Shorebreak is a specific phenomenon. When the change in bottom contours is so significant, and the wave action is high enough, these specific beach waves get jacked up and come crashing down right on the shoreline in a big way. There is obviously the danger -- if the swell is heavy enough -- of getting caught in the impact zone just like any another wave, and having a massive force of water come crashing down on your head. But perhaps the bigger shorebreak danger is getting sucked over the falls. These waves are characterized by breaking on the shore, which means next to no water upon impact if you get sucked up and over and the wave slams you into the beach. Now take all of that, and go swimming with a 7lb water housing.
Shorebreak will be more predictable at certain beaches, and sometimes can be really fun to shoot. Photographers like Clark Little have made their name on shooting monstrous shorebreaks, and while I in no way aspire to be a big name shorebreak photographer, I still keep an eye on the forecast for the good days.
One day recently it looked like perfect manageable shorebreak shooting conditions. I had shot at this spot a couple times before when the ocean may have appeared next to flat. All it would take was a 2-3' wave to come gently rolling up the beach and break in just the right way. If you had the right lens on, you could make it look massive. And it was small enough that getting body slammed wasn't too big of a problem. But this recent day in January it was a bit bigger.
I watched the waves for about half an hour before suiting up. It was first light during a cold New England winter day, still rather dark, and the swell size seemed larger than my previous shorebreak shoot but still manageable. Boy, was I wrong.
One thing I forgot to really look at was the tide. The sand bar I normally would stand on and use to time diving under the waves had been replaced by a deep trough with heavy current at the edge of the shore. I didn't have anywhere to stand when the bigger waves came rolling in, and got sucked up and over the falls within a matter of minutes.
I felt my camera bounce off my face despite my best efforts to keep it down at my side. I felt my hip then my shoulder collide with the bottom. The turbulence of this wave was so incredible, despite it only seeming to be about 4'. I got tossed like a rag doll, and the berm of the beach was so steep I couldn't climb out of the water to escape the second wave. I took a look down the beach. Took a look at the second incoming wave. And just said to myself, "Well, here comes another one." Big breath of air. And through the wash I went again.
There was enough of a lull before the third wave that I managed to scramble out of the water and up the beach. I sat down in the dry sand, slightly dazed, watching the waves. The morning light was incredible. Even in my state of adrenaline and numbness, knowing the pain would be close behind, I couldn't help but watch the ocean for a good 15 minutes. It was so beautiful, I wished I could've managed to shoot it from the water.
Still in my wetsuit, I ran to my car to get my other camera and lens, and I spent another half hour shooting the waves from the beach. My face hurt, but not enough to really be worried. My fingers were cold from the below freezing temperatures, but I didn't care. I think I had mild whiplash, but it was so beautiful. It was all worth it. I absolutely love what I do.
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