Waving Goodby : Scientists Blame Changing Weather, Coastal Structures for Deteriorating Surf Conditions


Jaz Kaner strapped two flashlights to his head, grabbed a shovel and marched to the beach.

In the dead of night he filled 150 extra-strength sandbags. When the coast was clear, he donned a wet suit and lugged them, one by one, into the water.

The sandy-haired surfer waded through bone-chilling, waist-high waves to build an artificial reef near his Manhattan Beach home. He was determined to improve surfing conditions.

"I was going to call it Rebel Reef," says Kaner, 38, "but it flopped."

The sandbags sank deep into the sandy ocean bottom, and with them sank Kaner's dreams for good waves. He recently moved to Hawaii to find better surf.

Kaner and many other surfers complain that the South Bay's waves stink and that conditions have been deteriorating for years.

Scientists say a combination of changing weather and man-made coastal structures is responsible for the decline.

"It's a lot worse than it used to be," says lifeguard Wally Millican, 51, who skipped classes at Mira Costa High School in the 1950s to ride his nine-foot balsa-wood surfboard near the Manhattan Beach Pier. "One of the best spots on the beach was 22nd Street in Hermosa Beach."

Not anymore, Millican says. "There hasn't been a good wave there since the 1960s."

Surfers live for the clean, clear curl that breaks slowly across the width of the wave so they can crouch on their wax-covered boards and race just ahead of the perilous swirl of white water toward shore.

But more then ever, South Bay surfers find only steep, plunging waves that crash all at once, offering little chance for a good ride.

Much has changed since the Beach Boys immortalized these shores as "Surfin' U.S.A." more than 30 years ago.

"It's terrible," says Hap Jacobs, a surfboard craftsman who has been riding South Bay waves since the 1940s. "Now you (only) have enough time on the wave to get up and make one turn before you get annihilated."

Is this just a case of the nostalgia that comes when middle-aged surfers suddenly see their glistening blond locks turned to gray?


Some say the notion that the South Bay was once a surfer's paradise is a myth. They blame the Beach Boys' popular songs for perpetuating the idea, and point out that, even though members of the band lived in the area, only drummer Dennis Wilson actually surfed.

Ed Talbot is one South Bay wave rider who says the surf is no worse than it ever was. He says memories of waves is like nostalgia for older automobiles.

"You talk to guys about cars and they all talk about how much better they used to be," says Talbot, owner of E. T. Surfboards in Hermosa Beach. "They ought to start thinking about the future."

But most old-timers disagree. They point to old black-and-white photographs of long, graceful waves as evidence of the change. And they have the support of scientists, who cite the changes that Mother Nature and human hands have wrought.

Winter offers the best surf in the South Bay. But the weather that generates California's winter waves has changed in the last 20 years.

Generally, the farther a wave travels across the ocean before it breaks, the better its shape for surfing. Lately, winter storms have been forming closer to the California coast, 1,200 miles south of their traditional point of origin in the Gulf of Alaska, says Douglas Inman, professor emeritus of oceanography at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla.

As a result, waves are more likely to plunge on the shore than break slowly as most surfers would like, Inman says.

Man-made structures have taken a toll on the waves as well. Harbors, breakwaters and groins--rock structures protruding hundreds of yards out to sea--have been constructed along South Bay shores since the 1930s to protect homes, boats and pipelines from crashing waves.

But they have also blocked the natural migration of sand along the coast.

On several beaches in Orange County, and along a stretch of beach near King Harbor in Redondo Beach, some surfers say, jetties and breakwaters have actually improved the surf.

But in much of the South Bay, such structures have caused the beaches to widen, then erode, creating a steeper shore and the plunging waves that surfers disdain, says Scott Jenkins, an engineer at Scripps and environmental director of the Surfrider Foundation.

For much of this century, little thought was given to how coastal development would affect waves. But lately, surfers have been organizing, and outspoken wave riders have forced developers to take notice. In at least one case, the state has offered support.

When the California Coastal Commission granted a permit to Chevron Oil Co. to build a rock groin into the water off El Segundo in 1983, the commission said the oil firm would be held responsible if surfing conditions in the area were damaged.

The 127-yard groin protects the pipes that link the refinery to tankers moored offshore. A five-year study completed in 1989 showed that the natural sand bars on the ocean floor had been wiped out after the groin was built, reducing the quality of the waves. Commission staff agreed with the findings.

Chevron has been negotiating with the commission over how to make reparations for the lost surf. Chevron proposed paying $100,000 for a study to identify ideal surfing areas in the Southland, as well as actions that would endanger or enhance those beaches.

But the Coastal Commission agreed with surfers that a study did not represent true mitigation of the damaged surf. The San Clemente-based Surfrider Foundation, a decade-old surfers' environmental group, has proposed the construction of a sandbag reef off the beach to improve the waves.

A reef that could be built for several hundred thousand dollars could improve wave shapes in the area, Surfrider scientists say. Chevron officials say the company is working to meet surfers' demands, and both sides hope for a resolution soon.

To non-surfers, changes in the waves may seem trivial. But to those who have arranged their existences around surfing--more a way of life than a sport--it's a major wipeout.

"It's like going to Disneyland and not being able to get on any of the rides," says David Duffy, 23, who grew up surfing in the South Bay.

Morning drives to check surf conditions have taken on the grave air of funeral processions as each surfer gazes out to sea with hope and then drives away with his wet suit draped across the back seat and a fiberglass board still strapped to his car.

While a small number of surfers have given up the sport, many hit the road to find better waves.

Joe Wolfson, who lives in an apartment two blocks from the waves in Manhattan Beach, often drives a mile up the coast to study the surf before deciding where to paddle out.

"The irony is that I've worked so hard to live near the beach, but I still have to drive around to find good waves," he says.

Surfboard shaper Dennis Jarvis makes a drive as well.

"You drive down to the parking lot in El Porto (near El Segundo) and check the waves," says Jarvis, 33, "then you go by Manhattan and see how they are there."


Often, surfers head for beaches in Ventura and San Diego counties. But real die-hards make do with whatever Mother Nature has to offer.

Wolfson, 44, surfs at Manhattan Beach nearly every morning. He often takes advantage of the poor conditions to invent moves he wouldn't try elsewhere. His dedication has earned him the name "Dr. 360" for the spins he attempts on his bodyboard, a short, foam plank for belly riding.

In one of his latest moves, the "Backward 360," Wolfson sits on his belly board with his legs dangling off the front and spins around in circles while riding down the wave.

"You can still have fun out there," he says.

Despite complaints about the waves, surfing's popularity does not appear to have dropped in the South Bay. Board sales at local shops are as strong as ever, owners say. And devotion to the sport is evident in other ways.

County surfers make thousands of calls every month to Surfline/Wavetrack, a Huntington Beach company offering surf reports and forecasts for wave conditions along the Southern California coast.

The company uses computers and satellite hookups to predict the surf and employs correspondents along area beaches to get the latest word on conditions. The recorded reports, updated twice a day, cost $2 a call.

"Most mornings I report surf in the poor-to-fair range," says Greg Luehmann, 34, who is paid $180 a month to describe South Bay surf conditions to the company from a Manhattan Beach pay phone weekdays at 6 a.m.

Like many South Bay surfers, Luehmann doesn't surf much anymore because of concern over water pollution. Ironically, often the best waves occur after storms sweep through the area. Runoff from the streets creates beneficial sand bars, but it also contaminates the water.

Greg Browning, 19, is one of many South Bay surfers who ignore county Health Department warnings after the rains and head for the waves.

"You can't think about that stuff if you want to have fun," he says.

Before moving to Hawaii, Kaner called pay phones along area beaches hoping someone would pick up the receiver and describe the conditions to him.

"My friend told me I'd just get idiots, but I actually got good reports," he says.

When the waves are just too poor for most surfers, many survive on surfing lore. They watch video movies like "Endless Summer," a 1964 film about two American surfers who travel around the world in search of the perfect wave.

At E. T. Surfboards in Hermosa Beach, teen-agers in baggy pants and dark flannel shirts listen to the blaring sounds of grunge rock while chatting about their last surf adventure in Baja or Santa Cruz.

Just next door, Talbot, who says the surf is no worse than ever, recently opened another store, Just Longboards, an old-style surfboard shop he says offers younger surfers a chance to see the roots of their passion. Inside, middle-aged men in T-shirts and sandals talk about the days when they rode long, rolling waves in the South Bay.

The cool, airy sounds of 1960s surf music, heavy on the electric guitar, waft in over the speakers, resonating off the long, old-style balsa-wood and fiberglass boards that line the shop's walls. Shop manager Mike Erspamer keeps watch over the vintage surf shirts. He's got one eye on the past, one eye on the future.

"In time the good waves might come back," he says. "They might get good again."

Erspamer would be among the first to know. He still ventures into South Bay waters to bob on his board several hundred yards off the beach and wait for the one wave that will make his day.

THE ANATOMY OF A WAVE 1. The winds blow across the ocean's surface, raising ripples and then chop. 2. The fetch area, where the wind blows to raise up waves, is at or near the surface and most of the atmospheric energy is transferred to the water by frictional forces. 3. After leaving the fetch area, the confused patterns organize into lines of swell. 4. As the swell nears land, the ocean bottom changes the swell's character and it begins to slow. The shallow bottom then causes the wave to peak and break. 5. The plunging surf pushes water to the shore, using the last of the wave energy.

The size of an ocean wave (a.) is measured from the crest (b.) to the trough (c.) which is the lowest point of the wave. Good Wave:

The wave breaks at a peak and rolls across.

Surfer can ride in front of the curl as wave breaks.

Bad Wave:

The entire wave breaks at once.

A surfer cannot ride in front of the curl.

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