Sitting together on a grassy slope above the unprotected waters of Cabrillo Beach, Hal Parker and Nora Tay are waiting for the wind to rise. The sun already is high on this Saturday afternoon in San Pedro. There's promise in the air.
"It'll definitely be a ride today," Parker says.
His confidence is steadfast. This is, after all, Cabrillo Beach, long known as "Hurricane Gulch." One of the most consistent high-wind areas in Southern California, it's a magnet for serious windsurfers.
For veterans such as Parker and Tay, and the dozens of others gathered nearby, the waters outside the breakwaters of Cabrillo Beach are Southern California's best bet for "radically fast" rides.
Having mastered the skills of handling the sail by holding onto a wishbone-shaped bar and balancing the board with their legs and a waist harness tethered to the mast, these experienced windsurfers hunger for the adrenaline rush of undiluted speed. Their goal is to "plane" through the surf like a flat stone skipping across a lake. "Teeth-chattering fast," Tay says.
Less-experienced windsurfers, generally equipped with longer boards built for stability rather than speed, can satisfy their thirst for the sport at Cabrillo Beach's area inside the breakwaters, where lighter winds and calmer waters prevail.
The combination of the beginner's area in the harbor and the more challenging surf outside the breakwaters make Cabrillo Beach one of the premier windsurfing spots around Los Angeles.
Pete Begle, the owner of Sailboards West in San Pedro, says Cabrillo provides ridable winds about six days out of seven in the spring and summer, except during the "June gloom" of late May through early July, when only half of the days present adequate windsurfing conditions.
There are other popular local windsurfing sites, such as Seal Beach to the south and Leo Carrillo State Beach up past Malibu, but they can't match Cabrillo's promise of reliable, forceful air currents.
"It's the windiest spot around," Tay says.
On a busy weekend, as many as 100 windsurfers can be found plying their brilliantly colored rigs along the outer waters in crowded, but governable, conditions. When the wind and surf oblige, they can reach speeds of 25 m.p.h. and beyond.
Despite the high speeds and often crowded conditions, Begle says the sport is relatively free of serious injuries, mainly because the water forgives what would be disastrous spills on solid ground. The boards and sails usually bear the brunt of any collisions between enthusiasts.
Some of the windsurfers who frequent Cabrillo Beach drive more than 100 miles for the brisk southwest winds that whip along the beach's half-mile expanse.
Rick Richardson, a veteran windsurfer and research scientist for Southern California Edison, says the air currents at Cabrillo are unusually strong because Point Fermin and its bluffs help to compress the wind as it flows around them.
Richardson says the winds are bolstered by at least 5 m.p.h. because of the physical layout of the area. "And the difference between 10 and 15 m.p.h. is the difference between going out and not going out," he says.
Richardson, 48, drives to Cabrillo about once or twice a week from his home in Hacienda Heights because he loves the challenge of the sport. "It's the exhilaration of being in control in a situation that's difficult to control," he says.
Parker and Tay, who live together in Mar Vista, stuff their 1984 Volkswagen camper van with as many as five boards and 10 sails before heading off to Cabrillo, a trip they make as often as four times a week. The extra equipment--boards of different volume and length and sails of varying heights and surface areas--allows them to adjust to a wide range of wind and surf conditions.
Parker, 31, is a former surfing fanatic who says he was introduced to windsurfing in the late 1970s but eventually shelved the sport because of the crudeness of the equipment.
Advances in board and sail technology lured him back into the pursuit about three years ago. Now he windsurfs almost every day during the peak summer months and crafts custom boards for a living. "It's a lot more fun now that the equipment is high-performance," he says.
Tay, a lawyer who practices in Los Angeles, can't sneak out to the beach as often as Parker, but she uses weekends and vacations for windsurfing excursions, which she says often last all day.
"In the summer you have to get here early in the morning to get parking," Tay says. The winds, however, generally don't pick up until the middle or late afternoon. "It's a waiting game. You really have to hang with it. It's not like scheduling a racquetball court."
Parker, who says he recently performed for the filming of a Pepsi commercial, is one of Cabrillo's more flashy windsurfers, executing acrobatic maneuvers such as "barrel rolls" (forward flips using a wave as a springboard) and "heli-tacks" (twisting aerial turns into the wind).
"I'm totally addicted to this," he says.