Southern California surfers compete in high surf for prime waves

Southern California surfers compete in high surf for prime waves
A pair of surfers slide down a huge wave at the Wedge off Newport Beach on Aug. 27 as thousands of spectators looked on. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

The rush to take advantage of a huge swell generated by Hurricane Marie sent dozens of surfers and bodyboarders into the waters off local beaches Wednesday, adding to the congestion both on and off the water as thousands of onlookers gathered for the spectacle.

By early Wednesday afternoon, many surfers had finished their early-morning sessions, but competition to catch the best waves -- and generate a reputation -- remained fierce.


At famed Surfrider Beach near Malibu Pier, surfers agreed that the number of people and their fiberglass boards flying everywhere posed more danger than the waves themselves. Old-timers hollered throughout the morning, claiming their waves, but that didn't stop as many as a half-dozen people from riding the best ones at the same time.

Most had heard of the fatality Tuesday, and had seen a rescue or two Wednesday morning.

In one instance, a water scooter zipped out to pull a marooned surfer back to shore. Surfers described similar informal saves by other surfers, who pulled their peers out of the water by their flippers. Other described small collisions that resulted in dinged boards and broken fingers.

Noah Mills, 30, walked to the beach with his board under his arm. Mills has only been surfing for about 2 1/2 years, and admitted to being a little anxious.

"You're going between A, going out and catching the biggest wave of your life, or B, going out there, realizing it's too big and getting into trouble," Mills said. "But that's part of the lore. It's a little boring surfing in surf that's predicable. 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."

Beaches that typically see waves in the 8- to 12-foot range were seeing breaks of about 15 feet, sometimes more. Spots that typically see large surf, such as the Wedge in Newport Beach, were seeing waves closer to 25 feet.

Among the surfers taking on the massive swells was Mike Lucas, 26, who charged into the water about 8:30 a.m.

The Huntington Beach resident couldn't recall waves so big at the Wedge for four or five years, he said.

"You always have a nervous excitement," he said before entering the water.

He'd been reminding himself since the night before that he would need to focus.

"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."

About eight lifeguards were helping to staff the Wedge, with two or four watching the water and the rest keeping an eye on the still massive crowd lining the shore.

Earlier in the day the lifeguards were caught on live television rescuing a man who apparently injured his shoulder in the surf. Rescuers had to push through one wave crash after another to get past the breakers and to a waiting lifeguard boat after attempts to reach the shore proved too difficult.


Despite the dangers, the appeal of record waves was too much for surfers like Matt Cohen, 32, of Venice, who skipped out on the first hours of work at his technology start-up.

"I haven't made up my excuse yet," he said of missing work.

Quinn Carson, a surf instructor, also from Venice, said some surfers were calling Wednesday "the swell of the decade."

The current was so strong, it made entering and exiting waves complicated, difficult and dangerous, Carson said. Still, he added, "today is the day."

"You've got to drop whatever you're doing and be in the water," he said. "The best wave I caught, it was well over head, possibly two times over head. I was just holding on for my life."

Hundreds of others had the same idea.

Cohen and Carson arrived at Surfrider by 5:15 a.m. They said there was no parking, and perhaps more than 200 people, making for "the biggest surf we've ever seen and the most crowded we've ever seen it," Carson said.

Pacific Coast Highway was so slammed most of Wednesday morning that Malibu issued a traffic advisory warning of slowing, due in part to "surf observers." Even as late as 10:30 a.m., tourists and photographers lined the pier snapping away with their iPhones, tablets and long lenses. Water splashed over the glass and sprayed diners at the Malibu Pier.

Bo Bridges, 40, of Hermosa Beach, cut a family vacation short for what he called the "all-time" best waves in Malibu. After he and his family left Colorado around 11 a.m., they decided to skip an overnight stay in Zion National Park so he could get home to catch the swell.

Bridges got to Hermosa at 3 a.m., woke up two hours later, and drove to Malibu.

He caught four 6- to 10-foot waves: "I was grinning ear to ear the whole time."

"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."

As for the family -- a wife and three kids -- "I'm afraid to call right now. I kind of left them all hanging."