El Nino has thrown quite a tantrum this winter, causing some gnarly waves to crash against Orange County's coast. Still, surfers are awaiting their day.
Sean Collins, Kurt Augsburger and Mitch DeJannet are watching for the right time to complete their mission.
When, if, the surf, wind and tide all come together just right, the three men will depart on their quest. It will begin on a small boat in Long Beach's Alamitos Bay and, within a few minutes, they'll reach a rare surf break called Esther, a huge A-frame-shaped wave cascading over the remains of a former oil island 1 1/2 miles off Seal Beach.
"The island oil rig was hammered by 20-foot waves in the El Nino storms of 1982 and '83 and basically destroyed," said Collins, the surf forecaster for Surfline/Wavetrak. "They dug out the machinery and rebuilt a platform next to it, but they left a lot of submerged construction."
The ruins form an artificial reef, one of many natural and man-made spots along Orange County's coast that might produce waves similar to Oahu's North Shore.
"We had two really good days in January, the 20th and the 30th, when we surfed Cloudbreak [a spot south of the Seal Beach pier] when it was between 10 and 18 feet and really good," said Collins, who keeps detailed statistics on surf conditions. "There were seven days of big swells in February but it was too windy. But the conditions haven't been right for Esther yet.
"And we may be running out of time."
Surfers hope the effects of El Nino--a global warming of ocean temperatures that enhances the usual winter storms--linger late into the spring.
"It's just like throwing gas on a fire," Collins said. "Greater contrast between warm and cold air and water means stronger wind speeds, deeper lower pressures and larger waves. It also moves the storms farther to the south, which means a stronger swell for us.
"But the greatest factor is the resulting shift in the direction of the swell from northwest to straight west or even southwest, which means a much larger swell gets through the windows of the Channel Islands that protect our coastline."
Huge swells render many of the usual surf spots useless. From Seal Beach to Corona del Mar, it is basically one big beach break and the bigger the waves, the more likely they are to lose their shape and crash over at once as they hit shallow water.
But at some deep-water sand bars, formed by jetties and river mouths, the conditions could be producing ridable waves unreachable from the beach.
Huge swells cause waves to break a half-mile off the Huntington Cliffs at a spot called Trolley's. (Myth has it there's a trolley car on the bottom forming the reef, but it's really just a sand bar built up around a submerged oil pipeline). But when the waves are big enough for Trolley's to break, the combers crashing on the shore make it virtually impossible to paddle out.
There are big-wave breaks more easily reached from the beach along the northern half of Orange County's coast, such as Cloudbreak, and a break off Crystal Cove in Corona del Mar.
However, as the coastline becomes more rocky down through Laguna Beach, a number of mysto waves--mysterious waves that only break under certain conditions--begin to appear at more accessible locations.
James Pribram can stand on his parents' deck near the end of Agate Street in Laguna Beach and see one of the county's premier big-wave breaks, a reef about 400 yards offshore known as Outside Agate. A 27-year-old professional surfer who was the state surfing champion at Laguna Beach High in 1989, Pribram has ridden the break a few times in recent years, but he was only 13 in 1983, when El Nino-enhanced storms produced an epic day there.
"It was a solid 12 feet, a wave very comparable to a small Sunset [Beach on Oahu's North Shore]," said Mark Price, a former professional surfer who measures waves Hawaiian-style, from the back to the crest, which means a 12-foot wave has a face almost double that height.
"It was fantastic. All I know is I was riding a [7-foot-6] board and I've never ridden a board that long in California since."
Just to the north, in front of the Las Brisas restaurant in Laguna Beach, there's a well-known reef called Rockpile that breaks on less-than-enormous swells, but also holds its shape when the waves are very large.
And farther south, there's a similar break off Monarch Beach, a spot called Heroin's, which normally breaks a few times every year and remains ridable in the biggest of swells. Located off a private community with access limited to homeowners and their friends, it has been drawing hardy individuals with the arms and lungs required to paddle out at Salt Creek and then a mile up the coast.
Many surfers are hesitant to name specific areas and, according to Collins, it isn't just because they want to keep them secret.