South Africa's Big Wednesday: A Swell So Powerful it Lifted a Shipwreck from the Ocean Floor

Alan van Gysen

by on

Updated 105d ago

Some are calling it one of the most powerful swells to hit The Cape Peninsula in decades. Maybe not the biggest waves ever seen, but certainly one of the most powerful.

If the waves seen battering the outer reefs last week on Wednesday, and again on Friday, were not enough evidence, surely the relocation of a shipwreck is? So powerful were the waves they lifted an old shipwreck from the ocean’s floor and washed it ashore near Oudekraal (12 Apostles).

Protect the West Coast spearhead and long-time Cape Big Wave Trust overseer Mike Schlebach catches a warm-up wave at Sunset Reef which was one of the only surfable spots in Cape Town when the swell hit.

Protect the West Coast spearhead and long-time Cape Big Wave Trust overseer Mike Schlebach catches a warm-up wave at Sunset Reef which was one of the only surfable spots in Cape Town when the swell hit.

© 2022 - Alan Van Gysen

Jason Hayes and Josh Redman were prepared and ready from early on Wednesday morning. Quick surf check before launching the ski.

Jason Hayes and Josh Redman were prepared and ready from early on Wednesday morning. Quick surf check before launching the ski.

© 2022 - Alan Van Gysen

The oil tanker, Antipolis, ran aground off Oudekraal during a July storm in 1977 and had been sitting on the ocean floor since then. The wreck is around 25m long and stands four metres high.

Huge 18ft@17 seconds swell just off the tip of South Africa generated these colossal seas.

Huge 18ft@17 seconds swell just off the tip of South Africa generated these colossal seas.

 Josh Redman and Jason Hayes add perspective to the size and sheer power to one of the strongest swells to hit Cape Town in decades.

Josh Redman and Jason Hayes add perspective to the size and sheer power to one of the strongest swells to hit Cape Town in decades.

© 2022 - Alan Van Gysen

© 2022 - Ant Fox

Being in the direct firing-line of the Roaring 40's, Cape Town often gets massive surf coupled with severe weather, which doesn't often translate to great, paddleable surf.

Underground charger and contemporary to Matt Bromley, James Lowe grabs the rope after it was deemed unpaddable by the whole Cape big wave crew. Many had to sit this one out and watch from the beach.

Underground charger and contemporary to Matt Bromley, James Lowe grabs the rope after it was deemed unpaddable by the whole Cape big wave crew. Many had to sit this one out and watch from the beach.

© 2022 - Alan Van Gysen

Simon (The Coach) Lowe and Andrew (Andy) Marr have teamed up for almost 20 years, and have the most experience out at Sunset Reef and according to Simon, the best tow-board.

Simon (The Coach) Lowe and Andrew (Andy) Marr have teamed up for almost 20 years, and have the most experience out at Sunset Reef and according to Simon, the best tow-board.

© 2022 - Grant Scholtz

Long-time friends Jason Hayes and Josh Redman sharing a moment for the camera after making it through a big closeout set on the inside.

Long-time friends Jason Hayes and Josh Redman sharing a moment for the camera after making it through a big closeout set on the inside.

© 2022 - Alan Van Gysen

In fact it's more a rarity to get waves this big with clean weather. This is where the ski and the rope have came to be relied on since the inception of tow-surfing back in the day with South Africans Glen Bee and Pierre du Plessis starting with a rubber duck at the same time as Laird Hamilton and co started over in Hawaii.

Seasoned skipper Steve Benjamin and crew watch on as James Lowe negotiates another big set. Steve would go on to state that this was the wildest seas he has ever been in.

Seasoned skipper Steve Benjamin and crew watch on as James Lowe negotiates another big set. Steve would go on to state that this was the wildest seas he has ever been in.

© 2022 - Alan Van Gysen

Frank Solomon.

Frank Solomon.

© 2022 - Ian Thurtell.

Josh Redman braving the chandelier on the end section.

Josh Redman braving the chandelier on the end section.

© 2022 - Alan Van Gysen

Without the power of the engine, surfers just wouldn't be able to ride these massive rolling mountains that hit the deep water reefs of Cape Town.

About the swell, MSW forecaster Tony Butt said: "The huge swell that hit the Southwest Peninsula last Wednesday 19th January originated from a low pressure system that began to develop just east of the Falkland Islands on Friday 14th. The storm steadily deepened as it moved east, reaching peak intensity on Monday 17th, about 1200 miles southwest of Cape Town. A relatively tight area of storm-force winds on its northern flank generated a short-lived pulse of large, long-period swell, enhanced by the easterly movement of the windfield itself.

© 2022 - Alan Van Gysen.

Josh Redman and Frank Solomon finally get to paddle Sunset Reef the day after the Cape beaches were pounded.

Josh Redman and Frank Solomon finally get to paddle Sunset Reef the day after the Cape beaches were pounded.

© 2022 - Grant Scholtz

"The swell arrived in Cape Town early Wednesday, with initial peak periods of around 20 secs, before filling in and seeing offshore wave heights increase to almost 20 feet. This translated into much bigger breaking wave heights at swell-magnets such as Sunset Reef, plus enormous amounts of water moving.

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Tow partners Mike Schlebach and Jake Kolnik were the first to brave the Sunset Reef lineup on Wednesday morning. BY the end of the day they had snapped a rescue sled, lost a tow-board and narrowly avoided losing their ski after being separated by a big wave and the rapid current on the inside.

Tow partners Mike Schlebach and Jake Kolnik were the first to brave the Sunset Reef lineup on Wednesday morning. BY the end of the day they had snapped a rescue sled, lost a tow-board and narrowly avoided losing their ski after being separated by a big wave and the rapid current on the inside.

© 2022 - Grant Scholtz

Andrew Marr and his classic bent-knee speeding down the face of a huge church of Atlantic water.

Andrew Marr and his classic bent-knee speeding down the face of a huge church of Atlantic water.

© 2022 - Grant Scholtz

"In addition to the large offshore wave heights coupled with unusually long periods, the swell came from a more westerly direction than normal, due to the storm tracking further north than usual. At some spots, but at Sunset much more than anywhere else, the focusing effect of the reef really comes into its own with west swells, particularly long-period ones. This swell was no exception, with A-frame peaks at Sunset more than doubling the wave height just offshore.

"Local wind conditions were also good, with moderate southerlies due to fairly weak pressure gradients over the coast. This is unusual for this time of year, when you would normally expect strong southeast trades off the northeast flank of a high pressure that sits just off the coast.

"In summary, the swell was exceptional, and even more so considering it arrived in the middle of summer. The storm wasn’t as huge as you would typically get in the winter, but it tracked more north than usual and deepened just in the right place to generate a large, long-period west swell."

The day after the swell hit, a small crew ventured down the beach to see what was left of the sand, and if it was small enough to surf. Local standout Simon Lowe is no stranger to heaving beach break barrels.

The day after the swell hit, a small crew ventured down the beach to see what was left of the sand, and if it was small enough to surf. Local standout Simon Lowe is no stranger to heaving beach break barrels.

© 2022 - Ant Fox

© 2022 - Ant Fox

© 2022 - Troy Davies

Cover shot by deanbannerss.