands of feet above sea level. A few years back, during a 70mph windstorm, overhead windswell marched down the length of that lake and refracted around a corner into a protected, offshore strip of sand. The wave has likely never been surfed—I certainly didn’t have any boards with me on that blustery day in August—but I swear it was chest-high and barreling. Which begs the question: How many other landlocked lakes are out there that pump on their day?
The fastest right-hander on the planet, or the slowest closeout? Either way, Maalaea is so rare that even life-long locals can count on their hands how many times they've seen it break over the years. But when the right swell pushes into the Hawaiian Islands and light’s it up, the freight-training barrel on Maui is a sight to behold.
Benny’s Wave, Caribbean
A dreamy, turquoise, right-hand sandbar located somewhere in the Caribbean, “Benny’s Wave” landed on half a dozen magazine covers five or six years ago, when it was “rediscovered” and exposed to the public by Benny Bourgeois. Anyone who knows where it is knows that it takes a pretty rare swell to fire—and they also know why we haven’t seen any footage of it being surfed over the past few seasons.
Sandspit, Southern California
Santa Barbara’s prettiest but least common right-hander, Sandspit is a stretch of sand nestled behind a harbor breakwater. It requires a monumental swell to break, but when it does, it is arguably the best, longest, most below sea level wave in the state.
South Beach, Miami
This stretch of beach typically sees a lot more action on land than it does in the water. But winter’s the time to go where it can turn into a series of peaky a-frames that are as hollow as they are fickle.
Skeleton Bay, Namibia
Not to pick the low-hanging fruit here, but Namibia’s fabled left-hand sandbar is pretty much the best wave in the world, and it only breaks half a dozen times during a good season. If that’s not the definition of fickle perfection, then we don’t know what is.