“Visceral” Surf Forecasting with Mark Sponsler

“Visceral” Surf Forecasting with Mark Sponsler

[1/5/2010,Editor's Note: With some huge swell on the way and a possible Maverick's Contest vote, we thought this an opportune time to re-post this feature by Mike Wallace. — matt]

[Author's Note: Facts are still mostly relevant a year later after Mother Nature skipped out in 2009, but note that for the first time the contest "call" is not made by one director, but by a democratic majority of the participants, who are rumored to be casting their ballots as soon as Friday, 1/8 (or next week?). — mike]

Sponsler with trusty gun

By day, surf forecaster Mark Sponsler is a lot like Clark Kent, working industriously for a major local health care provider. But by night, Mark trades in his slide rules and algorithms for, well, more slide rules and algorithms. Feeding his addiction for large, clean surf, he fine-tunes his swell forecasting site www.stormsurf.com to cache and sort out all incoming raw data from the NOAA and spit this out in a refined form that we, as surfers, can specifically relate to on SurfPulse.com and Wavewatch.com.

Those who drill into the SurfPulse.com “Report” and “Forecast” pages undoubtedly have located one of the more useful tables of ocean swell information on the site. Nightshift Mark diligently keeps us up-to-date with the projected swell trend, wind speed, swell details, set size, and swell direction each week, sufficiently detailed to give a succinct snapshot of just what’s on the horizon. That’s a lifeline for many of us working stiffs also leading double lives in the workplace and in the water, allowing us to optimize our schedules to fit in a few waves each week.

In addition to his regular updates on these surf sites, Mark is called upon by traveling pros and photographers who draw upon his forecasting skill for contests and the frequent diaspora of surf travel, photo, and film missions around the globe. Eric Nelson and Curt Myers, collaborators on several definitive Maverick’s documentaries, were sent globetrotting by Sponsler for their “Down The Line” video. He directed them to Peahi on Maui for one particularly epic Pacific swell, then to Ghost Tree in Monterey and full-circle back to Maverick’s to chase the same swell again. Nelson says that Mark is the forecasting “guru” around here and he “relies on Mark’s expertise” to be prepared at a moment’s notice to gather footage for their next film. In turn, 2008 Maverick’s champion Greg Long called the Powerlines box set essential “study materials” for his victory and “if this was my classroom, I’d be an ‘A’ student for doing my research.”

Green room with view

Green room with view

Proving that even ‘A’ students can get schooled by Maverick’s, Long was pitched on his very first wave of the epic, exceptionally thick and clean 25-second swell recently on November 29–30. Slammed and driven deep into the pit, he burst an ear drum and was so badly disoriented after a two-wave hold-down that when Jeff Clark swooped in on a PWC, Clark found the big wave hero feet in the air, struggling to swim down to his likely death from the surface, completely upside down. That life-or-death event is one among many in heavy and disturbing footage caught in Powerlines’ compelling new film Ride On, which recently premiered at the Princeton Landing and is slated to show around the Bay Area. (Visit http://www.powerlinesproductions.blogspot.com/ for more information.) Ahead of that swell, Sponsler is caught on film presciently warning even experienced riders to “stay away from the bowl.” Even as the paddle-in envelope was pushed that weekend, PWCs provided the security for paddlers to charge some of the biggest waves ever caught by hand, again proving their place in the line-up.

Drumbeat of Distant Breaks

Sponsler treks out for a surf

Sponsler treks out for a surf

Sponsler plays an instrumental role in making the call for the Maverick’s contest each year, having befriended Jeff Clark when Mark and his wife Jane moved out here in June of ’95 from Florida. The couple met working on the Space Shuttle Program at the Kennedy Space Center, not far from the tourist Mecca of Orlando, but found that the space program just wasn’t exciting enough. Instead, they pulled up stakes and plumb headed west to California, touching down in the midst of the Internet and Maverick’s boom.

As fun as the Florida surf spots are, there’s more to surfing than Cocoa Beach, Sebastian Inlet and Reef Road. Fickle Florida surf only fed Sponsler’s appetite for larger, more consistent waves, starting with the typical forays to Cape Hatteras, Puerto Rico and regular pilgrimages to the North Shore of Hawaii with his buddy and prolific Florida shaper, Matt Kechele. The inconsistency of Floridian home breaks tends to breed hunger for MORE among its competitive surfing citizenry, and Mark is no exception to this rule.

Sponsler discussing his equipment

Sponsler discussing his equipment

Sponsler got his first taste for big waves in the Hawaiian Islands, and it was Kechele who drove him deeper and bigger at Sunset Beach and Waimea on the North Shore of Oahu. Like many other surf junkies, Mark made the annual winter pilgrimage for a couple weeks each year. In an eerie future connection with Maverick’s, the pair would stay at big-wave maestro Mark Foo’s complex near Waimea “and surf ’till we dropped every day.” Sponsler recalls strolling out at the river mouth at Waimea with a 7′-6″ gun and 6′ leash, clueless in his zeal to tackle a 25′ (Hawaiian) swell; off to his right was a bronzed Foo waxing up a 10′-4″ Rhino Chaser with a 12′ leash. Undaunted, Sponsler scampered back to the rental car and knotted two 6′ leashes together, paddled out and still managed to catch 4–5 waves that day. Foo later infamously surrendered his life after going over the falls on a comparatively tame day at Maverick’s on December 23, 1994.

Early Days of Forecasting

Mark recalls prowling the old Maverick’s surf shop on Main Street in Half Moon Bay on his days off (the shop is now located deep in the dusty heart of industrial Princeton) in search of advice and equipment before starting to paddle out at Mav’s on a regular basis. Jeff and Mark traded e-mails on the outlook for significant-class swells, and Mark’s distribution list eventually exploded to a size where he could justify starting a website of his own. That in turn led to the creation of Stormsurf.com.

1/22/09: Will this forecast make Jeff Clark pull the 2009 Mav's Contest trigger?

1/22/09: Will this forecast make Jeff Clark pull the 2009 Mav's Contest trigger?

Clark once said “Sponsler is the kind of forecaster who doesn’t just give you the heads-up on a good day. He’d have a precise time for the swell’s arrival; so if he said 2 P.M., then the boys would hit the water around 1:30 and find that Mark was right on the money” (as related by Bruce Jenkins).

Pioneering Maverick’s surf photographer Doug Acton harks back to the pre-Internet days when he and Mark would trawl through buoy reports and even harder-to-come-by shipping reports for their swell data, “growing with the surf break together” and sharing information. Truly, it was an insider’s game back then, mapping out readings from the 46006 SE Papa Buoy (600 nautical miles west of Eureka) to gauge the distance of the swell and checking the 46059 California Buoy (357 nautical miles west of San Francisco) for a better bead on its duration and proximity. A friendly “heads-up” e-mail was the result and was passed around between surfer-forecasters and photographers.

That’s all changed now with the democratization of the forecasting business by the Internet. While rival Surfline.com covers the globe, Acton says that Sponsler is still the go-to guy for Northern California: “He came from Florida with a great attitude and was welcomed into the Maverick’s brotherhood.” Jeff Clark agrees that Mark turned a hobby into his “passion,” but the darker side of progress has been the crowds who have come with the more accurate and accessible forecasts, which has “really loaded the line-up.” In fact, assaults on the Half Moon Bay Buoy have been rumored on more than one occasion, aimed at disabling the equipment during peak Maverick’s season. If the swell and period readings go blank, it is possible that sabotage and not nature may be the cause.

Making the Call – A “Visceral” Experience

Sponsler makes it abundantly clear that Jeff Clark makes the call to hold the contest each year, while Mark plays a supporting role, by providing data that pinpoints a swell and then must fit a complex variety of factors that will “reach the minimum threshold to have a contest.” The “minimum” bar is set pretty high, with the swell required to hold at 20-foot (Hawaiian) from the right direction and a sufficiently long period between waves, along with calm winds and a daytime window of at least four hours of low tide during the workweek and not a major holiday. Recall, the last time those conditions came together was for the January 12, 2008 contest (see video below), unfortunately a Saturday, which required some extra arm-twisting of local authorities by the contest director. Several invitees had also been making a beeline to the “Tow-in Classic” at Nelscott Reef in Oregon and had to turn back.

While Mark provides the hard data, Jeff has to consider a variety of soft factors:  gambling how deep into the winter season to risk waiting for the ideal swell; gauging whether the surfers would be willing to concede some wave size for clean contestable conditions; and determining whether the Half Moon Bay community would be well served and able to support the contest when Mother Nature decides to play ball. “So I take a very conservative approach and try to recommend swells that meet the ‘letter of the law’ minimum requirements, then Jeff gets the unenviable task of having to make the decision when conditions may be marginal,” says Sponsler. “Typically, on any given swell event, Jeff and I talk days before the storm even forms, then start increasing the number of touch points to maybe 2–3 times daily once the storm has actually formed, and we’re getting confirmed data on sea heights off the Jason-1 satellite and wind speeds from the QuickSCAT satellite. Almost all my data comes directly off of Stormsurf.”

Jeff Clark remembers giving Sponsler the option to make the call for the contest in 2008, since Mark had reservations about the size and consistency of the swell. With a chuckle, Jeff still vividly recalls a message left on his cell phone voicing those doubts. But Clark scanned the data again, noting “the swell came from 3000 miles away with no cross-winds” and decided to pull the trigger anyway. With the exception of a few heats with very long lulls, the waves came, the surfers surfed, and the final was an epic, salvaged in the last ten minutes by a few clean bombs that arrived just in time—thanks to more than a little of that Clark magic. That’s why he’s the contest director.

Sponsler dropping in, back-dooring the peak (1 of 5)

Sponsler dropping in, back-dooring the peak (1 of 5)


Sponsler dropping in, back-dooring the peak (2 of 5)

Sponsler dropping in, back-dooring the peak (2 of 5)


Sponsler dropping in, back-dooring the peak (3 of 5)

Sponsler dropping in, back-dooring the peak (3 of 5)


Sponsler dropping in, back-dooring the peak (4 of 5)

Sponsler dropping in, back-dooring the peak (4 of 5)


Sponsler dropping in, back-dooring the peak (5 of 5)

Sponsler dropping in, back-dooring the peak (5 of 5)

Out of all the forecasts he is most proud of for their accuracy and impact, Mark says that without a doubt he’s developed a special relationship with Maverick’s. He’s invested a lot of himself in terms of time and tools to hone his forecasts around this break. Unlike other scientists or lab technicians, his “sampling” process is done not in a white coat with a pocket protector but, more like Superman, by donning a black wetsuit and booties. As he describes it, “The feedback is instantaneous, very detailed and visceral. It’s not like making a forecast, then a few days later looking at a buoy or some cam and saying ‘Yeah, looks like the surf is what we thought it would be.’ Instead, you get to paddle out and see a 20-footer unload on your head and think, ‘Uh, maybe I under-called it.’”

Taking the Weather Personally

Whereas storms in the Pacific are for the most part given anonymous labels like N#1 and S#2, in the Atlantic they take their weather personally, christening them with names like “Bob” and “Andrew.” Considering the human and economic havoc they can wreak (recall Katrina and Gustav), any major storm could bury your home underwater. “The threat was always there and they left quite an impression” on a young lad who was never far from the surf, says Sponsler.

Turning back the dial a decade or two, weather forecasting has been in the Sponsler family for a couple of generations. Growing up in the hurricane catcher’s mitt of Florida and on the vulnerable barrier island of Cocoa Beach, Mark remembers as a kid plotting out storm paths as they bore down on his home break. Insight into weather patterns was tantamount to saving your own neck or potentially your neighbor’s property. Mark’s dad, Leonard, was a closet weatherman and his brother Steve actually worked for the Air Force as a meteorologist for a time, “so it was a frequent topic of conversation around the house,” he confesses.

While other kids were trading baseball cards, as Mark recalls: “Once I started surfing, I started really getting into tracking the storms and mapping their progress and strength, trying to turn that into a surf forecast. Remember, this was before the Internet, before weather radios and before any of the technology we take so for granted now. So I put together some rudimentary forecast tools, mainly based purely on storm tracking, and then tried to correlate those data points to what actually occurred swell-wise on the beach…It was a very organic and natural progression.”

Fast-forward to the present, and he spends roughly 14 hours a week doing routine forecasts on top of the in-demand custom forecasts. Not satisfied standing still, Sponsler has been engrossed in a major technological overhaul of Stormsurf. Scripting all the swell models himself, he has been buried in the upgrade, improving the site and keeping it current with all the new information spawned by the NOAA. It is true that Mark himself is a big beneficiary as he plots his recreation plans across the Bay from the hills of Hayward, heading south to Santa Cruz in the summer, and to Maverick’s and Ross’ Cove in the winter.

Right and Left Coasts

Sponsler cuts back on a section

Sponsler cuts back on a section

The contrast between Mark’s formative surfing experience in Florida and current stomping grounds in NorCal couldn’t be starker. In Florida, if there is any surf at all, you paddle out because you never know when that next swell will arrive. In NorCal, you have to learn to pace yourself when the surf is good, banking just enough energy to hit it hard again the next day, especially in large surf. There is also a wider variety of consistent surf in California, ranging from deep-water reefs like Maverick’s to crowded shallow-shelf sandbars, point breaks and other nooks and crannies. Florida surf has significantly less variety, with similar beach breaks stretching for hundreds of miles and, for the most part, one peak not dissimilar to another, other than at the odd groins, jetties, and piers that help accumulate sand and offer some variety.

In terms of surf culture, Sponsler doesn’t see a huge difference in attitude between the two regions, though Florida may have the edge in terms of wave-hunger and opportunism. He has found surfers in both areas fairly friendly if you put in the time and are respectful at the quality breaks—unless you abuse your welcome and your attitude exceeds your skills.

Sponsler ducks for cover

Sponsler ducks for cover

Mark gives a shout-out to a core group of underground warriors who are on it every time Maverick’s breaks, but don’t necessarily make the headlines. Some of the original regulars he surfs with include John Raymond, Bob Battalio, Christy Davis, and August Hidalgo. Among the next generation of addicts are Alex Martins, Matt Cignec, John Bowling, and Mark Alfaro.

In addition to the regulars, there is a whole crew of “fresh faces in the line-up trying to get a piece of the action on well-advertised days,” notes Mark. “That’s OK, but some push themselves pretty hard. You have to understand that even an inconsequential wipeout can have very real physical repercussions. And a bad wipeout anywhere near the peak on a long period swell, well…let’s just say it’s a very long and painful ride to the trauma ward. The odds of a serious injury occurring are actually pretty high. You don’t hear about it, but all the guys above have wipeout horror stories, some of them occurring even on small days. You will not get out without paying a price. And, if you’re not ready to pay, don’t play.” But the 52-year old Clark says the injuries add up over the years, and, though he still gets out there, “the young guys don’t have as much to risk.”

Sponsler swings into a glassy one

Sponsler swings into a glassy one

Not being able to surf every day, Mark takes his land training very seriously and spends any spare time in the gym. In an example of his diligence, he was once caught striding purposefully across the sands of Montara State Beach like John Cleese to the Ministry of Silly Walks… ”Firing up the quads before jumping in the water,” he sheepishly admitted.

Not big on breath-holding exercises, he combines his weight training with balance and fitness work on a “Bosu ball.” He credits being able to balance with eyes closed and training the minor muscle groups for the confidence to take a big drop even when blinded by spinnakers of offshore spray. Like Mark “Doc” Renneker and Clark himself, Sponsler reckons he can push the age envelope in giant surf through superior fitness and preparation.

Maverick’s—A “Technical” Wave

Compared to his early big-wave experiences surfing Waimea, Sponsler describes Maverick’s as a much more “technical” wave. Whereas Waimea is a huge drop, bottom turn and then point toward the shoulder, Maverick’s is “a full carveable wave. You drop, turn off the bottom, turn off the top and then set yourself up to race through a series of sections over a 400-yard field. There’s a large canvas to work with between the main bowl and Mushroom Rock… and beyond.”

On December 22, 2000, the author witnessed Jay Moriarity being whipped into the outside bowl by tow-in partner Clark and kicking out at Mushroom Rock some 45 seconds later. Jeff had rolled up on the ski with Moriarity and told the paddle-in die-hards: “The sun’s going down, it’s 25-foot and we’re going to show you the future” (a future now dimmed by the partial marine sanctuary ban on PWCs). As he looked back over his shoulder, he saw Jay disappear into a cavernous, silhouetted barrel all the way from the bowl to the channel.

Sponsler, Moriarity, Clark & Renneker share a moment

Sponsler, Moriarity, Clark & Renneker share a moment

After witnessing that, the flotilla on the shoulder was just screaming, and Jay just kept on going. Sponsler remembers Moriarity as one of the most inclusive and friendly guys in the line-up and on shore. He submits for the record a photo of Jay, Jeff, himself and Doc Renneker as evidence of a Maverick’s bond that transcends even that disparate group.

“It all depends on the board you’re riding and what your goals are. If you have the guts, you can get tubed, or you can do full-on cutbacks. It’s almost futile to try to describe in words the experience of growing to know that wave over more than a decade. It’s an ongoing evolution and I’m still learning,” says Sponsler. Even after cutting his big-wave teeth in Hawaii, Mark admits he was “totally clueless” when he started at Maverick’s. Now in his fourteenth season, after logging hundreds of hours of water time, and even more time forecasting for the break, he sees Florida as “a whole planet away.”

Attack of the Purple Blobs

And the relevance of all his hard work for others? For newcomers to surfing, paying attention to Mark’s forecasts frankly could save your life, when those red and purple blobs start appearing on the radar screen, come winter when conditions change quickly. A trawl through the Surfpulse.com “News” section reveals as recently as October 25, 2008 “an inexperienced surfer” rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard at Ocean Beach near the Cliff House, after “having trouble getting in.” That swell peaked at 16-foot and 25-seconds and, according to Maverick’s regulars, rammed through sets of as many as 15 double-overhead-plus waves followed by hour-long lulls. Not conditions for a newbie at an exposed beach break like OB, something his reputed “friends” should have known.

“Though a hurricane can generate waves with periods in the 14-second range, storms headed for Maverick’s can generate waves with periods at 25 seconds or greater, the most powerful waves on Earth short of a tidal wave.” (Sponsler, from Inside Maverick’s; Acton, Jenkins, Washburn)

Hollow tidal wave; any takers?

Another inexperienced surfer who was not so lucky was Sean Fahey, who died on January 22, 2006 after tangling with a medium-sized but extremely hard-breaking 7-foot, 16-second northwest swell, which detonated that day on OB’s ferocious inside bars. Maybe surf shops should require that first-time wetsuit and board buyers complete a tutorial of wave forecasting and condition assessment before entering the water. More experienced surfers know their limits and all target their search with resources like SurfPulse, Stormsurf, Wavewatch, and Surfline.

Refining Equipment

Mark is readily identifiable in the surf by his friendly demeanor and his shock of red hair, which he usually keeps tamed under a hoodie. He unabashedly flies those colors on his boards as well, most brightly tinted with oranges and yellows. Kechele still shapes all of his short boards, while he goes for local knowledge when it comes to his big-wave equipment. He gets his guns hand-crafted by Clark and Randy Cone, and credits a consistent working relationship with “shapers who have a shaping style that fits what I’m looking for. Then I can experiment and try new things with the boards and don’t have to worry that the fundamentals won’t be there.”

Favorite 10'-2" Clark gun

Favorite 10'-2\

Sponsler sees little comparison between his short boards and his Maverick’s guns. He describes his short boards as pulled-in potato chips, generally thinner than favored in the hard-breaking NorCal surf. A typical board would be 6′-3″ up to 8-foot in length, 18-3/4″ in width and 2-1/4″ in thickness, favoring very low-volume rails and pintails with thruster or quad fin setups. He also prefers a little more “V” in his boards than is currently in vogue, along with a lot of tail rocker to free up the board and make up for the lack of volume in the bow and stern. Up close, you’d swear you could actually shave with the tail of one of his short-boards. In contrast, the only trait Mark’s guns share with his short boards are the extreme tail rocker. He has been experimenting recently with smaller Mav’s equipment in the 9′-0″ to 9′-6″ range, but his favorite all-around gun is a 10′-2″ Clark that’s 3-1/4″ thick and 19-1/2″ inches wide.

Past and present converged when a close friend visited from Florida, who also happens to be a hot surfer. Says Sponsler, “I handed him one of my Mav’s boards (the 10′-2″ Clark). He stood there holding the 3+inch thick gun, with the skinny little pintail sinking into the grass and the nose pointing straight up into the blue California sky. Looking at it for a few moments, trying to get his head around the board, he said finally, ‘I can’t even imagine riding a wave so big that I’d need a board like this.’ The funny thing was, that wasn’t one of my bigger boards.”

Down to a Gnat’s Eyelash

For the winter ahead, Sponsler says that he is not especially optimistic in terms of large, clean surf. The dominant Pacific weather pattern is still a weak La Nina configuration. In contrast, her brother, the more muscular El Nino, “is almost a guarantee of large surf, but often you get a lot of weather with those swells, too.” While he’s been tinkering with long-term forecasting for the last decade or so, he’s come around to the idea that a strong La Nina may also boost storm and swell activity in the eastern Pacific—within the Maverick’s window. What appears to be happening lately is that neither phenomenon is dominant and “you get a grey area in between these two extremes where the potential really drops off.” In the past couple of years, a weak and late El Nino has been replaced by a frail La Nina, and the period during that transition “was the worst season we ever had.”

The heated sibling rivalry between the two long-term weather patterns tends to have less direct impact on Southern Hemisphere swells generated in the summertime. But Sponsler is coming around to the notion that, especially in transition, the Southern Hemi season can provide a preview of what’s to come the next winter. In this case, we had a pretty unproductive summer, which corroborates his pessimism about the potential this winter. “Of course, you can map it all out and track it down to a gnat’s eyelash (or butterfly’s wings), and then nature will always do something you don’t expect. But, in general, I believe there is much value in and a reasonably high degree of correlation between long-term forecasts and what eventually occurs.”

Mr. Jones

So the next time you scan the forecast pages in hopes of satisfying your surf Jones, be thankful that someone like Mark is working late on the night shift to keep you in the loop. With today’s resources on the Internet, it is all too easy to take for granted such valuable swell information and all the hard work that has gone into perfecting it. And, if you pay attention and time just it right, you just might catch him out there on an epic day.

Sponsler on an old gun

Sponsler on an old gun

Mike Wallace has surfed for over two decades on the East and West coasts, Hawaii, Europe and NorCal. Currently a resident of Moss Beach with his family of four, he can often be found haunting the beaches south of Devil’s Slide in search of the perfect sandbar with his blind dog, Moose. Comments? Mike(at)surfpulse.com

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