Surfing’s Olympic Wave Whisperer

Photo: Kurt Korte at Tsurigasaki Beach. “If we get to the end and we go, ‘Oh, no, the surf’s not very good,’ then I haven’t done my job.”Credit…James Hill for The New York Times

Kurt Korte does not control the waves for the Games’ debut surfing competition. His job is to predict when the best ones will arrive.

27 July 2021 | John Branch | New York Times

ICHINOMIYA, Japan — Surfing is the only event at the Summer Olympics without a precise, predetermined schedule. It might happen today, but maybe not.

Consider another sport, like swimming, where the women’s 200-meter breaststroke final is scheduled for 10:41 a.m. on July 30. Or gymnastics, where the men’s pommel horse final will start at 6:44 p.m. on Aug. 1.

Surfing? Whatever. At the Olympics, all that had been decided in advance was that four days’ worth of surfing would fall within an eight-day window at Tsurigasaki Beach, 60 miles east of Tokyo.

The rest remains largely up to Kurt Korte.

He is a professional surf forecaster, a job that blends oceanography, meteorology and stoke. His responsibility at the Olympics is to predict when the best waves will reach the shore.

Are today’s waves better than tomorrow’s? Should we wait until Friday or get started in two hours?

“If we get to the end and we go, ‘Oh, no, the surf’s not very good,’ then I haven’t done my job,” Korte said.

Forecasting surf is especially important and fraught on a coast not known for big waves. But long-held concerns about low waves and a dull show for surfing’s Olympic debut have mostly washed away, as a tropical storm churned toward Japan, carrying the promise of big swells.

It could bring unsettled weather to Tokyo early in the week, but such a storm is good news, and a bit of relief, for Olympic surfers.

The swell was expected to rise steadily on Sunday and last at least a couple of days, Korte said on Saturday afternoon, before he rushed off to another meeting. He spends some of his time studying data and models, and the rest telling people what he thinks.

Korte, 38, grew up in Virginia Beach, Va., and his first job was parking cars at a lot over the beach where he sometimes surfed. He gazed at the water and wondered why some days had no waves and other days had epic ones, even when the weather did not change.

The curiosity spurred him to study environmental science at the University of Virginia, then to pursue a master’s degree in meteorology at North Carolina State. In 2005, he got a job with Surfline, founded in 1985 by Sean Collins. The service combined emerging technologies like satellite imagery and computer forecasting with the growing pursuit of good waves.

Rio Waida of Indonesia during the first day of the men’s competition at Tsurigasaki Beach.Credit…James Hill for The New York Times

Most surfers are amateur forecasters, but big contests rely on professionals like Korte. Events like those in the World Surf League are usually scheduled within a window — ample chunks of wiggle room that allow for stretches of lifeless surf and downtime for surfers.

The fickle nature of waves is why one day’s contest might be delayed by a couple of hours, or from morning to afternoon, or maybe to the next day or the one after that. That could still happen at the Olympics.

Japan has a solid surf culture on its Pacific coast, about a 90-minute drive east from central Tokyo, with surf shops and beach shacks and broad stretches of sand.

But there are no spots with the big-wave spectacle that many come to expect from high-level surfing. The waves are more like those of the East Coast of the United States than more famous surf spots like Hawaii and Tahiti. Some had suggested that the Olympics hold the Tokyo competition in a wave pool, but endless sets of artificial waves goes a bit against the sport’s culture and aesthetic.

In 2015, Surfline was asked to analyze potential breaks for the Olympic competition. Using 35 years of data, it targeted the Olympic time frame of late July and August.

It broke the research into key elements: wave consistency (how often there are ridable waves); wave quality (how good are they when they come); conditions (variables like prevailing winds or sandbars that impact how waves break); and local input (where do they surf that time of year?).

The work pointed toward Tsurigasaki Beach. On Tuesday, Korte gave a video presentation about the break to the U.S. Olympic surf team: Carissa Moore, Caroline Marks, Kolohe Andino and John John Florence.

He explained it as a beach break, with consistent waves close to shore in waist-deep water. The crescent-shaped beach is framed by jetties that alter the sandbars below the surface and, thus, the shapes and breaks of the waves above. The headland behind the beach protects the spot from disruptive winds from the south, he said. And, he noted, Tsurigasaki has held other international competitions successfully.

But a year ago, during the original window reserved for the 2020 Olympics, waves never materialized, stoking concern about the 2021 reboot.

Now, thanks to the coming storm, Korte expects waves of about four feet. While still not the type of waves to dazzle new audiences with mammoth barrels, it should be a better-than-expected show for surfing.

The question now is more micro, a bit of a puzzle: Which parts of which daylight hours over four of the eight days will be best for the contest?

Korte will share his latest forecasts with a loose committee that includes the International Surfing Association, the head judge for the Olympic competition and an athletes’ representative. Decisions will be made, and remade, and maybe questioned and regretted.

The coincidence of having rising swells just in time for the much-maligned surf contest is not lost on Korte. He cannot control the waves, only try to say when the best of them will arrive. At the moment, the eight-day window seems perfectly timed.

“Turns out the organizers are the best forecasters,” he said, smiling.

He seemed relaxed. It was the day before the window opened, the day before surfing made its Olympic debut with its first few competitors on Sunday morning, and he could not be certain when it would actually start, or if it might get delayed a few hours, even a day.

All he really knew for sure was that he planned to go surfing on Sunday morning before everyone else.

John Branch is a sports reporter. He won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for “Snow Fall,” a story about a deadly avalanche in Washington State, and is the author of three books, including “Sidecountry,” a collection of New York Times stories, in 2021. @JohnBranchNYT


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