Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Any Which Way But East

Last week I spent some time over Santa Cruz.

Way over. Like 20,000 feet over. SFO was a bit backed up, so our pilot "held" by circling (what felt like) directly over Steamer Lane. It was crystal clear that day and, even at that height, you could see tiny dots and tiny white trails as the Westside crew mobbed every wave that wasn't slamming the cliff in its entirety. Then, in what was another first for me (and I've been flying to SF from OC every damn week for a year and a half now), we departed SFO on Wednesday and did what the pilot called a "Bay Tour". We essentially took off heading east and then flew north over the Bay, banked west directly over the city, and then finally began our trip southward by coming around the backside of Mavericks.

So over the course of two consecutive flights I got a very rare glimpse of two of the most famous waves on Earth. And one of the things I noticed was the swell direction, which was...um...coming straight from, er directly from...uh, the ocean. Yup, straight from the ocean.

Okay, look...I admit it. I don't understand the whole swell direction thing. Even there, with a perfect bird's eye view of the ocean, with swell lines wrapping into the Bay, I wasn't sure. I mean, it looked liked a north swell, but then again, I'm not sure exactly which way Santa Cruz faces. And come to think of it, I do recall flying over during the summer once in a private plane and seeing waves wrapping into the Bay...and it looked exactly the same. And I'm sure that was a south swell.

I remember in high school I had a couple of buddies that got really into the whole wave forecasting thing. They had books and guides and maps and even one of those radio things that had no stations - just an on/off button and a long antennae. You pushed the button and you heard some far-off sounding voice going, "17 foot swells every *crackle* 18 seconds and 47 *bleep* as recorded at buoy *crackle* four one niner."

I don't remember if they actually said "niner", but it was all gibberish to me. All I knew was that if you called 976-SURF they never said anything about seconds or buoys. They just said, "Steamer lane is 3-4 feet and Skindog is punching some valley in the parking lot." (Well, actually, they never mentioned the Skindog part, but they should have - that would have been great for us Palo Alto kids - "The Hook is 2-3 feet and Pleasure Point is ON FIRE and the entire Eastside crew is in the back of Marcel Soros' truck at 4-Mile, so get on it."

Anyhow, the 2-3 foot thing made sense to me. The tides...that made sense, too. Surfline says it's a 6 foot high tide and the waves are mushy and hitting the cliffs. They say it's a negative 2 foot low tide and there's shitloads of kelp and you'll have to step on several hundred squishy things before you make it to the lineup.

What can I say? I'm visual.

But those same buddies back in high school, they swore they understood the whole forecasting/directional thing. And to prove it, we were going to score all-time waves at this spot in Big Sur called The Big Sur Rivermouth.

Never heard of it? Ha.

See, according to our little book, the Big Sur Rivermouth is a killer secret spot that only breaks under the most specific conditions. It has to have the exact swell direction (and we're talking a specific range of degrees here...like, actual numbers), the exact size swell, and the exact number of seconds in between. Oh yeah, and the tide has to be just right, too.

Then, when all the stars align, and all this stuff comes together like the perfect storm, the Big Sur Rivermouth will bestow upon those fortunate and prepared and wise enough to learn its secrets, perfect reeling right handers that wrap into the bay like gifts from Sean Collins himself.

And so my friend Pete listened to his radio thing, and scoured his free tidebooks, and we waited. In the meantime we kept driving over the hill to Santa Cruz and kept surfing. We scored great waves, not-so-great waves, and everything in between. We surfed at high tide and dinged up our boards trying to clamber up the rocks at 38th St. We surfed at low tide and dinged up our boards trying to pull into that elusive left hand bowl at the Point. We surfed in freezing onshore wind. We surfed in freezing offshore wind. And we surfed, baking in our O'Neill ChillKillers on flat, hot, still afternoons with no wind whatsoever.

Then finally, one spring afternoon, we got the call. The stars had aligned. The tidebooks, boxy little radio things, swell directions, Surfline...they'd all coalesced into what was going to be PERFECT WAVES at the greatest secret spot in history - The Big Sur Rivermouth. And we were going to be on it.

Do I even have to continue? You know where this is going.

Of course, we drove all the way to Big Sur, slept on a freezing cold beach after a 20 minute hike through some forest, ate burned hot dogs on a stick, drank a 12-pack of Schaefer and smoked horrible, wet pot out of a pipe one of us probably stole from a Grateful Dead show at Frost Amphitheater, and woke up smelly and cold and sore all over. And, of course, the waves were knee-high and closed out and exactly what we could have scored on any semi-flat day at the Hook.

But Pete was undeterred. And we were undeterred in our faith in Pete. We were convinced that we, and only we, knew about a killer...and, now, admittedly fickle...spot, deep in the heart of Big Sur, and that it was only a miscalculation in surf forecasting that had delayed our inevitable fate of surfing perfect waves, all by ourselves.

"You know, dude," he'd say. "That last swell was a north coming in at 155 degrees. What the Rivermouth needs is a 145-150 degree swell...and at medium low tide."

And, like the desperate kooks we were, we'd nod our heads and say, "Yeah, 145...medium low...it'll be EPIC."

Swell after swell, season after season, we trekked in and out of that beach. More Schaefer, more hot dogs, more squawking little radio box, and more knee-high closeouts.

I don't remember at what point exactly we gave up on the ol' Big Sur Rivermouth...but I'll tell you this: it coincided exactly with my moment of Zen, when I decided that I had absolutely NO FUCKING CLUE as to how surf forecasting worked beyond "big waves expected this weekend".

And that was it. We graduated and moved to the beach. Some of us moved to Hawaii. Some of us moved to San Diego. Some of us moved to Santa Cruz.

And, like some guy that never learned to read, I've been living happily, although functionally forecast illiterate, ever since. And like that same guy, who has the bus routes memorized from experience, and knows by heart what's on the menu at his local restaurants, I can bullshit my way through it.

GUY: "This north could've used a little south...but it's mostly west windswell breaking it up."
ME: "Totally...but the pier looks good."
GUY: "I bet Lowers is firing, especially when the tide drops and that south moves in."
ME: "Totally...and hey, check out the pier."
GUY: "Check out Southside...too much water right now, but it's gonna be on this afternoon."
ME: "Totally...pier"

So, fifteen years and thousands of waves later, I'm still out there, and no more wiser than when I was 16 years old, sleeping on the beach, feet frozen, Oscar Meyer/Schaefer halitosis, wondering where our own personal Rincon was.

But you know what? I'm okay with that. So what if I can't tell my SW from my N/NW? So what if I surf that same damn beachbreak, day in and day out? So what if I think Sean Collins is some kind of crystal-balled, 3-card Monte, fortune-cookie scam artist?

8-10 foot, 14-16 second intervals, 135 degree W/NW crossed up with a 3-4 foot SW windswell?

The Colonel says, "Um...I'll be at the pier."