Beautiful sky, junky surf. Photo by Chris Ahrens
Columns Waterspot

Waterspot: The joy of junk surf

I have surfed Cardiff Reef for more than half a century, and lived within walking distance of it for much of that time. It is generally a good wave and occasionally a great one. For as long as I can remember, however, it has been as crowded as a Black Friday two-for-one shoe sale when it’s 6-foot, glassy and peeling. It doesn’t require a math wizard to realize that 50 surfers scrambling for 25 set waves in an hour leaves half the surfers in the water empty and unhappy. I don’t surf to be unhappy, so I never paddle out at the Reef during times of peak traffic. I go somewhere else, or, crazy as it sounds, I wait for the wind to kick up and blow the waves out.

I realize that onshore winds generally cause the waves to deteriorate, but they also send the crowds back to the beach. In the ‘90s I became famous for showing up right when the wind switched, and turned the previously perfectly groomed waves into a scene from the movie “Victory at Sea.” Walking through the Reef parking lot, I would hear people arguing over who snaked whom, describing how they got their latest ding, always concluding with, “Can you believe what that kook did to me?”

As if signaled by some mythical wind god, 90 percent of the crowd would be paddling in while I paddled out, some of them mentioning that I had missed it. But had I? Two hours after sharing my open secret with those few of similar mind, I would return to the sand, surfed out and stoked. While the masses were waiting in line for the possibility of steak, I was feasting on hamburgers.

Of course I’m not the first surfer to enjoy riding junk surf. Generally considered the best surfer in the world in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s, Phil Edwards once told me that he loved junk surf because he could be left to ride it alone. 

While Edwards was never really a competitor, and surfed junk surf for the pure pleasure of it, many competitive surfers ride junk because they know that most surfing contest finals are held in the afternoon when the waves will, most likely, be junky.

But for me and I suspect many of you reading this, I have always enjoyed the challenge of riding a less than perfect wave. Air dropping down a blown-out wave face, plowing through the chop, racing through a threatening section, hooking into a pop-up barrel and making the most of inferior conditions always made me feel I was cheating life. 

Many seasoned surfers view onshore winds as an opportunity, rather than a curse. They realize that some spots can be blown out while others are glassy, or blowing offshore.  Bends in the coast, kelp beds, cliffs and coves can change bad surf conditions into good ones. But that’s not really the point of this article. The point is that you can ride a few perfect waves or countless flawed ones. The choice seems obvious to me. See you when the wind switches.

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