Posted by seahunt on October 12, 2004 at 19:38:00:
In Reply to: What are the biggest waves you have seen off the Californian coast? posted by kylecawaza on October 12, 2004 at 18:11:07:
There is nothing like watching the power of the waves attacking the land and that part of California has waves. About 40 miles south of the Golden Gate, just above Half Moon Bay, is Maverics, considered if not quite the biggest, some of the gnarliest waves in the world.
That area, the San Mateo Coast is some of the most challenging diving anywhere.
Then another 50 miles and you come to Santa Cruz. Even the Beach Boys knew about Steamers Lane. Huge waves break way out there and it is deep water. That was my favorite playground. There is a lot on my site about diving there.
Enjoy the diving, seahunt
Santa Cruz is a special place. A very special place.
Here is something from my site that is fond memories. I have many fond memories of Santa Cruz.
Body Surfing at Steamers Lane
I have always thought that rodeo bull riders were just a bit
nuts. You must have a really drastic need for fun if you hop on
something that powerful and that mad. Well, Here I was, 200 plus
yards from shore at Middle Peak, Steamers Lane, trying my own
version of that fun. I guess I just got real lucky. It was the
beginning of a set and there was this monster coming. I could see
it rising more than 200 yards past where I was and all I could do
is wait and hope I was positioned well enough. These are too big
to chase around after much.
At the time, I didn't know how hard it is to catch one of these
big waves while bodysurfing. You have to take off really late as the
wave is fully starting to break. I took off using a feet together
dolphin kick and both my arms. I didn't know at the time that you
don't ride Middle Peak towards the cliff. I certainly was learning.
It is too fast. I was flying and water was spraying everywhere. You
have to hold your breath all the time for the inevitable moment when
the waves tires of you and puts you in the cold water spin cycle. In
waves like this, you are just a rag doll. Amazingly though, I had
successfully caught it and was riding it tubed inside the wave. There
was nothing to see. It was just darkness and splashing water. Every 10
seconds or so, you blow out your air and suck in another breath to
hold and keep blasting along. When in a wave like this, you intimately
feel its power and well know that to it you are just another small
spray of foam. It died out calmly. The end of the ride was not near
catastrophic as I had expected. Then as I turned around some, I bumped
into a rock. In a fraction of a second I realized without believing it,
that the only rock out here was near the cliff, more than 150 yards
from where I had started. I had been tubed for the whole ride. This
was the first time I had ever tried bodysurfing at the Lane.
So what do you do when you can't go diving? On Friday evenings,
I used to drive my van to Pidgin Point about mid-way up the San
Francisco Peninsula. It is a beautiful area of primitive windswept
coast and redwood groves in the forested mountains. It was a great
place to park my van with a pizza and a book. Sometimes I would get up
in the morning to a lake like ocean with kelp forests on rocky reefs
that went on for miles. I could dive in the calm shallow waters for
hours. Sometimes though, I got up to howling wind and huge waves that
turn into smashing rollers at the first feel of the outer reef. Those
days, I go back to town and go body surfing.
From shore, it is called Light House Point. It is north of the
Boardwalk, along West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz. In the water it is
called Steamers Lane. Long ago some unfortunate steam ship named it by
going aground there. The surfers just call it The Lane. It is arguably
some of the biggest and best surfing in California and certainly some
of the coldest. There is a small surfing museum there now. A nice
thing about the Lane is that you can enter the water by climbing in
off of the Point and it can put you pretty much past most of the surf.
This is an incredibly popular surfing spot. There are mountains coming
in across rock reefs here. Waves like this will draw me like the siren
Big waves can come in there all year long, but from November
through February, you can expect pretty constant surf. On a map,
Light House Point aims due south past the southern edge of Monterey
Bay, with a pretty clear fetch for waves right on all the way down to
Antarctica. Sometimes, some monsters come rolling in.
There are two main areas to surf, the Point and Middle Peak.
There is also third peak, about a mile out in something like 40 feet
of water. No one really surfs it, but it is a good gauge to go by on
a really big day.
The Point has excellent, fast waves that are pretty good for
the short boarders. If you catch the shoulder bodysurfing, it can be
an excellent ride. You can take off straight, turn at the bottom, go
to the top and take off again. If you try to ride across the top,
instead of going to the bottom and turning, forget it. You will get
launched. The wave then slows for a bit and then it speeds up again as
it meets the break coming the other way from Middle Peak. Riding into
that carelessly will get you splattered, but if you accelerate with
all your strength, you can hit the oncoming break with enough energy
that it cannot pick you up and you pop out the back. Realize, even on
a small day, where these meet is a hard hitting 4 foot wave, in very
I surfed the point a lot. There are a lot of board surfers there
though and a bodysurfer is suicidal to tangle with them on a wave. On
a medium day though, there are enough waves to clear out the boards
with one nice wave left over for me. The boards take off earlier on
the wave and they must cross the small cove south of the point to get
past the cliff. While that is easy enough on a decent day, on a small
day, the wave can break against the cliff as it leaves the cove. Well,
there was this guy on a purple board that I was used to seeing. He
tended to cut off people more than was really polite and I used to get
annoyed, because he would take waves that were only so so for him, but
would have been great for me. This was especially true on smaller
days. One day he took off a bit late. I was in deeper water, looking
from about even with the cliff and the wave was going to break right
on it. There was this nice tube about 5 feet high in front, perhaps 6
feet from the cliff, just breaking so that it would hit flat against
the cliff. One thing. The guy on the purple board was in it and he had
very little room to work with to get past the cliff. He was just
hunched up in the tube, pointed straight out my direction, perhaps 2
feet from the rock. He made it and I thought that that is what you
learn to do when you snake a lot of waves.
Taking off and riding a big wave is a thrash. You have to start
with a foot together dolphin kick and use your arms, to get the speed
to catch a big wave before it is too late. As you go down the wave,
you must change to a flutter kick to be able to flatten your body out
so that you slide on the water. Forget your arms. It's to late for
them to do much, good or bad. Then if the wave hits the back of your
legs, they are going to instantly cramp. Ignore it. At this point
things get easier. Just go with the ride, oh, and get ready to get
off when you have to. You would rather that you got off gracefully by
ducking down or whatever, rather than the wave tiring of you and doing
the big cold water spin. But if you are well positioned on the
shoulder, you can twist your body to send yourself back up the wave
and then drop straight down again. It is one of the ultimate thrills
you can ever have.
There was this one big day. The waves were cleanly going over
Seal Rock that was about 60 yards off the point. There were a bunch
of surfers standing high up on the point, waiting for the bottom of
the set so that they could get into the water and get outside the
waves before the big ones started churning the area again. Well I
thought that I would show them just how mobile I was compared to them.
There was a break in the waves so I just trotted down the point and
jumped in. I was swimming out fast, but it
didn't matter. This was a
lull in the waves, not the bottom of the set. The top of the curl
coming in was probably 12 feet above the water in front of it. Nice
tube. Bad luck. I went down, but you can't escape a wave like that.
I was deep, then I was flying up to the top, then I was going down.
I hit the bottom flat on my back. That's about 12 feet deep there. I
have been scuba diving in the spot. I got off pretty easy.
Occasionally, the locals would get a bit territorial. They don't
much like anyone, let alone a bodysurfer. Well, I'm extremely
vulnerable to boards. I don't mind some punk going to some effort to
spray me as he goes by, but once they aim for me or kick the board at
me with those oh so sharp tips, it's time for some strategy of
discouragement. I just swim down and pick up some fair sized rocks
and start playing with them on the surface. The reminder always seems
While the Point has good surfing with big fast waves, the radical
surfing at Steamers is the monsters on Middle Peak. These start to
rise on Third Peak, more than a half mile from shore and build and
move around as they work their way over the reefs on the way to the
shallower water where they break. It's a huge area. You cannot predict
well, where any wave is finally going to break. They are not as fast
as the Point. All their power goes into size.
Realize, on a Big day, to get 4 rides bodysurfing Middle Peak is
a fair day. Board surfers can go around the waves and current. On a
big day, after a ride that brings you inside, a bodysurfer may as well
swim the rest of the way to shore, get out and walk back to the point
to get back in the water. Surfboards can get above the currents. The
bodysurfer is in them. Don't ever try to swim against a fast ocean
current. At Steamers Lane there is heavy seaweed growth. I always
hold on to it. I'm strong, but swimming against those waves is a
waste of time. When a wave, large or small comes, you have to go down
and hold onto the bottom. Even a small wave will carry you back 30
yards and that can not easily be made up. Giant waves come and you
dive for the bottom and clutch on. You have to relax to conserve air.
You want the wave and its moving water to be all the way past before
you come up. You can hear rocks moving and banging together, sometimes
big ones, sometimes quite near. Then you drift up and better be
prepared if there is another big wave following. You may be swimming
constantly for hours. Getting winded is not an option.
One weekday morning there were mid size waves, so I was just a
bit inside Middle Peak. It was a workweek, so there were few board
surfers out. I took off on about an 8 footer. It was the best ride I
ever got. For about 100 yards I rode this smooth shoulder, turning up
and down the face of the wave like a board. I came out and there was
this girl there. She said that was the most amazing ride she had ever
seen. Being my usual calm, cool, composed self, I said something like
"wowbestrideinyearscan'tbelieveflassdjrerug;werig;jhg4rg". She did a
bit of a disappearing act. What an awesome experience.
You take off on a wave and are carried along using so little
power of the wave that it shows little more than a ripple in your
passing. Yet the power it has can always be felt and sometimes it will
accelerate you like a rocket. Sometimes though, even when you're in a
nice graceful ride on top of the water, you know that it has a hold of
you. You may not be in trouble or need to get off, but you notice that
when you try to adjust your position or direction, you are in a grip
that doesn't move for you, any. It can get spooky. You know you can
lose at this game. Well, sometimes you do. Then what? There is nothing
like scraping to get past a wave and it doesn't work. It may just be a
ride backwards into the cold water spin cycle. Once in a while though,
you are going to find yourself to be a small part of the leading edge
of a big curl. You are going down, fast, and with a monster coming
down right behind you. It's time to make like the cartoon character
that falls over the waterfall and then swims uphill. You are both
still gonna go splash. The only bet actually is to swim some and do
anything to get away from the leading edge. Then at the last second,
I flip so that I am in a ball and will hit on my back. It's really not
all that bad.
There is another... mistake that I have made occasionally. I call
it "scooping water" and I've never really figured out exactly what
causes it. It is really impressive though. It will bring you to an
instant stop in a large wave. It only happens on a big wave when you
are going pretty fast. I assume that part of my wetsuit, my hood or
collar, gets pulled open and "scoops" water. Both parts are extremely
well sealed, so I am not sure how this happens, but one second you are
shooting along in a wave the next second you are stopped and water is
coming out of your eyeballs. Literally, you are out of the wave and
stopped. This means that you have rebounded off the wave, because not
only has the ride ended, you are behind the whole wave. There is a lot
of energy involved in that equation. Also there is a lot of water in
your suit and your eyes and your nose and your ears. It is a pretty
catastrophic stop. It takes a while to get the water running out of
everything, and that still leaves about 15 gallons of really cold
water in your suit. It's a very sobering experience.
So you think you can't catch a broken wave bodysurfing... I was
out with a Boogey Board on a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon. There
was a nice swell that was easily over 7 feet, and lots of surfers. I
had used Boogey Boards at other places and thought that it might be
fun on a truly big wave. Besides, getting a ride body surfing, with
all those other surfers, would be tough even with all these waves.
Well, what did I learn. It wasn't a glassy day. Usually on a fairly
big day there is wind and reflected chop. Catch a big wave and you are
going to be pounding through this chop at high speed. It's not like
body surfing or even a board. You don't cut through it. The large flat
Boogey Board pounds. It pounds so much it will rattle your teeth. You
quickly learn to clutch the leading corner to hold on and try to
remember never to bring this thing out in big waves again. But, I was
there. I was going to ride what I could. Well, I was sitting outside a
bit as I tend to, when a really nice set started rising over the third
reef. I got lucky. I was positioned well and got a great takeoff on
the first and biggest wave. It was fun, pound, pound, pound, crash. I
don't remember the details of that. You never do, but I came up
eventually and behold, my Boogey Board was long gone. The leash had
ripped loose from my arm. Big surprise. Well, it was going to be
heading around the corner towards Cowells Beach. With the crowd and
the distance I had to cover to get it, I figured it would be gone
unless I could get creative. I had always wondered if it could be
done. A wave is a circle. When in breaking waves, surfers always
naturally conform their body to a shape that cannot pick up energy
from the wave. The opposite shape as the circle. There was the brother
of that last wave coming along in a few seconds and it was near as
big. Why not lay down in the water moving in the same direction as the
wave. When it hits from behind, roll forward so that you conform to the
shape of the wave. It should pick you up and carry you along. The only
drawback is a question of where your head and the rocks will be while
you are wheeling through the water. Well, I did three rolls and came
up near shore. Head was intact. I got the Boogey Board. It can be done.
One foggy evening, verging on storm, I wanted to surf. It was
late, but whatever. I got there and a rarity, there was almost no one
in the water. I had a full suit, hood and gloves for the cold water,
though I was barefoot under my fins, as usual. The waves were coming
in at 8 to 10 feet out on Middle Peak. That's a fairly big day. Well,
I wanted to surf. I hopped in at the Point and was seriously getting
sloshed around by the wind and storm chop. There were only 2 other
board surfers out and they were a ways away. They didn't know about
any bodysurfer. I had gotten a couple of half descent rides when I saw
a seriously big swell coming in. I figured "cool, I'm just at the
shoulder of it". I took off. It was a big un. I was blasting along
right in the shoulder of the wave in what would have been perfect
position, on a nice day. It wasn't a nice day and I was feeling the
power of this storm wave. It had a good hold on me. I got about even
with the cliff, which is good, because even a wave like this is going
to die around here eventually. Not so good. It wasn't dying or even
slowing and there are some rocks that stick up here some at low tide.
I was at the bottom of the wave, moving really fast and I could see
this head sized rock sticking up in front of me. At times like this
you register how odd it is that there are no other surfers out in the
water with you and the dusk is falling and the water is nasty. I
yanked back and didn't hit anything, but I figured I had gotten to
surf enough for the day.
One way to test your lung capacity is to take 2 waves in a row.
It is not often that you can do it, but sometimes you came out of a
big wave at Middle Peak a bit early. When you come up again, there
may be another one bearing down on you. It's not hard to dodge, but
wasting an opportunity, when it is so hard to get a ride, seems silly.
Each wave is a bit of an exertion though. After that second one, you
had better relax, let the wave wash you to shore, breathe, and hope
that you don't pass out.
Another way that I occasionally used to test my lung capacity...
I am not a real good board surfer, but I did board surf there
occasionally. It's much easier with a board to dodge waves or swim
against currents. Remember though, because of the size and shape of
the area, the rule of Steamers Lane is 'you are going to get caught
inside eventually'. It doesn't matter how far out you sit, a bigger
wave is going to eventually come along and get you. It's not so bad
with a board. You go flopping around and come up. Position yourself
and swim like crazy out of the way. There is one other situation
though, but don't worry, when it happens you have time to catch another
breath. If it's a fairly big day and the waves are 8 feet or more, you
may find yourself inside and scraping to get over a wave before it
breaks. You make it over and start sliding down the back of the wave.
That's fine. What isn't so fine is when you are sliding down the back
of this big wave and still you find yourself going backwards, uphill.
You are going to go over backwards into the roughest part of the wave.
Like I said, don't worry, you will have time to grab another quick
breath and you better, cuz you are going to be down for a while.
Getting out of the water is simple. Go in the cove there and
climb up the stairs that were so thoughtfully put in. Of course
getting to the stairs may present some small problem. Realize, those
waves are whipping a lot of water along the shore. Now on a board,
that is not so much of a problem. You can cross over currents. Again,
if you are bodysurfing, it doesn't work that way. Miss that cove by
15 feet and you aren't getting to it. It's a long way to the next
good exit at Cowells Beach. You always have the alternative of
climbing out on the rocks and going up the cliff. I dare say
that some people enjoyed watching me bodysurf there, just as I
enjoy watching the surfers. I dunno, I'm too far out and too busy to
look. I do know that there was a crowd on top of the cliff when I
got up there. I said this was a big day. there are breakers hitting
right on the rocks at the base of the cliff. You have to be patient
and calm to sit 10 feet from the rocks, waiting for the waves to quit
smashing on them long enough for you to make a dash. I climbed up on
a rock and grabbed the one above it. Then the next wave hit right on me
and I had to be flat against the rock so that I couldn't be pounded
into or off of it. Then you climb, while the waves are hitting you.
Above the rocks is about 40 feet of steep soft cliff. Like I say,
there were a lot of people watching me when I got up. I'm not sure
what they were hoping to see.
The days I liked best were the huge days that might get up to 12
feet. A few longboarders are out there, but the little surf nazis on
their short boards can't handle it. Realize that on a 12 foot wave,
with a 20 foot face, there is all kind of chop from wind and reflected
waves. If a shortboarder goes hauling down a wave and hits a 2 foot
chop, they will get launched. I have the body weight and strength to
just cut through that. The longboarders have no interest in messing
with me. I guess they figure that any nut was welcome and anyway, there
are enough waves for everyone. On big days, the waves are starting to
rise on the reefs 300 yards out. While they do follow the reef, they
are very hard to predict and how far can you swim without a board
anyway. You have to take off as the wave is breaking. The waves on
Middle Peak tend to tip instead of curl, so you don't usually get
launched. Still, on a wave that big, that tip may suddenly become the
curl of a 5 foot wave and that is going to produce quite a blast when
it hits the face of the wave with you in the front of it. You had
better be ready to hold your body rigid and bounce. Then there is
always that chop I mentioned. If a reflected wave hits the front of a
big wave as you are just taking off, it's going to suddenly increase
the height of that wave by quite a bit and you are going to get quite
a curl coming down on top of you. There may be nothing you can do. In
waves this big, the water is going to be so deep that at least you
pretty much don't have to worry about hitting the rocks on the bottom.
Now you've got yourself positioned on the horns of the bull, ride
it. Its got a 20 foot high face that's at an angle and it's moving
fast with the weight and power of a freight train. That means that you
are going to accelerate straight down for about 50 feet. It feels like
it's going to rip your wetsuit off. You're sliding, but it's not
necessarily smooth. You may be pounding your way through chop on the
way down. The power is unreal. You hope that you can see. If you can
control your decent and turn, you may be able to get high on the wave
again and ride it some more, but at Middle Peak, it tends to be just
that, a peak and it's falling on you. Now you flip under and get out
of it, but you are still in a lot of moving water. It's time to swim
to shore, go around and try it again, but no doubt about it, that is
about the wildest ride you are going to ever have in your life.
Here is a bit of an addendum, that I had no idea what to do with,
so it's just going to go here.
I used to do a lot of body surfing at Zuma Beach as well. It is
quite different than at the Lane. For one thing, it is on sand instead
of rock. Anywhere along the miles of clean sandy beach is just about
the same as the rest. This makes the break quite different as well.
Instead of the wave breaking fairly consistently and predictably as it
rises on the rock reefs, it can break anywhere. If you see big waves
down the beach a ways, they will soon be where you are. These waves
don't have well defined shoulders where you can ride to get out of the
main part of the wave. They don't usually tip, they are tubes that
throw out and crash. At the Lane, you can ride huge waves that
continue to break as the reef gets shallower. At Zuma, they just rise
and break. A 5 foot wave at Zuma is more likely to break you than a
10 footer at the Lane and the water is much shallower. Also, while
there are currents that will carry you along the shore at the Lane, at
Zuma, the water builds up along the shore until a rip current forms to
carry it out again. The water is clear and the diving there is pretty
interesting. It's a fun place. I spent hours and hours there. A couple
of times it was memorable as well as fun.
I went with my friend Kevin, many times. The lifeguards would be
chasing people out of the rips and would quite pointedly ignore us.
Often, we would go in the late afternoon and there would be almost no
one in the water. A lifeguard would wander along the beach just
inshore from us.
I am very heavy, so I would ride the waves with a style that
wasn't practical for most people. I would cut the wave, like a seal
does when they ride waves. The wave falls on you, but it is already
knocked down enough that it cannot well tube. Kevin is a big enough
guy, but he would ride like most people and slide across the surface
of the tube and dive out when the wave was going to smash onto him.
This often led to him being much higher on the wave than me. A couple
of times he just landed on my back and stood up.
One of the biggest days I ever went out, we were all alone in the
water. It was huge for Zuma. We were getting rides, but like happens
on big days, we weren't getting too many. You are constantly swimming
to catch waves, dodge waves or get out of rips. We had gone out twice
and come in for a breather. Kevin decided he was done. I wasn't quite
through. I went out through a bit of a lull at the bottom of the set.
My two personal lifeguards were watching from the beach. A huge set
came in. I had no interest in that trouble and stayed outside, out of
the way. It calmed a bit and I knew that there would be huge rips
carrying the water from the beach. These will carry you way too far
from shore. I saw one form about 30 yards to my right and started
swimming the opposite direction. This isn't a sure thing though and
sure enough the real one started to form in front of me. When all that
water is trying to get away from the shore, a number of rips will
start, but usually, there is going to be one main one that really
manages to get moving offshore through the surf. The smaller ones will
subside into it. Well, that big one was forming just a bit in front of
me. I turned around and swam as hard as I could. I was signaling the
lifeguards on shore that I was still well composed, by swearing up a
storm as I swam. They could guess that I might be a bit nuts, but I
was doing the right thing to get out of trouble. I got away from it
and decided that really, this was too much of a good thing. Things
were bigger than an hour earlier. Grace and control be damned when the
ocean starts to get deadly. It was getting to be the bottom of the set,
meaning that the breakers were down to about 4 feet. I just moved in
any way I could and let any wave headed for shore grab me any way it
wanted. Two waves were enough to carry me through the surf. I saw the
lifeguards look at each other and shake hands. When I got out I just
casually walked past them and one sort of called to me. I asked if
anything was wrong. He said 'oh no, we just didn't want to get wet".
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