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The Return of a Surf Classic

Kim McCoy & Willard Newell Bascom  /  March 12, 2021  /  5 Min Read  /  Surfing, Community

Coauthor Kim McCoy recounts discovering the mystery of what lies beneath the waves, where ocean and land meet and compete.

Wind blowing offshore will cause the face of a wave to streak upward then tear off into a rain-like spray. These droplets (water and salt aerosols) increase the exchange of heat between the ocean and atmosphere. Pipeline, O‘ahu. Photo: Brian Bielmann

Editor’s Note: First published in 1964, Waves and Beaches quickly became an essential handbook for anyone who studies, surfs, protects, or is fascinated by the ocean, a delightful combination of science and adventure. The original author, Willard Bascom, included a wealth of information based on theory and statistics but also anecdotal observation and personal experience. It brought to the general public understanding of the awesome and complex power of the waves.

Fresh with new insights, this update from Kim McCoy adds recent facts and anecdotes to the book’s relevance in the time of climate change. It spotlights the ongoing transformations to our coastal cities, sea-going vessels, energy supplies and global commerce.

As well as students, surfers, and the general public, this updated edition of a beloved classic is an essential handbook for ocean activists, providing clear explanations and detailed resources for the constant battle to preserve the shore.

The following is an excerpt from Waves and Beaches, updated and republished by Patagonia in 2021.

We approached the island by open boat, slowed, dropped the anchor, and the boat came to rest. The Mediterranean island of Tinetto is just outside the safe harbor of La Spezia, Italy, and exposed to the deep-water swell of the Ligurian Sea. The island is small, it can be hiked end-to- end in a few minutes, and it rises only few stories above the sea. The water was clear and the warm, gentle breeze warmed our skin as we waded across the shoal to the shore.

When we were upon Tinetto, the island revealed an unusual feature: an opening filled with salt water—an oblong well just wide enough to stretch out one’s arms and long enough to lie in prone with extended dive fins. Intrigued by this well-like opening, which seiched up and down with the rhythm of long-period waves, I descended, with mask and fins, into a pulsing void below. Facing downward, my eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light. With a deep breath through my snorkel, I bent at the waist, raised my fins in the air, and sunk headfirst. After a distance of ten body lengths and thirty seconds below the surface, a submarine cavern appeared with its own white sand beach, which continued gently downward toward a distant light. Each unseen passing wave stirred grains of sand back and forth in the sand ripples on the cave’s floor.

After a minute on the bottom it was time to return to the surface. Back above water I exclaimed to my companions, “There’s a sandy beach down there and I can see light coming from the other side. This cave must extend all the way through Tinetto. It’s an underwater tunnel.”

I dove again and again, each time deeper and longer. The submarine beach ended at a restricted opening the size of a doorway, where the oscillating flow had scoured away all the sand. Here I guessed would be my point of no return on my next dive. Back at the surface, I told my companions I would go for it on my next dive. “If I don’t come back in three minutes, don’t follow me. Wait until I swim around the island.”

I calmed myself and dove again, this time intent on swimming past the doorway and through the cave entirely. Below, each wave’s outward rush of water sucked me toward the doorway. I swam further and then paused at the threshold. Tranquil, yet focused, I passed the point where I was too far into the cave to make it back the way I had come. The surge of the next deep-water wave’s energy was even stronger; this was the wave of no return, and forward was the only way out. As I continued downward, I equalized the pressure on my eardrums. When the next wave forced water against me, I resisted by holding onto the rocks on the bottom. I had pushed harder and deeper than I had anticipated, now the equivalent of six stories underwater— holding my breath with no point of reference, I realized I was far from safety.

After about two minutes I cleared the sloshing narrows into the beckoning light and rotated upward, expecting to ascend a vertical wall to the surface. But there was more—above me was an unseen wave-worn roof to the cave which extended upward, not vertically but at a 45-degree angle. I briefly thought of the possibility of a shallow- water blackout, but pushed the thought out of my mind. I passed half a football field in length before reaching the surface. In the span of just over two minutes, I had swum underwater through an island, felt the pulse of wave energy, resisted the movements of water and sand, and almost passed out. The sun warmed my lips, and I began to smile, now unchallenged by the sway of the seiche. – KM

The new edition of Waves and Beaches is available in any Patagonia store, on, and in your favorite bookstore or online retailer. It is available in print or as an ebook.

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