Mike Lucas charged into the surf at Newport Beach's legendary Wedge, paddling out to brave waves so big they seemed to fill the sky.
"You quickly realize you could be dead in a second if you don't know what you're doing," said Lucas, 26, of Huntington Beach.
From Santa Barbara to San Diego, the pounding surf — unleashed by Hurricane Marie circulating off the Baja coast — whipped up a quintessential Southern California scene: surfers and body-boarders scrambling to the beach to ride the monster waves while thousands of spectators arrived to bear witness, clogging the roadways and lining the seashore.
At the Wedge — where a rock jetty thrust into the ocean amplifies waves' height and force — lifeguards and surfers estimated the waves were reaching heights of 25 feet. Lucas said he hadn't seen breakers so large in years, and it filled him with nervous excitement.
But "once you get out there, you get in the water, you get this overwhelming calmness," he said. "You know you're at the mercy of nature."
The waves crashed so consistently and with such fury that some surfers had to wait 20 or 25 minutes before there was a break long enough to paddle out. After a morning of surfing, Lucas said, he managed to catch four waves on his body-board and "got pounded by a lot more."
The power of the ocean could be seen and felt up and down the coast, as docks were destroyed, boats flipped over, homes flooded and body-boarders heaved into the air by the mighty waves.
Forecasters with the National Weather Service said the extreme conditions were set in motion when Hurricane Marie — churning off the tip of Baja California — grew into a Category 5 hurricane, reaching speeds of 157 mph and unleashing waves that would days later arrive in force along the Southern California shoreline. By late Wednesday, the hurricane was weakening, and was expected to be downgraded to a tropical storm, though large swells will continue to hit through the week.
Around Newport Beach, people spread out picnic blankets, took selfies and toted babies. As the waves crashed, lifeguards kept telling people to move back. For regulars, it was easy to recall someone who had broken a finger or a rib here, and the drowning of a Newport Beach lifeguard in July was still fresh in memory. On Saturday morning, a 60-year-old man disappeared while body-surfing in rough waves on nearby Salt Creek Beach.
Further north, at Surfrider Beach in Malibu, people were aware that a surfer drowned Tuesday trying to navigate rough waves near the pier. But many surfers were undeterred.
Matt Cohen, 32, of Venice, said he skipped the morning's work at his tech start-up to hit the waves. "I haven't made up my excuse yet," he said.
Quinn Carson, a surf instructor in Venice, said some surfers were calling Wednesday "the swell of the decade." He said it was complicated and dangerous to enter the waves, considering the strength of the current. He said he caught a wave that was well over his head and "I was just holding on for my life."
"Today is the day," Carson said. "You've got to drop whatever you're doing and be in the water."
Some surfers said they were more worried by the number of surfers on the waves, with a fleet of flying fiberglass boards, than by the surf itself.
Pacific Coast Highway was jammed with cars and people crowded the Malibu Pier snapping photos with their smartphones, tablets and long lenses. Water splashed onto the pier and sprayed diners.
Noah Mills, 30, who has been surfing about 21/2 years, carried his board onto the beach and admitted he felt a little anxious. He liked the thought of catching the biggest wave of his life. He also knew he might paddle out and find himself overwhelmed.
"But that's part of the lore," Mills said. "It's a little boring surfing in surf that's predictable. When you get better at anything, you want to up your game. This is a test today. You might see me coming in on a Sea-Doo."
Bo Bridges, 40, of Hermosa Beach, said he cut an out-of-state family vacation short for what he called the "all-time" best waves in Malibu. "I would never do that for anything else," he said. "I just get so excited about the waves. It's so hard to comprehend if you don't surf. This is as good as it gets."
Even noted big-wave rider Laird Hamilton couldn't resist the lure of the monster waves, riding one through the pilings of the pier.
By early afternoon, however, the area around the Malibu Pier had been closed to surfers because of a sewage spill.
The hurricane's effects Wednesday were felt beyond the beaches.
In Long Beach, the Fire Department limited traffic on the Long Beach Peninsula so maintenance crews could reach the berm to make repairs. On Catalina Island, the rough waters destroyed piers, snapped mooring lines and the Catalina Express suspended boat service to and from the island Wednesday morning.
There was flooding along the coasts of Long Beach, Port Hueneme, Malibu, Cabrillo and Zuma, while in Seal Beach the ocean flooded several homes, and officials were building sand berms to hold back the surge.
Despite the dangers, Wednesday was the kind of day people spend all year waiting for, said body-surfer Dare Stolba, 64, who stood in his wetsuit on the shore of Newport Beach, ready to go out.
"That's what keeps the old guys going," the Huntington Beach man said, adding: "Well, that's what keeps me going."
At the Wedge, Dan Nappi, his son and two grandsons stood back from the crowd, wary of jumping in but eager to watch.
"This is too big for me to surf," said Nappi, 63, of Huntington Beach, who usually surfs in the mornings with his son, and takes on tamer waves.
He said he was captivated by Wednesday's waves, which seems to fill the sky with a wall of water. "I don't know what the word is," he said. "It's gnarly."
Times staff writer Hailey Branson-Potts contributed to this report.