Junk surf in transition. Photo by Chris Ahrens
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Waterspot: When junk surf is actually the best

I love junk surf. In fact, I was once such a fan of bad waves that friends would ridicule me for showing up right when the wind blew out.  I would ride the leftovers of what had previously been good, glassy waves. Of course, glassy or offshore is preferable for surfing, and for that reason those conditions bring the biggest crowds.

Growing up inland, we often got the beach just in time for the waves to turn from neatly groomed peaks, into junky slop. Dishwater, they often called it. By the time we arrived at the beach in those days, the crowd had vanished along with the wave quality, leaving us along to enjoy an afternoon with only the surfers we came with. Mostly we surfed Huntington and Newport — places that, without coves or kelp beds to protect them from the wind, predictably blew out before noon. It wasn’t like North County, which often stays glassy all day.

So far this has been a pretty flat and junky fall. I hear my friends complain about the conditions. Last week I drove to the beach to find waves at a little reef and had a blast in conditions nobody cared for. The day had three strikes against it — the surf was tiny, the wind was onshore, and the tide was extra high. If you checked it on a surf cam or actually drove to the water’s edge to watch for a few minutes, you probably wouldn’t paddle out. But I hadn’t surfed for a few weeks and so I suited up and dove into the chilly, lumpy, bumpy shorebreak.

I caught half a dozen bad waves, fell on two and dragged my fin in the shallow sand on the last one. I was ready to call it a day when something wonderful happened — the wind dropped along with the tide and the surf began to stand up on an outside sandbar. Paddling out further, I was rewarded with decent waves.

Within an hour, the wind had died entirely, the waves were dead glassy, and the tide had dropped enough for the surf to break proudly on the outside bar. I rode a head-high wave, stoked at having cheated the system when I saw three other surfers tearing down the bluff with their longboards. The initial trio was followed by about a dozen more. The word was out and so was I.

The surf had gone from junky to good in about two hours. What was good news to them was bad news to me and I caught a final wave in.

Walking through the sand back to my car, I turned to see three surfers compete for the same little wave and could nearly hear one of them calling the others off. No big deal — the surf would be there tomorrow, and with a little luck the wind would wreck it sufficiently and so would I.

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