Surfers Rejoice: When it Comes to Waves, El Niño Delivers

Surfers Rejoice: When it Comes to Waves, El Niño Delivers
File photo by Craig Berry/Flickr

We're in the midst of a four-storm week, so we wouldn't blame you if you were already tiring of this Seattle-like dreariness.

But there's one group of Southern Californians who are saying bring it on: surfers.

The historic nature of this El Niño winter isn't lost on the boys and girls of summer. One like this only comes around every decade or so. As such, surfers are waxing their boards in anticipation of big waves driven by a southerly tropical jet stream that's an El Niño trademark .

While Southern California is known for consistently smaller waves when compared to Hawaii or even points north, El Niños can bring "once-in-a-lifetime" secret spots to life and make beach breaks like El Porto and Black's Beach look absolutely epic.

Avid surfers prepare by ordering longer boards called "guns." They're overkill for a normal Southern California winter, but not so much this year. The thicker midsections and increased mass allow surfers to paddle into powerful waves that otherwise want to push them over the top.

Scott Anderson is perhaps the Santa Monica Bay's best-known surfboard shaper. He says he's been busy making boards for locals who want to take part in this history-making season.

"Everybody wants a bigger board to handle some bigger waves," he says. "Anytime there's more surf, it's more work for us. Everybody's excited knowing we could have some really good swells this year."

Likewise, Joe Roper, a legendary San Diego surfer who's also the city's go-to board-repair guru, is busy helping people get their equipment in shape for El Niño. Plus, big waves mean broken boards that need to be fixed.

"It's my business," Roper says. "I'm happy when the surf gets big."

He says he recently ordered an 8-foot, 8-inch Hank Warner gun for himself in preparation for his own El Niño sessions this year.

Roper explains that surfing during a stormy El Niño year isn't as simple as putting on a good wetsuit and paddling out on your favorite board. Even if the waves are juicy, wind and rain can ruin the shape. Experts look for a calm between storms, when swells reach beaches before rain does and wind isn't killing the vibe.

"Friday wind was 30 knots," he says. "The Cove was trying to break, but it wasn't big enough."

La Jolla Cove actually breaks big-time every few years if the swell size and direction are right. We've seen Roper dominate the wave as it broke left in winters past. 

Weather experts say the 1998 El Niño was the strongest in modern times, but Roper remembers 1983 as the biggest Southern California wave-maker in his lifetime.

"The whole months of January and February never got under 6 feet, and it was 15-plus once a week, sometimes much, much bigger," he says. "Nothing compares to that year since I've been surfing, probably 50 years."

He's hoping for a reprise of ’83. 

"It's been mediocre for so many years," Roper notes. "Last year I think the Cove broke once. I'm hoping the wather doesn't kill the swell. I hope we get a glassy, no-rain swell."

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