Waterspot: The joy of shifting sandbars

Waterspot: The joy of shifting sandbars
Finding a new sandbar requires patience and work. Photo by Chris Ahrens

I walk the beach near my home in Cardiff several times a week, usually without a surfboard. On my route I encounter anonymous surfers, friends, sea birds, sand crabs, fish, fishermen, human discards and the occasional surprise in the shape of an overnight sandbar.

Sandbars come and go, often popping up overnight where they form two-way peaks where there was previously nothing but closed-out surf. Generally these new sandbars last a day or two without a single surfer to ride them. If they manage to survive for a few weeks, the word tends to get out and they become as crowded as any other surf spot. Sometimes, more so.

I have always been attracted to surfing more for what I don’t know than what I do know. To me, one of surfing’s greatest joys is discovery, especially in a place you don’t expect to find it. Since all the main spots in North County were discovered long ago and are well advertised on the omnipresent wave cams, there is no hope of finding an unridden reef break in our area. Thankfully, sandbars, because of their shifty natures, tend to fly beneath the radar, and no amount of technology will help you locate them.  There are no apps or maps revealing these sandbars because they are forever changing. But finding a new sandbar requires patience and work. The best way to approach the search is without thoughts of meeting your objective. If you think of it simply as a beach walk you will never be disappointed with what you find.

And, while new sandbars are elusive, certain factors increase your odds of finding them. They commonly pop up near river mouths after a hard rain. As such they can be a mixed blessing, since rain means runoff and runoff means water pollution. Extreme tidal shifts, currents and the big swells that accompany them can also move the sand around like a massive cosmic dump truck from one spot to another. Sometimes, however, a sandbar will appear for no apparent reason whatsoever. Some unseen force has moved tons of sand around without anyone’s notice. Another difficulty in locating a new sandbar is that they can create a good wave on one tide and swell direction and not another. You might look at the spot at high tide and find no surf and come back two hours later and see 4-foot waves peeling in both directions. Tricky little gifts, these sandbars.

Just last week after a solid month of nearly flat conditions, I was walking the shore when I noticed a glassy little left and right peak without a surfer in sight.

Having been surprised by good waves and no surf vehicle in the past has taught me a lesson. Now, much of the time I carry my inflatable surf mat and fins with me. Unlike a surfboard these are light and portable. Because of them, I enjoyed a surprising and blissful solitary hour in 2- to 4-foot glassy conditions.

Next time your local spot is flat, take a little stroll down the beach. A temporary paradise might be closer than you think.

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