Photo by Bo Bridges“I’ve heard of a reef out there, but I’ve never actually seen it!” exclaims an Asian surfer named Rice Cube. A half mile from shore, enormous waves thunderclap loud enough to muffle his voice. He’s standing in the dirt parking lot above the surf break called County Line at 6:15 in the morning, just as the first pink shards of daylight pierce the sky above the Santa Monica Mountains behind him. County Line is the northernmost surf break in Los Angeles — it’s actually close to a mile from the real county line, which is exactly the sort of thing that gives surfers our reputation for undisciplined slackerness. Ninety-nine days out of a hundred, both sides of the PCH at County Line are wall-to-wall cars by 7 a.m., the water packed with all manner of surfer, from aspiring young pros to old Valley kooks. None of them is here now, because today is not one of those days.Wednesday, December 21, 2005, will live forever in the collective memory of California surfers as “Big Wednesday.” Long ago, we dropped the indefinite article when referring to days where the waves consistently top 10 feet. The 1978 John Milius film Big Wednesday simply brought this insider lingo to the masses. And, as surf reports from across the Internet and every ocean-side bar predicted for the past week, today is big. The spots where waves normally break at County Line are a washing machine of white water. The real action is taking place out on Rice Cube’s reef, where it’s too dark and too far away to assess just how big it really is from the shore. Moving south down the coast, the picture comes into focus. Popular surf spots like Leo Carillo and Zeros — normally mobbed on the rare winter days that a swell makes it into this corner of L.A. — are eerily quiet, with the few people braving the water paddling furiously to avoid the waves rather than catch them. Doing so, they provide a nice eyeball measurement on wave size — definitely bigger than 10 feet. The far south end of Zuma Beach, regarded with caution by surfers on even the smallest days because the waves break in heaving barrels right on the beach, is a frightful display of the ocean’s power. Waves jack quickly to their full height just 15 yards offshore, detonating with such force that the air vibrates. Occasionally, two or three waves stack on top of each other, and the backwash is sucked into the breaking waves, spraying white foam 25 feet into the sky. The few onlookers scream and holler like it’s a Fourth of July fireworks display.Atop a bluff on Point Dume, huge lines of energy pulse into the bay that sweeps south. A handful of surfers watch quietly as five guys try to navigate their way through waves breaking in places that completely redraw the inner map of anyone who’s surfed here.“It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of surfing going on down there,” says one observer. Just then, a set of 15-foot waves stacks up well beyond the bay. As the first one breaks, a surfer shoots into view — he must have been sitting out past Point Dume to catch it — and flies across the foamy green wall. That one may have been closer to 18 feet.Because of its aspect and shape, Topanga is one of the few beaches in L.A. that can handle this swell, and by nine o’clock, Topanga crawls with surfers acting both undisciplined and slackerly. Hundreds of cars pack the lot and line the PCH, while another 30 try to finesse parking laws on the fly as traffic whizzes past at 70 mph. Clearly, they’ve taken to heart the sentiments of one online surf reporter who described today as “a good day to earn a pink slip.”Perfect 8-to-10-foot bombs rifle off the point, while occasional 12-footers cause the huge pack of surfers to scramble for the outside. A wind from the northeast whips foam off the top of the breaking waves, feathering the lip as surfers slash elegant carves into the faces peeling across the cobblestone beach. Surfer after surfer, on the beach and in the water, declare that the conditions are “all time.”Lifeguards, who like all watermen delight in pedestrian assessments of ocean conditions that make normal people terrified, seem to disagree on just how big Big Wednesday is. One says it’s the biggest since 1983, while another claims it was this big in 1998. Whatever the benchmark, everyone agrees that El Porto in Manhattan Beach is well over 20 feet by noon. A woman there breaks her leg when a wave smacks her against a wall — while she’s walking along a bike path. Boats anchored near the Marina are ripped from their moorings and one of them is deposited on Dockweiler Beach. A bathroom on the edge of the Venice pier is battered by the waves. At Topanga, where wet surfers get out of their suits with perma-grins affixed to their faces while dry surfers frantically wax their boards, at least three car accidents occur as surfers and gawkers alike try to find parking at 40 mph. Elsewhere the surf proves deadly. An 18-year-old boy is lost at sea when a skiff carrying four family members capsizes in Ventura. And tomorrow, the lifeless body of a surfer will be pulled from the water in Carlsbad.“Everyone has their own idea of what’s really big,” says one lifeguard, who was brought up from Hermosa due to the number of surfers in the water at Topanga. “But this? This is big.”

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