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Waterspot: Winter surfing survival guide

Ocean temperatures have dropped about 10 degrees since summer temps peaked in the low to mid-70s. It happens, in varying degrees, each year as fall eases us into winter like a lukewarm bath that continues cooling. While we have had little preparation for big surf this year due to fall’s failure to produce waves of size, winter swells will soon proudly march down from the Aleutians before arriving in Southern California, stripping the silted reefs of excess sand, causing the beach breaks to close out while turning on the reefs and keeping big-wave riders up past their bedtimes in contemplation of Todos Santos, Mavericks, or maybe the North Shore of Oahu.

Preparations for the big-wave season for those who will stay home or join the annual migration to Hawaii begin long before the first northern storms bust the swell window wide open. It all starts with a longing in the human heart where something tells us that risking our lives will be fun, or, at least, challenging. Those taking the challenge seriously move to the gym and then to their most trusted shaper — the person whom they will trust with their lives as they build what is known as a big-wave gun, or a semi-gun — a narrow surfboard in the 8- to 10-foot range that will get the rider safely down the face of waves the size of skyscrapers before all that water detonates on contact with the reef, landing with seemingly as much PSI as equal amounts of concrete or dynamite.

Big-wave guns resemble weapons; spears made for catching and riding waves that few people want to get near. Small-wave boards are generally shorter and wider than their long, drawn-out big brothers. This gives the small-wave board the advantage of maneuverability, giving good surfers the option gouging a tailslide or blasting an aerial. Big wave surfing knows no such tricks. Big-wave surfing is about survival.

Waves towering from 10 feet to 80 feet often travel too fast to be caught by small, wide surfboards. They require a big-wave gun. There are, of course, exceptions, like Australian’s legendary Cheyne Horan, who once rode a 5’8” in some of Hawaii’s biggest waves.

As if big waves were not challenging enough, the Pacific Ocean on the West Coast of the United States presents another obstacle — cold water. Temperatures in the 50s cause limbs to stiffen and teeth to chatter. Waves like Mavericks in Morro Bay and Ship Sterns in Tasmania can freeze the gums out of a person’s head. Gloves, booties and hoods make the voyage possible but leave the rider sensory deprived.

Despite your choice in wetsuits, I heartily recommend earplugs to surfers in cold water. These, as most of my readers know, are not for warmth, but protection against “surfer’s ear,” a condition in which the ear canal can close — a state that often requires painful surgery.

While wetsuits are the answer to the cold dilemma, this second skin causes unwanted floatation when diving beneath thick whitewater. Wetsuits can also prove stiff and cumbersome when trying to bend the body.

When shopping for a wetsuit, don’t be fooled by fancy colors and artistic logos. Be sure a wetsuit fits snugly and is warm and flexible. A wetsuit for Southern California need not be any thicker than 3/2 mm, but the better ones are either glued and blind stitched or taped and blind stitched.

Are you ready for winter surf? I’m not and never have been. See you at the gym.

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