The biggest oceanic swell in nearly two years pummeled Southern California’s shoreline Wednesday, causing minor flooding in low-lying coastal areas and creating epic conditions for surfers trying to match their skills against powerful waves with faces 12 feet and taller.
The enormous swell, which peaked early Wednesday and will drop significantly by midday today, was unusual in its power and focus. Its westerly direction allowed it to slip around Point Conception and in between the Channel Islands that so often protect many Southern California beaches from the Pacific’s most ferocious waves.
The result, combined with a warm, sunny day and light offshore winds, brought out hordes of thrill-seekers to take advantage of waves steam-rolling their way into every nook and cranny along the coast -- most of which rarely see surf of any decent size.
“This only happens a couple of times a year,” said Sean Collins, chief forecaster for www. “And when it happens, surfers try to get on it and come up with all kinds of different excuses to get out of work.”
Some arrived before dawn at Rincon, a famous surf spot that straddles the Ventura and Santa Barbara county line. They tugged on wetsuits and paddled out into the inky water. Others took a more leisurely pace, showing up a bit later after calling in “sick.”
Lawyers told their secretaries they would be arriving late because of a “board meeting.” Construction and maintenance workers planned to show up late to the job-site, if at all. Students skipped classes, of course, but so did some teachers.
“I wouldn’t want my principal to read my name in the paper,” said one high school history teacher with thinning hair from San Diego County. “I called in a substitute today.”
James Mueller, a 30-year-old genetics research technician at UC San Diego, said he didn’t need to make excuses. “My boss is a surfer, and so he understood,” he said.
Mueller was joined by other wave-riders from Malibu, Topanga, Venice and Pacific Palisades. All made the predawn pilgrimage to the famous “point break,” a configuration of land and ocean bottom that prompts waves to bend around the curving coast and unfurl in a more orderly way.
Rincon and other rocky point breaks usually can handle a large swell, offering peeling waves that can be ridden despite their size. That’s often not possible at beach breaks because waves tend to crash all at once.
Still, the super-sized waves snapped surfboards, tore apart board leashes and bruised egos with punishing regularity.
Kris Daum, 17, of Pacific Palisades, tried to dive under a large wave that crashed on top of him. It broke his board cleanly in two and spun him around like a rag doll in the roiling white water.
“I had to climb up my leash to get to the surface,” Daum said. When he reached the surface, only half of his board was tethered to his leg. The other half had washed ashore.
In Santa Monica, Kurt Bormann, 52, and a buddy arrived about 5 a.m. at a favorite spot south of Sunset Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway. They were greeted by 8- to 10-foot swells, triple the typical size of waves at this popular spot.
“We surfed in the dark for a little while,” said Bormann, a healthcare consultant who wore a T-shirt reading “Old guys rule.” Not long after sunup, he said, the place was packed with 50 surfers jockeying for position.
At Capistrano Shores in Orange County, Neil Risch, 32, and Basheer Husami, 22, waited for the waves to let up before they paddled out. They made it past the surf line, but a powerful rip current carried them about 300 yards down shore within minutes, prompting them to head back to the beach.
“You can get out past the breakers,” Risch said. “But the rip just sucks you down the beach. It’s just too nasty right now.”
In some places, the waves were so big that lifeguards tried to intervene.
“Hey, buddy,” state lifeguard Kevin Escalante shouted, intercepting one fellow with a board tucked under his arm at Surfers Point in Ventura. “We can’t stop you from going up, but we recommend that you paddle out somewhere farther up the coast.”
The problem was the Ventura Pier about half a mile down the coast. Even the most experienced surfers were getting swept into the pier’s pilings, entangled by their boards and leashes. Fortunately, Escalante said, no one was seriously hurt. All told, lifeguards made 14 rescues.
A few surfers ignored the warnings and ventured out anyway. Most of them were assisted by buddies riding personal watercraft, who towed them to the towering waves and then repeatedly plucked them out of the swirling soup after they fell.
Wednesday’s big waves began days ago and hundreds of miles away in a storm that developed in the middle of the North Pacific above Hawaii.
It was shaping up to be just another big storm until it pulled moisture from a tropical depression near the Philippines, Collins said.
“It was like throwing dynamite into a campfire,” he said. “All of that warm moisture mixing with the cold air supercharged the storm.” The result was hurricane-force winds that built up wave heights of nearly 50 feet.
Those waves slammed into Northern California on Tuesday, setting off a frenzy at big wave spots such as Maverick’s at Half Moon Bay and Ghost Trees at Pebble Beach in Carmel.
Wave heights of 50 feet or more claimed the life of one big-wave rider, Peter Davi, 45, of Monterey.
The wave heights diminished a bit en route to Southern California, because of frictional drag along the seafloor, a phenomenon that physicists called “shoaling.”
Some oceanfront homeowners were bracing for flooding and other damage. But little was reported, in part because the peak of the swell came before high tide, about 6 a.m.
High surf warnings remain in effect until noon today, said Stuart Seto of the National Weather Service.
“Lifeguards are telling people to stay off the rocks,” Seto said. “You get out there and have 10-foot waves, and you think you’re safe, and then you get a 15-footer.”
The Coast Guard warned recreational boaters to stay in port through today. “Thankfully the public has been heeding our warnings,” said Lt. Andrew Munoz, a Coast Guard spokesman.
The last swell of this size to hit Southern California arrived Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2005.
“Another Big Wednesday,” said Jeff Kaiser, 52, a painting contractor from Huntington Beach, who was catching his breath after a session with Rincon’s challenging waves.
Like other experienced surfers, he marvels at how many times the biggest swells arrive on “Big Wednesday,” the name of a celebrated 1978 surf film starring Gary Busey and Jan-Michael Vincent. Kaiser, who has been surfing for 35 years, said that his work will have to wait until another day.
“As long as I can still stand, I’ll be surfing,” he said. “It still makes me more happy than anything else.”
Times staff writers Andrew Blankstein, Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Gregory W. Griggs and David Reyes contributed to this report.