It seems that being a surfer from the wintery north of British Columba automatically precludes the possibility of seeing dreamy California in a negative light. I’ve never met another Canadian surfer to doesn’t romanticize the Golden State in one way or another. For as long as I’ve been interested in surfing, I’ve dreamt of gliding on some of the world’s most shapely summer longboard waves wearing nothing but a pair of trunks, the setting California sun warming my back. During the cold winters on Vancouver Island, I’ve tried to experience this warmth vicariously through the plethora of literature highlighting warmweather surfing, most of which takes place at one of the famous breaks in California. Rereading the most recent Surfer’s Journal or William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days while the cold winter rains pound the window pains for the third week straight is a great way to overromanticize surfing culture in general, let alone some of the warmer locales famous for birthing the culture of the sport.
My first visit to California was structured around a rugby tournament in Pasadena where my high school teammates and I suffered one miserable loss after the next. Over the two weeks that we spent there, I saw the ocean just enough times to get me hooked on the grand illusions which give California its allure. Although the aqua green waves and golden shores are now at least a few hour’s flight from my home base on the west coast of Canada, I have always felt their magnetic pull. During the winter months, that pull often becomes unbearable, and is usually only cured by a couple of hours spent shivering in the Straight of Juan De Fuca and hoping for a long period swell to roll in, like a long cold shower as a cure for an overactive libido.
This past winter, I could no longer resist the magnetism of California. Claire and I chased waves for 5 weeks there over the course of January and February, making it back to Canada just a couple of days before much of the state drowned in record breaking rains. It had been years since I visited California, and I was aware that I had built up some grand illusions of the place based off of hazy high school nostalgia and some romantic literature. I was prepared for these illusions to be shattered, brought back down to earth with the sharp thorns of reality. And in a lot of cases, this is exactly what happened. The real California was busier, drier, and more competitive than the endless secluded beaches that permeated my memories. However, there were a few pockets which, quite miraculously, fulfilled all of my wildest dreams about surfing in California in unusual and unexpected ways. Some of these pockets exist on the outskirts of major cities, yet they have maintained their old pace, slow, steady and dependable, in a busy world that is now changing faster than ever
We pulled our old van off the highway at the first sign of the nuclear generating station. I had only recently come to know the two massive storage spheres looming on the shoreline as a landmark for the famous longboard wave at San Onofre. All of the other legends that I had heard about the place somehow managed to omit this minor detail. By this time we had been on the road for a couple of weeks and had had our eyes opened to a huge diversity of surfing cultures that we didn’t know existed between Tofino and Orange County. My personal surfing style and philosophy has long revolved around having fun, sharing waves, and building community in the water, all while observing and maintaining an obvious pecking order. I try hard not to judge people based off their wave catching vessels, but when our first glimpse of the parking lot at San Onofre revealed an abundance of ten footers with glassed-on D-fins, I was hopeful that we had finally found our crowd.
We parked the van in the last empty spot in the small lot built only for a couple dozen cars. At first this didn’t strike me as odd: the parking lot for our main break back home was about the same size and never caused any issues. We later learned that the main parking lot closer to the beach had been wiped out by a storm the previous year, leaving the beach shorthanded by 100 parking spots. Nevertheless, we quickly changed in this makeshift lot, applied sunscreen for the first time on the trip, and walked barefoot down to the beach in the warm sun. The lineup was longboard central as expected.
When we came back from our session around noon, there was a line of a dozen cars waiting for someone to leave and vacate a parking spot. I couldn’t say how long they had all been there, but their faces betrayed their valiant attempts to remain jovial and neighbourly in the face of inconvenience. The near century of popular surfing at San Onofre has certainly taken it’s tole, as has the growing population in its vicinity. A far cry from wilderness surfing, the mellow lineup at San Onofre is punctuated by the frequent roar of lowflying aircraft and the eery nuclear generating station on the shoreline. However, the shapeliness of the waves and the longboard friendly culture of the place is still present, making it one of the only places in California which still clings to the past in a refreshing and calming way.
Fifty miles north of Santa Barbara along the Cabrillo Highway, a narrow, winding road diverges from the main route and heads into the country, bound for the ocean. At the end of the road lies a remote, tranquil beach that which has no equal in the state of California. The golden grass lights up with the long shadows cast on the rolling hills at sunrise and sunset, while seemingly untouched coastline plays host to a powerful beach break and a few secret spots hidden in the shadows of the towering cliffs. After descending the last hill into camp, we parked our van in our overnight spot a few paces from the substantial beach break crashing on the other side of the dunes where onshore winds sent the deceivingly large waves crumbling toward us. Exhausted the day of driving, we refrained from changing into wetsuits and instead spent the evening making tacos in the van, watching the sunset, and listening to the silence only broken intermittently by a tumbling wave.
We woke the next morning to a brilliant dawn, the cool sun casting long shadows the comforting long shadows. Along with my wetsuit, I donned booties and a thin pair of gloves before heading for the crashing surf. Our hope was that the dawn patrol would reward us with glassy conditions, but we were met with a harsh cross-shore wind and a low tide. Enduring one brain freeze after the next trying to paddle out through the washing machine conditions, I finally gave up when I realized that the low tide was causing the head-high waves to crash in no more than a couple feet of water —too little error margin for my liking. I sat dripping wet on the beach, trying to warm up in the faint rising sun. There was nothing to do but accept the impossible waves and head back to the van for a windy day of reading in the sun and enjoying the solitude.
On the outskirts of San Francisco, Claire and I had an afternoon to kill before meeting an old friend for a picnic dinner. Rather than getting caught up in the rat race of the city, we left the van parked and strolled the wide, sleepy streets of the Outer Sunset District. With the unforgiving breaks of Ocean Beach barely out of view, cawing seagulls and a salty breeze reminded us of our proximity to the ocean. The immensity of the sea air and the warm sun on our backs helped us accept a slower pace, even though we were comfortably within arm’s reach of our favourite metropolis.
We roamed along Noriega Street, stopping at a popular neightbourhood taqueria for a slow lunch of tacos and sodas. Next we found Judah Street, where we cruised into iconic Trouble Coffee and a couple of quaint artists’ workshops. After an obligatory visit to Mollusk Surf Shop, which left us drooling over the beautiful boards and books within, we walked to the ocean, where we found hot sand a few locals holding their own in the crushing surf.
Claire napped in the sand and I tried to journal without much success, the warm sun and full stomach forcing my eyes shut with each passing second. It soon came time for us to hop in the van and join the mad rush of traffic to meet our friend for our picnic, but the subtle magnetism of the Outer Sunset would remain with us. To this day I remember the sound of traffic way off in the distance, a comforting sound, telling you that you’re close to the action, but far enough away that you can relax your shoulders and breathe easy.