Riders on the Storm : Surfing winter’s big waves is a lifestyle of anticipation. It takes big boards, thick wet suits and high-tech weather forecasts. And a lot of attitude.
They headed in after a day of storm surfing.
Two got smashed against the rocks. Another was toppled, cut and bleeding. Yet another was trapped in La Jolla Cove and heading for the flesh-cutting rocks and caves nearby. With the right timing and serious paddle power, they all finally made it across the cove to “Tiger’s Paw” bluff. Barely.
All this for what? A couple of six-second rides straight down 15 feet of icy water?
As 32-year-old lawyer Blair Krueger negotiated Tiger’s Paw, board in hand and blood rushing from his left ankle, he said with a smile: “We haven’t had surf like this in years.”
When the weather outside is frightful, a handful of hard-core surfers say the waves are quite delightful. While this month’s rains have been hell on many Californians, they have been heaven for serious surfers--one of the best big-wave winters in more than a decade, they say.
And they’ve been waiting patiently.
“We don’t get enough surf in California, so you snooze, you lose,” says San Diego surfing veteran Joe Roper. “I choose to chase it.”
Storm surfing is a lifestyle of anticipation. It takes big boards, thick wet suits and high-tech weather forecasts. And a lot of attitude. “They don’t think of not surfing because the water is cold or the surf is big,” says Surfing magazine Editor Nick Carroll.
“It actually gets them more excited,” he says.
So far, winter along the California coast has claimed the life of one of the world’s best big-wave surfers--Mark Foo--contributed to the deaths of at least three boaters, and has been the cause of countless cuts and bruises for wave riders. The surf hasn’t been this big, some say, since storms rocked the coastline in 1983. “This is the only winter that can compare to ’83,” says Evan Slater, a 23-year-old pro who was surfing the same 15-foot waves that killed Foo at a break south of San Francisco.
Even though big waves are rare in California, big-wave surfing is a culture. Experts say of about 10,000 serious winter surfers in California, only a few thousand brave the larger waves. Even fewer--perhaps 200, Carroll says--can surf monster breaks such as Maverick’s south of San Francisco and Todos Santos Island off northern Baja, both of which can produce ridable 20-foot waves. Fewer still--pro Mike Parsons says he can count them on two hands--will actually hop on a plane on a moment’s notice to ride a swell that’s halfway across the world.
That’s what Foo had done when he drowned at Maverick’s on Dec. 23. Hearing from sources that Maverick’s was large--and it was--he hopped a flight from Honolulu. Some who knew Foo said he was attempting a “triple-A.” The idea is to surf the same Pacific swell, first in Hawaii, then at Maverick’s, then down at Todos Santos. It remains to be done.
“I will chase it around,” Parsons, 29, says, “if I hear it’s going to be incredible.”
He might be alone. Common beach wisdom is that large waves weed out weaker souls. Thus, the famed surfer-against-surfer “localism” that sometimes leads to violence at crowded beaches gives way to classic man- (and woman-) against-nature battles when it’s big. “There are a lot of lookers,” says a La Jolla storm surfer, “but few enjoy (surfing) it.”
Despite the big dangers that come with big waves, experienced surfers say they’re more likely to be injured in summer because of crowded waters. The larger Southern California waves--eight feet and up--are often left to those with a big “gun” surfboard (many veterans look down upon those with less than seven feet of board), surfing experience outside California and access to complicated weather reports.
That’s where Sean Collins comes in.
The veteran surfer has risen to Big Kahuna status because he provides 976- and 900-line wave forecasting from coast to coast. And now, for those hard-core surfers who know what an isobar is (it’s a measure of barometric pressure), Collins offers a “WaveFax” that provides detailed forecasts and looks like a battle plan for World War III. Collins, 42, says he uses satellite dishes, buoy readings, National Weather Service data and computer models to make his forecasts. Surf monitors also help him put out phone reports three times a day from his Huntington Beach office.
Surfer magazine Editor Steve Hawk says such advances in surf forecasting helped his photographers capture the drama of Dec. 23 on film because they knew days before that it would be big. “That day, one of the most newsworthy in the history of the sport,” he says, “we covered it from all angles.”
It also helps storm surfers catch the brunt. “For serious surfers,” Hawk says, “forecasting has made all the difference in the world.”
Because big waves are rare and precious, “the weather radio is real important,” adds La Jolla surfer Dave Frankel (known to friends as “Large” because of his affinity for big waves). “The buoy reports will go down the coast every hour, and give you the swell height, swell intervals and sometimes the direction. They can be real helpful.
“I try to plan my life so that I’m ready to surf,” he says.
Such fanaticism can be hard on work, family and love life. Luckily for Frankel, “my love life is wonderful--my wife surfs.”
The attraction to big waves can turn into something akin to an addiction, veterans say. Parsons remembers his first Hawaiian big waves at 16. “I was on my tippy toes and it sort of hooked me for life on that adrenaline,” he says. “Being in the jaws of death and making it out is what it feels like.
“I think you have to have a certain element that’s a little bit crazy,” he says. “But it’s calculated.”
Surfers describe the draw to big waves almost in terms of drug tolerance. “After years of surfing small waves, and then medium waves, you kind of have a craving for bigger and bigger waves,” says Frankel, 33.
Surfers also say anticipation is a large part of it: listening as the weather radio predicts large swells, picking the best board for the occasion, calling friends to see who’s going to be surfing where the next morning.
That’s what 26-year-old pro Dino Andino did on a recent stormy night. The next morning, he rose at 6, ate oat cereal, stretched out and checked the wind direction. At his home spot, San Clemente Municipal Pier, he found strong but unruly storm surf. There was brown water (one of the biggest dangers of storm surf is polluted runoff) and a tree floating amid the waves. But Andino loves it:
“I’m a storm-surf freak. . . . It’s my favorite time of the year.”
It was pandemonium later that day at La Jolla Cove, a San Diego city beach. The last time the cove was surfable was during the storms of ’83, locals say. And when it does break, it breaks big. The waves were eight to 10 feet for several days during the recent storms, by some estimates. (Waves are properly measured from the back; a 10-foot wave can mean a 15-foot front, or “face.”)
Crowds gathered and traffic stopped as more than 30 surfers took their chances in 56-degree water. At least two of those surfers were playing hooky. “We both blew off work to go surfing,” says Scott Kid, a 42-year-old developer.
As if the natural elements aren’t enough, many breaks have resident peanut galleries where onlookers--largely surfers--rate the surfing with all the sensitivity of an Apollo Theater audience on amateur night. As one La Jolla Cove surfer dropped into a 12-foot face, his balance in question, a voice rose from the peanut gallery: “Uh? Uh? Oooh. Lost it.” And then laughter.
But for the most part, the surfers become heroes for a day. At the cove, cameras clicked, tourists watched and girlfriends waited. All eyes were on the sea. And when darkness fell and thick fog moved in, the wave riders ascended Tiger’s Paw, one by one, dripping wet, sharp boards at their sides, and maybe even a cut or two to commemorate their battles.
Forecasters say it was an open door--high pressure stepping aside--that allowed a west-to-east jet stream called the “pineapple express” to bring rain and waves to Southern California. There’s a debate over how much of a role the warm-water El Nino phenomenon has in all this. (El Nino was in effect for the similarly harsh storms of ’83.) But there seems to be agreement on one thing:
“If you’re crazy enough to go out when there’s 10-foot waves and it’s raining like mad,” says WeatherData Inc. meteorologist Curtis Brack, “it’s going to continue to be a good winter for surfing.”