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A Swell to Remember

Picked Up Pieces from a Week with Waves

Stearns Wharf
Greg Christman

Happy Hanukkah sports fans! So as the rain returned to Santa Barbara County Thursday night, so too did the great Hanukkah Swell of 2007 start to fade along our coastline. But what a wonderful ride it was. For three straight days, starting early on Tuesday and continuing straight through to sundown on thirsty Thursday, the nooks and crannies, cobblestone points and semi-secret rock reef shelves that we 805 wave sliders call home were going absolutely bonkers. The whole town was abuzz with talk of the swell – it dominated local news coverage, inspired water cooler debates, held up traffic on the 101 as rubber necking looky-lews gawked at Mother Nature showing off as only she can. Hundreds of surfers from outside of the 805 descended to sample some of our nectar, and they weren’t disappointed. From Rincon to Gaviota, Hanukkah presents were being unwrapped by all, regardless of your religious leanings as the waves ran the gamut from fun and playful to big and perfect to huge and deadly. One surfer was overheard saying at the Brewhouse Friday night, “It was a god damn dream man,” before adding with a sunburned smile and tell-tale neck tan line, “I just hope I still have my job on Monday.”

Sandspit
J. Michael Holiday

At sundown on Monday, the ocean was small and the air was warm. In fact, a last light check did little to indicate what type of carnage was fast approaching. However, by first light on Tuesday, the parking lot at Rincon was all ready stuffed to the gills, the waves were solid overhead, but a little lumpy with fat morning tide. Further of the coast, Ty Warner’s backyard was holding over head sets with light offshore winds and 50 plus eager board riders. Still further north, thanks to the straight West angle of this swell, the waves of Goleta the Goodland and Gaviota the Greatland were doing things quite similar, with more than a few lineups putting on a perfect face with no one around to witness it.

The buoys rose steadily all day on Tuesday, and by the afternoon it seemed each set that came in was getting incrementally bigger. With warm sunny weather and sets running easily double overhead, at times places like Campus Point felt oddly like Hawaii – especially given the number people trying their hand at catching the big waves. As sunset approached, things were really staring to get weird in the water as waves with 12 to 14-foot faces started rolling through. Spots like those off Padaro Lane and the Santa Barbara Harbor started to turn from flat and dirty to way overhead, mind-bending tube machines. A few days later, former woman’s world champion and Carpinteria resident Kim Mearig recounted in the lineup her experience surfing at Spot X on Tuesday; “I went with my son earlier in the day and it was good overhead and clean. We went back in the afternoon and it just turned on. The sets kept getting bigger. It was f*&^ing huge! I was like, ‘I gotta get out of here!'”

The crowd at Sandspit.
J. Michael Holliday

The swell peaked in the wee hours Tuesday night with buoy readings that seemed like a joke. The mid-channel was approaching 20 feet at 20 seconds from 270 degrees. Dozens of people were gathered along Stearns Wharf in downtown Santa Barbara, watching waves break of the end of the pier as a few nut balls pulled into moon lit tubes anonymously across the way at Sandspit. On Winter Solstice in 2005, Santa Barbara enjoyed a swell that many called the biggest in a decade. Well, at it’s peak, the Hanukkah Swell dwarfed the Solstice Swell by almost nine feet on most buoys and the swell angle was even more west. Though it is impossible to say with these things, the general feeling amongst those who challenged this swell at its peak and at the premier breaks is that this was the biggest surf Southern and Central California has seen in a long, long time. And did I mention the weather was pretty much perfect?

There is not much to say about Wednesday other than it was BIG. You could hear waves breaking miles from the beach, there was a salt water mist shrouding the coastline, Cottage Hospital treated more than a few broken warriors, while other were simply skipping work just to go and watch the awesome display of nature. Arguably the greatest surfer alive and eight-time world champion, Kelly Slater, flew into town and scored sessions at Rincon, Sandspit, Campus Point, and El Capitan. Coming in for a day or so on his way back to Hawaii, Slater turned heads, got cleaned up by a macking set at Campus, complained about the crowds at Rincon, and ruled up top at El Cap in way only he can do.

Photographers attempting to capture the action.
J. Michael Holliday

By Thursday, things had dropped off a bit and all that remained was perhaps the most perfect surf day of this young season to date. Sets were still well overhead, but with less of a crowd chasing them, patchy sunny skies, and near perfect wind conditions all day. Not sure how every one else faired, but after getting my ass handed to me on Wednesday, Thursday provided the Barnacle with hours of big turns, ample tube time, and a sunburn that was tough to hide at work the next day.

As is the case with all great swells – besides usually occurring on Wednesdays – there are countless stories of heroism, bravado, and ultimately tragedy. There are heart warming tales already trickling in from here on the South Coast about surfers paddling other surfers in from the violent seas to the safety of shore while further up the coast, at a brutal big wave spot in Monterey called Ghost Trees (also known as Pescadero Point just off the famed Pebble Beach Golf Course) a legendary big wave rider, father and career commercial fishermen, Peter Davi, passed away while attempting to paddle into 60-foot waves. A hulk of a man and a world class waterman, Davi was paddling into waves that dozens of others needed tows from jet-skis to get into. After snapping his leash, Davi drowned while attempting to come ashore, his body was found hours later floating face down in a patch of kelp. It just goes to show, that no matter your experience levels and degree of fitness, when the ocean turns on like it did last week, there are no guarantees.

Greg Christman

Currently, the waves are still up with a solid bit of westerly angled wind swell running though. It is expected to taper off as the weekend goes on. Out on the charts, it looks like we all can head back to work next week as North Pacific looks to catch its breath for a spell. Not only are there no major wave producers on the horizon, but a big old high pressure system appears to building in over the Gulf of Alaska; a development which usually means no waves for us down here below the bite of California. Till next time Mother Nature decides to flex her ocean muscle, be good, share your waves, and pick up your trash. The ocean needs us these days just as much as we need her. Aloha.

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