First winter swell

I clearly recall the day we went to Doheny for the biggest paddle out I had ever seen. Famed California surf pioneer and board building legend Dale Velzy had died and the surfing community was there to pay tribute. After the ceremony my friend Carl and I pulled into a restaurant when the waitress scampered up to us and told us we had to leave because a tsunami was headed our way. The tsunami never came, but both Carl and I agreed that this disruption of our everyday routine was fitting for the Velzy’s passing.
Earlier this week, I got a call from Dogtown legend Jay Adams telling me that three-time world surfing champion Andy Irons had died. Irons, who had been invincible at Pipeline and in Tahiti, did not make it home to Hawaii after competing in an event in Puerto Rico. Right on cue, the ocean came to life, pouring out perfect 25-foot surf at Waimea Bay on Oahu. We would not receive the brunt of the swell, but instead woke up to solid 4- to 6-foot surf at Cardiff, while up north of Point Conception, massive surf was tearing up the coastline, sending most surfers home and a few others like Hawaii’s Shane Dorian out to hit massive Maverick’s. Winter had arrived and big wave surfers, who usually had one thing on their minds, now contemplated two, with the passing of one of their own.
As far as the swell goes, here’s what happens in Southern California — a big storm in the Aleutians had brewed seas of more than 40 feet, sending massive bands of energy out in several directions. Right in line for one of those bands is Hawaii, that receives the Alaskan gift each winter, usually from late December through February.
Waves are also sent to the south, sometimes taking direct hits in the Pacific Northwest, moving down like a hose with a kink in it, until it trickles onto our beaches. The further north the swell originates, the less surf will hit us. This is due to obstacles like the Santa Barbara Channel Islands, and jutting fingers of land like Point Conception, that pinch off much of the swell.
If a swell forms further west than north, we in Southern California have a much better chance of receiving more surf. Still, our continental shelf, which extends for about a mile in our area, cuts down wave size greatly. Not that I’m complaining. I, and I suspect most of you, enjoy the gentle ride produced by small clean surf. Plus, most of the sandbars and reefs in North County close out when the surf gets much beyond five feet. This swell was no exception, as beach break waves peaked and fell on the horizon, kept good form for a while and unloaded in one straight line for hundreds of yards, offering no place for a surfer to go, except into a short tube for a pay-per-view moment, or, more often, over the falls or straight into the beach.
This early swell brings with it optimism for an early winter. Time will tell if these waves are a sign of things to come, or waters that have become stirred up and angry at the passing of one of the best surfers who ever traveled above them.


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