During 2006–2007, the KwaZulu-Natal coast of South Africa was exposed to several large swell events (Ho > 3 m), near the peak of the lunar nodal cycle, causing shoreline recession. The largest swell (Hs = 8.5 m) struck the coast on the March equinox (18th–20th) and generated a strong storm-return flow. Observations made before, during and after record dramatic coastal erosion (shoreline recession of up to 40 m and substantial property damage). This swell event removed the semi-continuous nearshore bar system and ‘conditioned’ the coast such that lesser subsequent swell events accomplished much greater amounts of coastal erosion than expected (up to 100 m at certain erosion hotspots) because waves reached the coast without significant energy dissipation. Subsequent bar generation rebuilt the inshore bars within six months. The styles of erosion during the March ’07 event and other 2007 swells were markedly different. Lesser swells are focused by headlands and result in megarip development and activation of erosion hotspots. The March ’07 event still-water level was raised (equinoctial spring high tide and a storm surge of 0.33–0.45 m) to a level that rendered most headlands (and erosion hotspots) ineffective and resulted in laterally extensive erosion of soft shorelines. Results record cumulative effects of successive swell events on coastal behaviour that proved to be critical in enabling erosion to proceed at rapid rates after the coast had been initially destabilized. Unlike hurricanes and tsunamis, surges associated with swell events are relatively minor and therefore extensive erosion is linked with high lunar tides. There is circumstantial evidence that swell-induced erosion follows the broad 18.6 yr lunar nodal tidal cycle when the chances of large swells coinciding with high water levels are increased.