Riders on the Storm
Winter Ushers in Big Surf
Neck tans, aching shoulders, sandy wetsuits, ignored responsibilities, chilly mornings, evening glass, and waves in our backyard-the surf season returned to Santa Barbara in a big way during the latter part of 2005 and continued straight on into the New Year. Our normally quiet cobblestone point breaks and sleepy kelp-covered rock reefs did their annual transformation into legitimate surf spots. And the best part is that-with a little luck-this trend will continue with some frequency until the Ides of March have come and gone. Here we present you with a celebration of this hollow-day season: Ethan Stewart goes inside and out the first 24 hours of the Winter Solstice swell with a little help from photographer friends; Aaron BelChere gets up close and personal with enigmatic local legend Bob Duncan of Wilderness Surfboards; and two of S.B.’s saltiest dogs go toe-to-toe about the ups and downs of a surf culture soaked with Internet technology. When it’s all said and done, it is up to you to get out and enjoy the season because if there is anything certain about surfing in Santa Barbara, the season will be over before you know it.
Big Wednesday 2005
Outside and In December 21’s Super Swell
The hype began nearly a week in advance as Web sites and word-of-mouth rumor mills were calling for 20-foot waves to hit the coast of Santa Barbara on Wednesday, December 21. Whether you want to call it “Big Wednesday,” “The Winter Solstice Swell,” or the “pretty big but not quite classic swell of late ’05,” the bottom line is that this storm lit up the coastal points and rock reefs of Santa Barbara in ways they hadn’t seen in years. Equally impressive was the turnout of surfers from all over the state, who came to the 805 to get a taste of our fabled-if sporadic-haunts, not to mention the hordes of non-surfing locals who simply watched the ocean unleash its fury. While the storm kicked off more than a week of overhead olas along the South Coast, the first 24 hours were by far the biggest and the most crowded. The swell was enjoyed by thousands and, because of that, it would be impossible to tell a complete story of the storm. So instead, what follows is one surfer’s account of those magical first 24 hours, riding the coast of Santa Barbara.
Sunset in Montecito, Tuesday, December 20
A last-light surf check in Montecito shows an ocean already loaded with swell. Nearly two dozen surfers jockey for waves in the peaky head-high-plus seas. Despite the heavy crowd, there are more than enough waves to go around. What the swell lacks in size it makes up for in consistency as the waves roll through in frequent five-wave sets. A simple sunset melts prematurely into a thick cloud bank miles out beyond the harbor. The buzz on the beach is all about the building swell and where people hope to surf in the morning. No 20-footers yet-not even any 10-foot ones-but the ocean does indeed look pregnant.
Dinnertime at the Enterprise Fish Company
Not sure what is bigger: the full Channel swell just now introducing itself to the South Coast or the monster of hype riding along with it. A TV screen above the bar has a national news report about the “massive surf” about to hit the Southern California coast and another screen-showing the Lakers game-offers a weather warning across the bottom of the screen calling for a “Heavy Surf Advisory for the Santa Barbara County coastline until 4 p.m. Wednesday.”
Sitting next to the bar-gathered around two tables pushed together and covered with empty drink glasses-are several notable and famously nicknamed members of the Westside Santa Cruz big-wave surfing fraternity. Shawn “Barney” Barron, Darryl “Flea” Virostko, and Jason “Ratboy” Collins sit with about a half dozen other friends, all in town for the winter solstice swell. It’s not uncommon for surfers from the north to head south to the cozy, picture-perfect point breaks of Santa Barbara when really big and unruly storms hit, but this crew is different: They make their living surfing the biggest, baddest waves the world has to offer. What are they doing here?
Just after Flea finishes up asking a waitress where the nearest dance party is, I venture the question. The answers vary from the group, but the gist of it is that the winds are all wrong up north and that they are here to surf Rincon and Sandbar. I laugh. They laugh. And then one of them-I think it was Barney-offers up, “And I don’t think we are the only ones.” The invasion has begun, the pros are descending, the hype is hyping, and, as I walk outside to my truck, I hear the distinct echoed crash of a breaking wave exploding along the breakwater.
Sunrise, “Queen of the Coast,” Big Wednesday, December 21
A brilliant sunrise gives way to a Rincon parking lot full to the brim by first light. Photographers, videographers, and several dozen spectators line the beach as about 20 surfers brave the somewhat disorganized lineup. The paddle-out is a war of attrition with eight-wave sets whose faces are regularly pushing 12 feet and building. The higher tide and the incoming swell are mixing for less-than-ideal conditions, though the set waves are impressive and dangerous, occasionally breaking boards and smacking the less experienced back to shore. Would-be chargers-toting everything from the ¼ber-hip twin-fins and bizarro bonzer boards to 10-foot rhino chasers-pace the beach posturing confidence and looking to paddle out. That said, the number of wetsuit-wearing folk with dry hair is at an all-time high this morning.
The freeway has hundreds of motorists pulled off to the side, squinting through the misty morning, mesmerized by the show the ocean is putting on. A member of the beanie-hat and Ugg boot-wearing army gathered in the upper parking lot grips his cell phone just after 7 a.m. “No need to head south, dude. It is way big but junky here. I’m gonna look somewhere else.”
9:30 a.m., Montecito
On a dog-friendly stretch of sand just south of Ty Warner’s ever-growing oceanfront empire, the surf is pumping as hard as the scene on shore. Parking is difficult as this zone of coast offers several well-known nooks and crannies. Every lineup is crowded, but the waves are constant and the rip running down the beach is helping keep things honest. There is a tinge of disappointment among the more seasoned locals as it is becoming clear that this swell won’t come close to being the 20-foot monster it was predicted to be-at least not at this stretch of coast. But the stoke factor is still through the roof as the morning is unfolding with sunny skies, ideal wind conditions, and more than enough big surf. A nearby beach break is getting the most attention from the non-surfing spectators as 10-foot set waves send spray several stories high. With school out for the holidays, this slice of beach is particularly crowded with younger surfers. One of the groms-dripping wet, grinning ear-to-ear, and holding a surfboard almost twice his size-hoots at me as he runs by: “Ahhh! It’s so sick out there! I’ve never seen it so big and good!”
11:45 a.m., bottom of State Street
There are 14 people surfing East Beach in the shadow of Stearns Wharf. It is only about shoulder high at this novelty of a surf spot, but the wave has great shape. I haven’t seen this circus near the pier since El Ni±o.
12:30 p.m., UCSB
Near UCSB, it is a full-tilt visual extravaganza. Hundreds of observers are standing on the beach and the bluff tops. School officials have put up cones and beefed up security patrol in order to control the parking situation. In the water, more than 100 people dot the point-though only a small and skilled group challenges the set waves hitting up top. Waves of up to 14 feet detonate on the outside before pinwheeling around the corner into smaller, more user-friendly peelers that continue on for several hundred yards.
The fire department’s water rescue team is on the scene as reports of a missing surfer off Isla Vista trickle in. Two jet skis dodge deadly crests along the rocky coast as a helicopter circles overhead, searching for the rumored missing surfer. Several minutes pass and then the surfer surfaces-walking along the bluff top and visibly confused/amused by all the commotion. “I snapped my leash on a big wave and swam in to look for my board. I’m fine but when I saw the helicopter and stuff I thought, ‘Man, what did I do wrong?'” explained the boardless board rider.
Back at the point, the waves are good-real good-and so is the level of surfing going down. One longtime Goletan-still salty and buzzed from the adrenaline of an early-morning surf-opines after a particularly filthy large wave steamrolls the entire lineup, “I’ve surfed out here for a long time and this is just about as big and good as I think I have ever seen it.”
2:45 p.m., near the Santa Barbara Harbor
More than 50 surfers are bobbing in the water near the famous and fickle sandbar near the harbor. Hometown pros Tom Curren, Chris Brown, Tarik Khashoggi, and Bobby Martinez are among the ranks of folks getting barreled out of their minds. The man-made freak wave is grinding its almond eye, offering up small and perfect pits for those lucky enough to get one to themselves. The surf paparazzi are in full effect with photographers and filmmakers-both amateur and professional-filling boats and lining Stearns Wharf as the crowd in the water has a much higher professional-to-amateur surfer ratio than normal.
Though smaller than most everywhere on the coast, this wave is hollow, fast, and deceptively powerful with broken boards and trips over the falls as common as long barrels. A hush-hush secret spot that is known by the whole world, this sandbar has a way of making a surfer sick inside with anticipation if you watch it for too long. After seeing Curren get yet another mind-bendingly long tube ride into the shallows, I no longer find it physically possible to remain on shore.
4 p.m., somewhere in Montecito
The shortest day of the year is coming to a close and I sneak out just before sunset at a typically tranquil cove along the coast of Montecito. The sun is setting, sending soft hues of pink and purple into the sky above Santa Cruz Island. The mountains are awash in that soft golden light that means the day is nearly done. Though the size has dropped a bit and the crowd is still curiously rabid, it is still a damn fine time to be a surfer in Santa Barbara.
Nibbling around the corners of the sets, I lock into a few waves and then-shortly after the sunset-a beast creeps out of the growing darkness. Easily a few feet bigger than the waves before it, this one swings wide. An older guy on a long board eats it hard as the lip pitches from behind him. I see my small window and go. Ruler-edged and racing, the wave freight-trains toward the rocky shore before bending away just past the low-tide rock. I can see stars twinkling above the mountains and feel a distinct warm wind on my face as I race into the cove. The wave stands up on the inside, the bottom dropping out of it just a little bit as the lip throws out in front of me. I bury my hand in the face of the wave, ease back on the accelerator, and slip into the deafening silence of the tube. I hear a hoot of joy echo around me as the world grows darker, my only guiding light the shimmer of the wave immediately in front of me.