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These Waves Are Turning Surfing Into Bored Game

Times Staff Writer

At one point during the recent U.S. Open of Surfing women’s final, someone joked that perhaps the captain of a large boat anchored close by could make a few passes, generating something on which the competitors could ride.

That’s how flat the ocean had been during a 35-minute heat in which Australian Rebecca Woods became the first surfer in the 11-year history of the event to be shut out, failing to ride a wave. Her rival, Julia Christian of Carlsbad, won on the merits of four tiny waves.

Nearly 100,000 were at Huntington Beach Pier that July 30 afternoon. Afterward, Woods described as “ridiculous” conditions during the weeklong contest.

It also could describe the local surfing summer in general.

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Despite a noticeable swell increase this week, this has been one of the flattest Southern California summers in recent memory.

Making matters worse has been a persistent red tide, seemingly perpetual gray skies and a bizarre jellyfish invasion.

“This is as bad a summer as I can remember in a while,” said Corky Carroll, 57, a former surfing champion from Huntington Beach.

Contest promoters, like surfers, are hoping for improvement as they prepare for the remaining local major contests: the Hello Kitty Boardfest, a women’s World Qualifying Series event Sept. 2-5 at Huntington Beach Pier; the Boost Mobile Pro World Championship Tour event Sept. 13-18 at Lower Trestles in San Clemente; the Rip Curl Malibu Pro, a women’s WCT contest Oct. 1-9 at Surfrider Beach; and the Quiksilver World Junior Surfing Championships Oct. 8-16 at Huntington Beach Pier.

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Those events, at least, are in a better wave window than the U.S. Open, a six-star WQS contest that was moved from Labor Day weekend to late July after rioting in 1986.

City officials approved, for this year, the scheduling of the Hello Kitty Boardfest during the holiday weekend after being persuaded that a smaller-scale women’s event would attract a “more wholesome” crowd, promoter Mike Kingsbury said.

But will there be waves? “The last summer like this was a few years back, probably 1994, and then the summer into 1491, before Columbus,” joked Jim Kempton, former editor and publisher of Surfer magazine.

“But to combine these negative elements -- red tide, jellyfish, overcast weather and flat surf altogether -- you probably have to go back to maybe 1980.”

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Experts say that what we’re experiencing is cyclical, with factors such as frequency and intensity of faraway storms, pressure systems, anomalies in water temperature and wind patterns coming into play.

Arctic storms generate most winter waves, but those during the spring and early summer come from storms in the Southern Hemisphere. In the late summer and early fall, Southern California swells typically are generated by hurricanes off Mexico.

When the Southern Hemisphere winter begins to wane -- in late August or early September -- the hurricane season off Mexico usually heats up. Warmer water, along with upper-level winds, allows those storms to gain strength and to churn in a northwesterly direction.

“Then it’s like pointing a shotgun right at us,” said forecaster Sean Collins, whose Surfline.com headquarters is in Huntington Beach.

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A prime example occurred last Labor Day weekend, when Hurricane Howard spun almost halfway up the Baja California coast and delivered waves to 10 feet along south-facing beaches.

Two years earlier, during the 2002 Boost Mobile Pro in early September at Lower Trestles, Hurricane Hernan and a late Southern Hemisphere storm produced incredible surf, with waves six to 10 feet rolling in amid light offshore winds.

One of the most memorable contests in Huntington Beach was the 1985 OP Pro (which later became the U.S. Open) in late August.

Waves upward of 15 feet, generated by Hurricane Olaf, reached the bottom of the pier, and surfers thrilled the crowd by shooting the pilings.

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Mark Occhilupo of Australia defeated Tom Curren of Santa Barbara in one of the most dramatic finals contested in Southern California. Occhilupo, now 39 and with a world title, will retire after the WCT season and will make his last appearance in the Southland during the Boost Mobile Pro.

But will the wave gods cooperate?

There have been no major hurricanes. Fernanda and Greg, which earlier this week were tropical storms, have dissipated. The former played a slight role in this week’s spike in local surf.

Furthermore, there is a broad band of unseasonably cool water -- in the upper 60s, more than five degrees below normal -- extending southwesterly from the tip of Baja California.

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“That’s basically a wall” that will prevent hurricanes, should any develop, from advancing that far north, said Dave Danielson, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Oxnard. Surfers remain hopeful, however, and some are adventurous. Collins last Saturday left for southern Baja to be closer to Fernanda’s energy.

Courtney Conlogue, a rising star who turns 13 next week, has been surfing almost every day in preparation for the Hello Kitty Boardfest, in which she made the semifinals last year. But even she needed a break from the one-foot slop. She went go-kart racing.

Steve Clark, Billabong team manager, went with his son and friends to Lake Havasu on the Colorado River.

“We water-skied, wake-boarded, wake-skimmed, cliff dived, babe watched, cougar hunted, barbecued, drank beer, got sunburned and otherwise had a blast outside the 949 area code,” Clark said.

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And then there was Carroll, who stayed home.

“Really a rotten summer for surfers,” he said.


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