On Monday, Dec. 17, 2018 the Queen of the Coast came to life with a well-publicized swell. The crowd at first looked insurmountable as every parking spot in the upper and lower lots, under both bridges and up Bates Road was taken, and when I swung into a space in the upper lot I felt I’d won the lottery. Then, standing on the cliff and looking at the 150 surfers, four-or five-deep in the lineup at Indicator—and realizing there would be about 400 more of them through the Rivermouth and Cove sections—I considered heading to another stretch of coast all together. But with that prime real estate of a parking spot and the rest of the afternoon open for surfing, I decided to keep low expectations and paddle out just to see what might happen. I saw a few familiar faces within the thronging masses and settled in to the session. Naturally, the locals made it look easy and it was usually one of the Carp boys that “happened” to be on the best sets, and that’s not accidental because although Rincon is a darn-near-perfect wave, there are nuances to the point and its various sections that favor the locally born-and-bred surfer.
And somehow in that swarm of surfboard-riding humanity I managed a few waves as well, having perhaps learned a thing or two about Rincon point in these recent years of living in my adopted hometown. Another factor that made getting a wave not as difficult as it might first have seemed, was that about 80 percent of the surfers were riding typical, day-in, day-out, high-performance surfboards. Wafer thin and ultra-responsive, contemporary shortboards allow dynamic turns and acrobatics on “normal-sized” waves—say, two to four feet high—but when the surf goes northward of six or eight feet, the ocean moves differently with a heave and carry that suits grownups on full-sized surf craft. (But I am not advocating longboards, as those are another surfing discipline, not at all suited to the deep bands of powerful swell that swing into the Rincon at eight or ten feet.)
Indeed, a board with some thickness flow stem-to-stern and increased rail-line runs at the pace of the large, lumbering swells, controlling the transmitted energy from a long, running drop. With the exception of very few, highly talented individuals, the guys on “standard” shortboards (when they could finally snag a wave) were chattering across the face, unable to manage the exponentially greater levels of power in the water with the proper swell conditions on hand. It was a matter of survival versus flow, with a scant number of surfers able to coax the potential from the best and meatiest waves of the day. Understandably, but with predictable consequences, most of the shortboard crew congregated at the Cove, scrapping over every perfect wall that came in, the surfers running though from outside calling them off like so many would-be train hoppers. But that’s life at the Con in the 21st century—it’s still the best thing going, and one good one here is worth ten or 15 elsewhere.
Surfing en famile
It was a toss-up as to how we would manage the nearly three-weeks of winter break from school: either a Baja run to maybe see some whales and camp and surf the remote corners, or a return to old friends in Santa Cruz for holiday hijinks. With a cold snap and heavy winds setting up, the deserts of Baja would be mighty inhospitable so we opted for Christmas with the witches in Hollywood. (This is not a commentary on my mother-in-law, just a statement of fact regarding a neighborhood sorcerer lady and her wonderful Christmas party, followed by a family feast and gift giving—my Episcopalian roots strong enough to withstand a touch of pagan revelry). Afterwards we loaded the van, unfortunately underestimating the cold snap in terms of the clothing we brought, and drove north for New Year’s.
My friends live on six acres in the Santa Cruz mountains with a vineyard of white wine grapes and ridgeline views of the mixed redwood and oak forest running west toward the ocean with hints of drifting Pacific fog. After a beautiful dinner party of pizzas from their wood-fired outdoor pizza oven with the rest of the up-north crew, they put us up in the cabin on their property which is a cozy one-room structure with a sleeping loft. The plan was to surf the coast north of Santa Cruz the next morning at first light. An icy wind blew offshore all night from the beaches at the center of Monterey Bay, similar to the northeasterlies that can blow in Oxnard and Ventura, and like those winds, the offshores up north resulted in an unfavorable, sideways-running lump through the line-up at our preferred reef the next day.
But the water was deep blue, the cliffs dramatic, sea-life abundant and it was great fun just to be with the old pals in the old stomping grounds. But here’s where things got a bit curious: amongst my buddies with whom I forged bonds in my college years, I was right back in my “up north mode,” which is to say hungry for waves and keen to scour the 65 miles of reefs and beaches that comprise our beloved “North Coast” (Carcharodon carcharias be-damned). Of course, ranging the North Coast all day and surfing through the run of the tides as a bachelor is one thing, and another thing entirely as a husband and father of two, still-small children.
So, by the time we got back to the Santa Cruz mountain property in the early afternoon my wife was anxious for me to re-join the family fold. And so-ensued a few days’ tussle between the calls from my North Coast buddies to hunt, and the better-for-the-family option of heading to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk for a spin on the rollercoaster even as the deep-water reefs went all green-hued magic one evening. The tension boiled over at one point, with me stupidly and angrily declaring that I had an absolute need to go surfing (as if I don’t go surfing a lot as it is). Natasha, a surfer in her own right, turned to me and said, “You’re no different than a drug addict.”
And that gave me something to consider.