Jen See last wrote for The Toast about cycling. She’s very sporty.
The clutch pedal feels cold under my bare foot, and there’s sand lodged in deep between my toes. I’m pretty sure I have ten of them, but I can only feel two or three. Sky, air, sea, they’re all grey, so much so that it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. The heater in my VW is episodic. It works, but never until it’s good and ready. My hair smells like kelp. My feet are so cold. I pull my beanie down lower and drive faster.
The surf is best in the winter here, when the winds in the North Pacific whip up storms that hurtle toward the coast. That’s where the waves come from; they come from the spinning winds and they come from a long way out to sea. Sometimes the storms make a wrong turn and tuck up into the armpit of Alaska never to be seen again. That’s good for Alaska’s massive snow-fed rivers and mighty salmon runs, but not especially good for surfing in California.
The best storms for surf hang out around Hawaii — because why wouldn’t they? — or they crash into the coast somewhere north of San Francisco. If the storms are too close, the surf is wrecked. If they’re too far away, the waves are too small by the time they arrive at the beach. To make good surf, the storms have to be just the right size in just the right place. It’s a miracle we ever surf at all.
But surf we do. We surf when it’s clean and perfect. We surf when it’s big and we surf when it’s small. It’s best on the low tide, but we surf the high tide, too. We have boards of every size and shape for every possible occasion — long boards, short boards, boards with wide tails, boards with pin tails, boards with a little more foam, boards with a lot more foam. They come in every shape you can imagine and some you can’t. Blown out, knee-high slop or head-high, reeling perfection — We surf it all.
The oldtimers, they talk of surfing in long underwear, which just goes to show that when the waves are good, surfers will try anything. Longjohns in 52-degree water — sure, why the hell not. Now, we have neoprene so soft it feels like yoga pants. The surf magazines show pictures of perfect waves in the shadow of snow-capped mountains. You can surf in Iceland now. There’s no need for longjohns and there’s no need to go looking for endless summer.
Off the coast of California, buoys float and bob, recording wind speeds and wave heights. The buoys are surfing’s tarot cards. Before the internet, you’d turn on the marine radio, and a disembodied voice would read off the numbers up and down the coast in an infinite loop. Now, there’s the internet. You carry the buoy readings and tide charts in your pocket everywhere you go and you obsess about the arcane numbers they mindlessly churn out.
But here’s the thing: Sometimes the buoys lie. Because for all the buoy numbers and computer models and all-seeing satellites, there’s still an element of the unknowable in the whole thing. When it comes to the natural world, the magic monkeywrench rules over it all. In truth, you never really know for sure there’s surf until you see it on the beach. And that’s a comforting thing, really, that there remain some things beyond the reach of technology.
A transverse mountain range runs across Southern California from the desert to the sea. It seals the southern end of the Central Valley and during the winter, snow falls on the highest peaks. Trace the mountains east and they end in the desert where incessant wind scours the sage-dotted sand. To the west, the mountains drop steadily in elevation until they reach the land’s end.
And that’s where things get interesting. The mountains drop down to the sea and there empties the runoff from the winter snow that carries with it rocks, broken and tumbled end over end. By the time they reach their journey’s end, the rocks are worn smooth and rounded. And then, like a childhood toy loved too much, they become magic.
A cobbled point break is one of nature’s great miracles, thanks to those magic stones. Wherever there’s a point break, there’s almost certainly a rivermouth. The river rock paves the shoreline and the tidal floor, and each wave cracks on the rocks in exactly the same way as the one before it. They line up like railway cars, one after the other, an improbable perfection.
Walk down the trail, and see it framed through the trees. The air is heavy with sea spray and exuberance. The buoys may lie sometimes, but there are no secrets. One guy checked it this morning and he called his best friend who told his girlfriend who told this one guy at the coffeeshop who texted his best friend who told his roommate. You see how it is.
Flip through a magazine and surfing looks like an idyllic, solitary endeavor. As the pictures tell the story, you sit out in the ocean alone, surf wave after wave, and contemplate the infinite. Once in a while, it is in fact like that. But surfing in California is more typically a highly social proposition — which is a nice way of saying that on a good day at the best spots, it’s crowded as shit.
When the waves are good, the full cast of characters shows up: the pro surfers, their boards stickered up with sponsors’ logos, dreaming of glory, hassling on the peak, and burning everyone; the guys on their lunch break just trying to get a few waves before they have to go back to their cubicles and spreadsheets and florescent lights and mortgages; the roadtrippers who have heard about this spot and have to surf it just once in their lives; the crazy local who’s always out, always stoned, and never shuts up; the girl on the big board who can’t surf; the girl who rips, the dudes watch her, and say she surfs like a guy.
I walk down the point and step into the water. It’s cold enough to smart and my fingers and toes tingle. We call it the rock dance, the tiptoe trip across the rocks to the water. Barnacles scrape at my feet and the rocks shift unexpectedly. I look up the point and see a wave hit the reef. In surfing, timing is everything.
You’re just standing there in the rocks, watching the water swirl over your toes and the anemone’s tendrils swaying in the current. Then you’re in the water, racing a runaway train and you’re not winning, because you look up and see a what looks like a clam shell ready to close on your head with a snap.
It’s the hardest thing, this first sprint over the rocks through the shallows to the outside. In the shallow water, it’s all toil and trouble. Outside, you float like a movie star lounging on a pool mat with a martini dangling from her perfectly manicured fingers. Inside where the rock bottom turns shallow, the waves transform into frothing, spitting monsters.
The first wave crashes over my head and I feel like I ate an entire popsicle, one of those big long ones with the rainbow stripes that they sell at the corner store, in a single bite. The current pushes me backward, so I dig in deeply. If you pitch your hand just right, the water becomes like a solid thing. You grab a chunk and pull your body over it, as though you’re walking on your hands across a ladder laid flat.
There’s another wave coming, paddle toward it, take a deep breath, fill your lungs like it’s the last breath you’ll ever take. Shove the board underwater, as deep as it will go, and follow it. Feel the white water rush over your feet. Hear a distant roar like you’ve crawled deep into a heart of a seashell. Punch through the surface, turn, and watch the rainbow-touched spray blow back toward you. Breath again.
Every wave has a sweet spot, where everyone sits, clustered tightly. The peak has the same combination of violence, ritual, and hierarchy as a mosh pit. Generally, skill rules, but there are always a few who put themselves above the law. Even 11-time world champion Kelly Slater gets burned sometimes. The water boils and churns, arms flail, tempers flare. It’s not that idyllic, really.
But then you get one and all that churning and cursing and shoving is forgotten in the smooth rush of the first drop down the wave’s face. Through the thin fiber-glass of a shortboard, you can sense the texture of the water under your feet. Every shift in balance, each flick of your ankle, every curl of your toes translates into movement. Come dance on the water, twist, turn, and float, weightless.
All too soon it’s over. Orion slips from his winter throne and drops below the Northern Hemisphere’s celestial horizon, while Cassiopeia and Ursa Major rise high in the night sky. The evening low tides of winter flip to morning, and every afternoon, the tide slithers up the beach. The North Pacific goes quiet. The night sky, the tides, the surf — they all tell of the season’s turning.
With the coming of the spring, the big winter swells are gone, but on a rare afternoon, the wind funnels through the narrow passage between the Channel Islands and the mainland. And when that happens, we surf. The winter road trips and the stickered boards are long gone now. It’s just the locals, goofing away an afternoon.
The waves feather white over the reef, beer flows on the beach, and happy laughter fills the lineup. It’s less mosh pit and more dance party. We swap waves and gossip. There’s plenty of both to go around. Nobody’s taking it too seriously, because an afternoon surf with good friends is a joyful thing.
I get my share and sated, I lie in the warm sand and watch as the air turns orange with the sunset’s glow. I hear the waves crack on the rocks, and feel the ground shake. Someone gets a good one, and the guys on the beach hoot him down the line. The water turns orange, then grey. Last call, the light fades.
The best summer swells come from the South Pacific. Around here, the Channel Islands block most of them, except for the rare hurricane that slips through the tiny gaps between the islands. Sometimes we drive south to Malibu and surf with Barbie in front of Cher’s house. Malibu is a movie set image of a surf spot, and it was already crowded in 1960. Now, it’s just silly. There are occasional road trips to Mexico and Costa Rica in search of uncrowded peaks that are never as uncrowded as you’d imagine.
Mostly, we stay home and summer is the time of longboards and bikinis and drinking beer on the beach. I slide along the tiny perfect waves that peel over the reef. I watch the sunlight shimmer through the clear water and the schools of tiny baitfish shine silver. Rocks disappear in a blur beneath my feet. There are no crowds and no worries, just a summer day at the beach. Stand up and glide. It’s glorious.
Driving along the coast in the hazy golden hour light, I watch the coast scroll by like a surf film drunk on cheap beer and nostalgia. Sometimes, California doesn’t feel quite real. And in that magic hour before sunset, the boundary line between what’s imagined and what’s real is nearly imperceptible.
A light offshore wind blows out of the canyons. The ocean’s spray catches the glow of the setting sun and turns to fire. You can’t believe it looks like that, but it does. And in that moment, you forget the clogged freeways, the drought-fueled wildfires, the absurd cost of housing, you forget everything, lost in the light. It feels like a dream. And maybe it is.