Tony Butt’s A – Z of Surfing. E – The Eternal Wave

Tony Butt


The Eternal Wave, sometimes called the Unending Wave, is a fictitious wave first conceptualized in 1974 by legendary surf journalist Drew Kampion. It is a wave that continuously peels around an island and that can be ridden for an unlimited amount of time.

In the original article published in Surfing Magazine, the wave was said to be a “vortex that consumes itself and so lives forever”. This suggests a form of perpetual motion, which is clearly impossible. However, under certain conditions, real waves could theoretically exist that could be ridden for unlimited amounts of time, as long as there is a constant supply of energy from some outside source.

The Eternal Wave, therefore, would need to be supplied by a constant swell, hitting the island at one exact spot. The waves would then refract all the way around the island until they reached their initial starting position, at which point they would synchronously mesh with the incoming swells. Even though the waves would naturally lose size and power as they broke, they would not quite diminish completely before being re-boosted with energy by the new incoming swells. A rider would seamlessly cross from the end of one wave to the beginning of the next, and then continue on the next loop around the island.

eternal wave
The Eternal Wave: the incoming swells at the top left of the diagram synchronously mesh in with the waves coming around from the other side of the island.

The system would work on the principle of resonance – like a pendulum or a swing, in which, at the same place within each cycle, the motion is given a boost or a ‘kick’. The kick – in this case coming from each wave of the incoming swell – would be just the right strength to keep the motion going, the size of the oscillations neither increasing nor decreasing.

For the Eternal Wave to function properly, the physical dimensions of the island would need to coincide exactly with the characteristics of the incoming swell. The energy pumped into the system every time a wave reaches the island would need to exactly compensate for the energy lost as the wave bends and breaks over the reef.

The incoming waves would need to be just the right size so that they break exactly the right distance from the island and peel around it: too small and they would fizzle out after a short distance; too large and they might close out or perhaps overshoot the island altogether. In reality, it would be very difficult for the peeling part of the wave to remain the correct distance from the island, unless the height of the wave and the shape of the reef were unrealistically perfect.

But the most important factor is not the size, but the wavelength of the swell. It must be such that an exact number of waves fit around the circumference of the island. If this condition is not met, the last waves will not synchronize properly with the first ones. Also, the swell would have to have very little or no variation in period, direction and size, continuous and with no sets, so that the incoming waves mesh properly with those that had been refracted around the island. A wave like this (known as monochromatic and unidirectional) can easily be generated in the laboratory, but is virtually never seen in the real ocean. Therefore, in reality, the characteristics of the incoming waves could never remain perfectly constant, so the waves would very easily go out of sync, the first and last ones almost never joining up properly.

The original Eternal Wave, © Tom Threinen

Lastly, the loss of energy through breaking and friction might be just too great for any wave to refract a full 360 degrees without almost totally diminishing, although this might be possible if the surface of the island and the bathymetry over which the wave broke had evolved so that there was a minimum amount of friction.

Therefore, the Eternal Wave is a fantasy, and will probably remain so, because the above conditions would almost certainly be impossible to meet in real life. The Eternal Wave might exist on some planet where perfect waves really are perfect, but here, on this planet, it can only exist in our minds.


The Surfers’ Diary is a space for surfers to share their tales, ideas and inspirations. If you have something to share, get in touch.

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