story by David Thompson
Surfing contest promoter Randy Rarick woke up one Friday with a decision to make: He had a two-day window for the final round of the 2003 Xbox Gerry Lopez Pipeline Masters, and he could either hold the event that day in four- to six-foot surf or wait for a bigger swell predicted to arrive Saturday. So he phoned Pat Caldwell, Hawaii’s foremost surf forecaster.
photo by Kyle Rothenborg
"Pat said, ‘It’s gonna die by Saturday morning and come up Saturday afternoon,’" says Rarick, who decided to go with Friday. Sure enough, Saturday the waves dropped by the a.m. and the afternoon’s ten-foot swell came too late to have done the Pipe Masters any good.
For many surfers, Caldwell’s ability to make such reliable forecasts makes him a surf demigod—maybe the first ever with roots in central Kentucky. "I was the son of a farmer, and farmers are always talking about the weather," says the soft-spoken Caldwell. "I had weather in my blood." Caldwell spent his teens in South Carolina, where he learned to surf in the temperamental Atlantic and started turning his weather observations into wave predictions. He earned a master’s degree in meteorology and next took a job he still holds today, as an ocean data librarian with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the University of Hawaii.
Caldwell never lost his interest in surf forecasting; in the early 1990s, he began emailing predictions to friends around UH. Demand to get on his mailing list mushroomed, and in 1997 he launched a website. Caldwell’s forecasts became famous in the surf community for their reliability and detail; look for in-depth discussion of every weather event from the Aleutians to the Antarctic that has any chance of sending waves to Hawaii.
In 2002, citing conflicts with forecasts from its National Weather Service, NOAA pulled the plug on Caldwell’s site (which was then logging up to 5,000 hits a day). Enraged surfers bombarded NOAA with complaints, and the outcry led the agency to invite Caldwell to collaborate on its site. Now surf forecasting is an official part of his job.
With the demands of work and family, Caldwell has to plan his own surf sessions strategically. But as you might expect, when he paddles out, he usually hits it just right. "It’s pretty rare that I get skunked," he says.