Remembering Thundercloud 2012: One of the Greatest Ever Cloudbreak Swells

Tony Butt

by on

Updated 21d ago

Cover shot by Lucia Griggi

A massive, long-period swell arrived in Fiji on June 8, 2012. Thanks to a rare combination of factors, Cloudbreak delivered some of the most perfect big waves ever seen, and the best big-waves riders in the world were there to make the most of it. After the swell event wrapped up, a film of the event called Thundercloud dropped, named after the Thundercloud reef, which is a name now synonymous with that day in 2012. Here, I’m going to have a brief look at why that swell was so special

The swell was generated by a huge area of storm-force winds south of Tasmania, associated with a low that developed on the eastern periphery of a large high that was stationed south of Australia. It all started around Sunday June 3, when a disturbance formed off Antarctica.

Forecast: Cloudbreak

The system moved east-northeast into the open ocean and deepened, before becoming slow-moving south of New Zealand on Monday. At the same time, the high intensified, squeezing the isobars between the two systems and increasing the winds. The windfield shifted northwards for a while during Monday, reinforcing the swell and helping to push open-ocean wave heights up to 40 feet or so. On Tuesday, the low moved off east and weakened, while the swell continued to propagate northwards through the Tasman Sea and on towards Fiji.

The first long-period swell forerunners arrived in Fiji sometime late on Thursday 7th. The surf on the early morning of Friday 8th was described as around six to ten feet with the odd sneaker set. People noticed an extraordinary amount of energy in the swell. Conditions were not ideal, with a high tide and a northerly ‘devil wind’ generating some nasty lumps and ridges in the faces. The WCT pro surfers who had turned up for the Volcom Fiji Pro contest were already getting some epic barrels, but were also starting to feel under-gunned. Even Mick Fanning got spectacularly mowed down on one wave.

Animated swell chart for 3rd to 8th June 2012. See this chart, HERE.

Animated swell chart for 3rd to 8th June 2012. See this chart, HERE.

In addition to the world’s top competition surfers, a good number of the world’s best big-wave riders had also made the trip to Fiji. With boards over nine feet and more big-wave experience than anyone on the planet, they were well prepared. Some admitted that they wanted the contest to be cancelled so they could make the most of the swell – “We knew it was going to be a full house with the contest there, and we just hoped that it was going to be big enough that they didn’t want to run the contest”, said Rusty Long.

They were in luck. At approximately 2pm, with wave heights still increasing and the lumpy conditions becoming quite dangerous, the contest was called off. But then, about an hour later, the wind dropped, the tide went out and the waves quickly cleaned up. The swell peaked during the second half of the afternoon, with some 20-footers being ridden.

Pressure and wind chart for Monday June 4, 2012, showing a massive area of storm-force winds south of Tasmania, pointing straight towards Fiji.

Pressure and wind chart for Monday June 4, 2012, showing a massive area of storm-force winds south of Tasmania, pointing straight towards Fiji.

So, what was so special about this swell? How did it create some of the best big waves ever ridden in the history of surfing? To start with, to get a swell that big in Fiji, you need a big low pressure to deepen south of New Zealand and stall there for at least 24 hours. The winds on its western flank need to generate a large swell and send it through the relatively narrow window of the Tasman Sea. This is quite rare, but not that rare. Ben Freeston (HERE) has done some great analysis on the biggest swells of the past, the results of which suggest, “we'd see a swell like this slightly more frequently than once every other year”. Therefore, there must have been something else that made this swell so unique.

One thing that affects spots like Cloudbreak is a phenomenon I’ve talked about a lot before: bathymetric focusing. This is where the shape of the reef focuses the wave energy and increases the breaking wave height. The most classic examples are at spots like Peahi on Maui or Sunset Reef in Cape Town, where a finger of reef with deep water on both sides sucks the swell in and magnifies it like a lens. But it also happens at places with deep water on one side only, like Cloudbreak. Now, with bathymetric focusing, more period means more magnification. In the 2012 swell, the very long periods would have undoubtedly contributed to pushing those wave heights way higher than the 11 or 12 feet open-ocean height.

Our Cloudbreak forecast for the days mentioned.

Our Cloudbreak forecast for the days mentioned.

The bigger the waves, the fussier they are in terms of local conditions. If the wind isn’t quite right, or the tide too low or too high, or if there is some interfering residual swell, the waves can easily become tricky and dangerous. On the morning of Friday 8th, even though very light variable winds were forecast, a northerly breeze picked up. As it blew across a large expanse of open water, it quickly generated a small, very short-period northerly windsea.

This is what created those horrible ridges and chops on the faces of the waves. However, by mid-afternoon, the northerly wind completely dropped, leaving the water surface glassy and perfect. At the same time, the swell peaked and the tide hit low. Lower tides are said to be better at Cloudbreak, with longer, hollower waves and more chance of the tubes staying open.

Swell direction is another thing that affects the waves a lot when they get to this size. The predominantly south swell on Friday 8th meant that more waves peeled down the reef at the right speed to be makeable, and less waves hit the reef ‘square-on’, which is what probably would have happened if the swell had had more west in it.

So, all the conditions were right to produce some of the biggest, hollowest, cleanest waves possible, at one of the most perfect reefs on the planet. However, the real clincher was the fact that there were so many of the world’s best big-wave riders there to make use of it, and the world’s best photographers and filmers to record the event. Almost every wave surfed was photographed, filmed or documented, and, even though there was no contest, Volcom continued to live-broadcast the session for the rest of the world to see.

In summary, the Cloudbreak swell of 8th June 2012 was a really special surfing event because of a unique combination of circumstances: textbook conditions of swell, tide and wind at one of the world’s most perfect reefs, combined with the best surfers in the world to ride it and the best infrastructure to document it. If the surfers and cameramen hadn’t been there, it would have been like the proverbial tree in a forest falling down and not making a sound because there is nobody there to hear it. This sort of thing, where the impact of an event depends on whether there is anybody around to make use of it or to observe it, is called the weak anthropic principle – a favourite among astrophysicists and philosophers. Thankfully, it is something we probably won’t be covering in a future MSW article.