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Jun 2014

Pics Greg Ewing

When Skeleton Bay first popped up on the radar following SURFING magazine’s Google Earth Challenge in 2008, it was easy to assume the groundbreaking left was a new discovery. After all, how could a wave so stupendous have been ridden before without the surfing world knowing about it? But the honour of that first magical ride doesn’t belong to Corey Lopez, or anyone on a surfboard for that matter.

The spot known today as Skeleton Bay was first ridden in the early 1980s by a core group of Namibian diamond divers and windsurfers, including the father-son duo of Alan and Steven Louw, and Heiko Metzger.

"There just wasn't really a wave back then," says Heiko, a former national windsurfing champ and ardent surfer. "We would head out and ride the winds, and between sessions watch this perfect little wave peeling about 100 metres before closing out. Even then the sand, blown across the spit, would just disappear into the ocean. We often thought about surfing this much shorter wave, but the two-knot current was just too draining to deal with. Besides, it was great with a sail.”

A 2012 study by Swellnet using satellite imagery backs up Heiko’s recollections, claiming: “The shape of Skeleton Bay has changed considerably over the past forty years due to large amounts of sand moving northward along the sand spit. At the moment the wave is approximately one kilometre further north of where it would have broken in 1973.” 

One geological study estimates that nearly one million cubic metres of sand flows past Skeleton Bay per year, with the spit just north of the wave surveyed to grow 340 metres between 1980 and 1996. Scientists believe a subtle shift in the mean wind direction since the late 70s is responsible for the evolving landscape. As this predominant southerly wind continued to blow and move sand along the coast, Heiko’s 100-metre closeout evolved into a two kilometre long drainer.

Details are vague as to who was first to ride the revamped wave in earnest. Anecdotal evidence suggests a group of Namibian bodyboarders gave it a crack around the turn of the new millennium. A few gritty standups followed suit, and the wave was surfed intermittently on the quiet for a decade or so.

But when the curtain was drawn in 2008, Skeleton Bay became the new benchmark against which to measure all discoveries against. It didn’t just set the bar for the perfect wave, it redefined it with sheer length of ride, technical difficulty and bone crushing tube-time. Not since Teahupoo had any wave so dramatically challenged the surfing world’s preconceived notions of what a wave was capable of. 

The same life force that created Skeleton Bay may well kill it in the near future. Experts believe accelerated erosion could break up the sandspit before the next generation gets to ride it. But if Skeleton has shown us one thing, it’s that our coastlines are dynamic and the next ultimate wave may be in the making right now. 

“After travelling extensively in the late 90s and early 2000s I returned in 2008 to all the hype of the newly ‘found’ Skeleton Bay,” says Heiko. “I had to see it for myself, and when I did, I couldn't believe it was the same place. It had drastically changed in shape from 1984. What used to be a sharp, pointed little bay had turned into a large beach and extensive bay way better suited to the general swell direction. And the wave it created, well, that was another story entirely.”

Source: Zigzag Surfing Magazine