Thousands of kilometres from habitation and hundreds of kilometres from the nearest shipping lane, a tiny fleck of foam appears on the surface of the icy waters of the Southern Ocean. Nobody sees it, and it dies almost as soon as it is born. Only a ripple says it was ever there.
A hundred kilometres away to the east, a depression (area of low pressure) is building. Sailors – if there were any – would be watching the barometer. This time, the barometer goes up and the threat of a storm disappears. But the ripple doesn’t disappear. The light winds caused by the dying depression push it along a bit faster, and a bit higher. It may only be a couple of centimetres tall, but it is still moving. Still alive.
"What I do is to track the winds on the surface of the ocean using a satellite system called QuickScat," says wave guru Ben Matson, scanning his computer monitor in Sydney, Australia. Matson runs Swellnet, which provides wave forecasts for Australian surfers
"QuickScat uses a radar system to work out the roughness of the sea surface, and that tells me the wind speed even out in the most remote areas of the deep ocean," he says.
He’s looking for any signs of a building swell heading for the Australian coast. Exactly the kind of swell that can produce a truly massive wave. One that stormsurfers Ross Clarke-Jones or Tom Carroll would wait a year to ride.
Carroll, self-confessed big wave addict Clarke-Jones, and Matson all come from Australia, home of the renegade surfer. And they are all hooked on the extreme edge of the sport – catching monster waves after being flown and towed up to 40 kilometres out to sea on helicopters and behind jet skis.