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May 1974: The Storm Of Storms

By Dr Rob Brander on May 16, 2011 in Other

When was the last big swell you remember hitting our beaches? Was it the epic surf we had in March or the massive six metre waves in June 2007 that pushed the Pasha Bulker freighter onto Nobbys Beach in Newcastle? I will never forget a crazy storm in May 1997, when I watched the ‘temporary’ lifeguard shed at Tamarama* get tossed around and waves smashed into the Tama Café. The maximum recorded wave height a few kilometres offshore of Sydney was fourteen metres during that storm!

Both of these storms were caused by East Coast Cyclones, which are intense low-pressure systems that tend to form literally overnight in the Tasman Sea, just off our coast, and last for a few days. They are not uncommon and we can usually expect one to two bad ones each year, but it takes a certain amount of ‘perfect storm’ conditions to generate a particularly nasty one.

What does it mean for us? We lose our beaches is what it means! It’s not uncommon after big storms to see rocks exposed on the beach that you never knew existed. Remember that our beaches are only really a thin veneer of sand over what essentially is a buried rock platform. Huge storm waves are incredibly erosive and it may take years for the sand to return to the beaches. The height of the sand at Tamarama still hasn’t rebounded to pre-1997 storm levels.

As impressive as those East Coast Cyclones were, they still don’t compare to the storm of storms that walloped most of the NSW coastline in May 1974. During that storm, eight metre high waves hammered our beaches for several days and the net result was massive. Beaches were stripped bare of sand and widespread damage occurred to coastal structures up and down the coast. Buildings were destroyed or fell into the sea, car parks were carved into, and some beaches and dunes eroded back more than 100 meters. Even the Sydney Harbour and Botany Bay beaches weren’t spared.

The May 1974 storm was a real wake up call. It was the catalyst that spurred governments into trying to understand the characteristics and behaviour of waves, beaches and dunes in response to severe events. It really was the birth of coastal management and policy as we know it in Australia. The storm was also the motivation for installing a series of offshore wave rider buoys to monitor wave conditions along the New South Wales coast. As a result we now have some of the best local wave information in the world, which is easily accessible to the public**.

An impressive storm for sure, but will we see one like it again? Well, a storm that size is estimated to occur about once every 50 years. It’s now been 37 years so we’re almost due!

* There used to be an old wooden lifeguard stand at the base of the surf club steps that got torched one night in the mid 90s. It was replaced by a temporary metal demountable that ended up lasting about five years until the $200,000 modern tower was built. Waverley Council moves in mysterious ways.

** Google ‘Manly Hydraulics Laboratory’.

‘Dr Rip’s Essential Beach Book; everything you wanted to know about surf, sand and rips’ is now a bestseller and is available at all good book stores and online at www.scienceofthesurf.com.

7 COMMENTS. SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

  1. Yes, I was there. It was the year that Coogee had the best sand banks ever! There were several sand banks up and down the beach and all were perfect! Far better than any waves at Maroubra or Bondi during that Winter. There were piles of rocks exposed from the south end, right up to the middle of the beach. To put things into perspective, perfect 6ft waves often broke on Coogee’s sand banks out as far as the north point. Coogee’s reef and outer reef became mere obstacles to avoid at the end of the wave. Meanwhile it was almost 10ft deep off the rocks exposed right along the north end of Maroubra so only huge surf would break on the very deep sand banks. Imagine the challenge for surfers trying to get in and out of the water! Bondi was somehow left with just one sand bank located at the south corner and rather square in shape so the waves always closed out. The storm of May 1974 was indeed a storm that really changed our beaches. We that witnessed its fury and effects will never forget!

    Posted by: George C | May 25, 2011, 3:02 PM |

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    • Thanks for sharing your memory of the 74 swell.
      I was 12 at the time and will never forget the night of May 26.
      We lived at the south end of the beach in a block of flats on the 3rd floor. My parents had the balcony glassed in and converted into a bedroom for me, which faced north.
      It was like being in an earthquake zone, the whole balcony was moving and resonating while the windows underwent a hell of a battering from the wind.
      I was so terrified thinking that the entire balcony was going to collapse.
      I tried sleeping in the hallway but the wind was so loud it made it impossible.
      The next morning i went to the kitchen window and saw the north point like never before.
      There were waves breaking at least 500 to 600 metres past the outside section where the normal take off zone was.
      The bomby’s pebble was massive, there were waves breaking so far out in areas which i had never seen before.
      I quickly took off to get a closer look at things and on my way down to the beach saw wedding cake island breaking at what seemed about 30 feet.
      There were waves breaking at another reef which was at least 500 metres across and probably 400 metres further out from the north end of the island. I later learned it was called the unknown.
      No…. not the unknown that the younger guy’s talk about, this is much further out and across towards the bomby.
      I am not the kind of person to exaggerate but this place looked 30 foot +
      There was a rumour going around for years later that a guy from the surf club by the name of lemo had gone out on a surf ski and surfed it on his own. Personally i find it extremely difficult to believe!
      You were right George, Coogee had the best banks out of any of the beaches on the southside that entire winter.
      Perfect 5 to 6 foot waves breaking out in line with the point. Epic!
      I’d forgotten about the rocks that surfaced from the south end up as far as the middle of the beach, thanks for that, however I do remember the pilons from the old pier that had been exposed.
      The waves destroyed the old promenade where they used to hire out the old rubber surf planes in summer and there was sand up Coogee Bay Road for blocks.
      Some of the beach side shops copped a hammering and the Oval was a swimming pool.
      Do you remember what date in June the following monster hit?
      I think i know you, if i am correct you bought a dark blue holden station wagon off Don Bosco in the early 70’s as your the only George i remember that surfed Coogee in the Golden Era.
      I hope i am still around to see another storm swell like the magic of 74.
      Would love to meet with you sometime at your leisure to talk more about the good old days, I still live in Coogee.
      Regards
      Rob B

      Posted by: Rob B | September 6, 2012, 12:55 AM |

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      • G’day Rob,

        Thanks so much for your recollection of the ’74 storm. Im always fascinated by the tales of that crazy day!

        Very proud to see that “Lemo” in your comment is actually my grandpa – John ‘Lemo’ Lemarseny. Him and his mates charged back in the day and i’m sure the rumours are no doubt true. Ill try dig up some old pics!

        Thanks again mate
        Lachy

        Posted by: Lachy | December 9, 2015, 10:54 AM |

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  2. No was not there or even born yet!! But my mates dad filmed the swell and its power!!! We had a piss up bbq back in 93 at bluey graham’s house and he set his projecta up, and yeah def was the biggest swell i ever saw in this area!! i asked questions too!!! how big was bomie ? how big was harbour’s???? Well i was told naval boys recorded 50ft waves off syd heads!!!! Also the end section on the bomie thats breaks now {really cool little section} well that section of reef cracked and pushed up a tad haha so old locals say???? cloee beach house was washed out!! bronte beach had waves up in gully play ground area and whole park art bronte full of sand… The more i researched i found that guys were surfing harbour and leading up till the biggest days the waves were perfect 4-6ft for three days before swell hit!!! quoted tomo who was with steve blacky wilson old bra boy pro surfer yeah!! my most inpressive story was a mad soul surfer bruce thats comes from perferct south coast waves!! This dude only surfs a 7’6 gun on small days and rip’s it up 1ft or 12ft on same board haha, He lived in hawaii as a grom grew up surfing pipe sunset so yeah he was the real deal!! i asked him aboult the 74 storm? He said ” i was working at the caltex at botany bay kurnnel area! so i went checked kurnnel IT WAS 15FT and yeah i surfed! it was rad fun heaps crew like 20 guys on it!!!!” haha this swell erroded our coastline bad crunnulla was hammered, All stablisation programes started and fucked our beaches even more!!! guy’s i meet have always refeered to waves pre stabilisation were so much better

    Posted by: seano | May 31, 2012, 9:01 AM |

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  3. If you check out the Southern Occilation Index archives you will see that storm occured about 6 months after november 1973 when the SOI hit +31.6 points. there are similarities to that which occured in 2010 up till today however we havent seen any numbers above 30 points yet, so it may be yet to come, fingers crossed for the hell men.

    Posted by: zula | June 29, 2012, 3:20 PM |

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  4. So sad some richies lost their beach houses, my heart bleeds. You choose to live near the beach , pay the price figuratively and literally. I know wealthy people living on the coast never accumulated their wealth because of their incredible cognitive capacities, on the contrary, any one who chooses to invest so much into something so close to one of the most powerful uncontrollable forces on the planet is an idiot. Furthermore it would serve humanity in general greatly if these rich imbeciles and every last element of their prodigy where annihilated by said storms, it would eradicated the obscene greed inherent to the wealthy and free up their funds to invest in environmental strategies to benefit all people. Its the wealthy in their luxury beach front penthouses and water front bungalows etc that have caused the beach to recede because of climate change, but they make their money out of climate change activity. Things like stunting the production of non fossil fuel powered vehicles; we can run cars on ethanol, why aren’t we? Fuel conglomerates and their wealthy investors would lose their power and wealth, that’s just one example. The wealthy have no empathy for the humanity just looking after their spoilt brat kids and pass on their legacy of greed. So if these greedy mongrels all die it would release the wealth and allow science to truly advance us towards a biologically sustainable civilization. Let the wealthy on the beach suffer, the more the better, it’s nice to see they are paying the price for the rape of my and everyone else who thinks like one’s, planet.

    Posted by: Lee | September 29, 2013, 1:49 PM |

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    • I think you are a very bitter and twisted man, the wealthy pay a lot of money to be on the beach, council rates etc etc, one more think the Beach fronts are prospecting roads and while we are on the topic of roads, I think we must protect the beach fronts and in return we will protect the roads.

      Posted by: Lin | September 5, 2016, 7:57 PM |

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