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Having a Swell Time

So Cal Surfers Are Gearing Up for El Nino and Recalling Other Days of Heavy Weather and Towering Waves


A divine force with a little name is the talk of the beach.

Surfers can't wait for El Nino, a weird weather condition named for the Christ child and expected to bring historic storms--and surf--from November to March.

El Nino usually appears every two to seven years when the waters of the equatorial Pacific warm like a sauna, setting off a series of weather reactions that include a winter storm track aimed straight for Southern California. Meteorologists have tried to forecast El Nino in the past, but never have they been this early or this certain.

"The hype is justified," says Chris Borg, chief meteorologist for the SurfLine / WaveTrak forecasting service. El Niuo already is rearing its head in the form of unusually tropical weather: Hurricane Linda marched up the coast of Baja last weekend, becoming the strongest West Coast hurricane ever recorded, and throwing a sizable south swell at Southern California beaches.

Already comparisons are being made to the El Nin~o winter of 1982-'83, when three-story waves lashed Southern California and claimed pieces of piers from Ventura to San Diego.

For many coastal residents, the early warnings buy time to batten the hatches. But some surfers are working out and gearing up for what they expect will be the swells of the century.

"Everybody's anticipating it," says Randy Wright, a former professional surfer who owns the Horizons West surf shop in Santa Monica. "I'm working out more and not going out as much--not on a full party schedule. You gotta make sure your lungs can handle it."

Legendary surfboard maker Al Merrick says the long-range forecasts are "starting to generate some business." Steve Barto, a custom surfboard shaper in La Jolla, also says customers have been putting in more orders than usual for big winter boards, called "guns."

"I just shaped an 8-foot-4-inch board today," Barto says. "I also shaped a bunch of 7-foot-6-inch boards for people, but they're going to be under-gunned."

Anticipating heavy weather can be electric. "The thing I like about El Nino is that a lot of places that only break once every 10 years will show," says Steve Hawk, editor of Surfer magazine in San Juan Capistrano. "Every surfer I know has one or two spots in the back of his mind to look at if we get serious swell this season."

We asked several surfers in the area to recall previous years when El Nino displayed such power.

'It Was Cold and Rainy and the Waves Were Giant'

Cordon Baesel, 35, lawyer, co-owner of Pure Carve Snowboards, La Jolla:

"In '83 there was a day we called Big Tuesday, the third Tuesday of January. That's the biggest we saw Black's [Beach in La Jolla]. It was five times overhead.

"La Jolla Cove broke. I was out there with one other guy on a Saturday afternoon. There was no one around. I remember seeing this set of waves come in. I said, 'Oh my god, what do I do now?' I remember saying to myself, 'I have to go on this wave.' I ended up going and I couldn't go fast enough.

"The gnarly thing was having to straighten out, having the white water explode on you, and being held down. The caption in one magazine was something like 'Cordon Baesel taking the worst Black's has to offer.' I remember skipping anthropology class at UCSD for this.

"I've been surfing since '73. It was the biggest that I've ever surfed. A lot of spots were showing, and broke in a way they haven't since then. But back then there was less allure. It was cold and rainy and the waves were giant. This season you'll see people on giant boards waiting for it. Surf forecasting wasn't as good then."

'I Went to the Cliffs . . . and It Was 10 to 12 Feet'

Steve Barto, 38, surfboard shaper, La Jolla:

"In '83 I was working valet at Hotel La Valencia [in La Jolla]. You could see the waves from my work. I went to the cliffs with my 6-foot board and it was 10 to 12 feet. We went up to the Ranch [in Santa Barbara County], surfed Little Drakes via boat. It was just huge. We went to Hawaii that year. Waimea Bay broke four times while I was there. It was over 30 feet each time."

'The More Storms the Merrier, I Reckon'

Ian Cairns, 45, former surfing world champion, president of U.S. Surfing Inc., San Clemente:

"Where I come from, Western Australia, there's always swell, and in wintertime there's always raging storms. The more storms the merrier, I reckon. In 1983 [former world champion] Peter Townend and I used to surf out at Huntington Beach Pier and we were just excited there was some challenging surf around."

'It Was Breaking at Least 30 Feet'

John Elwell, 64, surfing historian, former lifeguard, Coronado:

"The storms of '83 were not even close to the ones in '54. Towering waves destroyed the coast. It was breaking clear across the kelp beds at Windansea [in La Jolla]. We couldn't even get out at Tijuana sloughs [in Imperial Beach]. It was breaking at least 30 feet.

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