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Swell Time

Surfers Ride the Crest of Big Waves Brought On by Storms


Ken Fahley found himself awake at dawn Tuesday, listening to the boom of heavy breakers and the sizzle of water rushing up the sand.

The ocean was on the move outside the surfer's Pierpont home, and he had to get out and meet it.

Anxious, Fahley pulled on a pair of old baggies, a sweater and dirty baseball cap, got his board, then sped up to Surfers Point in Ventura.

What he found was an ocean whose silvery surface was furrowed by long swell lines that arced around the point before crashing onto the rocky beach.

"It sounded pretty good, I mean I could feel it," Fahley, 32, said, while toweling off after a three-hour session in the water. "I had to get out there before work. . . . It's been awhile."

With the surf came a crowd that was thick, even for a weekday morning.

"When it gets big, all these people come out," said local surfer Jason Robillard as he eyed the pack with disdain. "It's never as fun with a bunch of people out."

A series of strong storms that whipped through the north Pacific last week has sent California one of the strongest swells it has had this year.

Though focused mainly on Northern California, the swell has kicked up 8- to 10-foot waves along most of the county's west-facing beaches.

Farther north, some areas, such as Pillar Point at the north end of Half Moon Bay, have reported 20- to 25-foot waves, and some of the outer buoys measured 40-foot waves making their way toward land.

"Pretty much all the coastal areas of California are seeing some pretty decent wave heights," said Suzanne Anderson, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Monterey. "It's been awhile since I've seen swells that big."

The swell began to ease off late Tuesday and will continue to decrease gradually through the week.

However, Anderson and others warn that with large surf comes strong currents that can easily suck swimmers out to sea.

She advised beachgoers to use caution when near the water.

The Coast Guard also issued a small craft warning Tuesday for vessels outside the Santa Barbara Channel.

Although one of the strongest this year, this week's swell will certainly not be the last.

Winter is the season of surf as large storms roil across the northern ocean, whipping up swells that sometimes roll thousands of miles before collapsing onto the shoreline.

Created by the friction of wind against water, the waves peeling across the county's points and beaches started off more than a week ago as little more than a feeble low-pressure system swinging off Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula.

Upon reaching the ocean, the low intensified into a powerful winter storm more than 1,000 miles wide that slowly moved across the Pacific.

This was followed by several other storms that followed the same course before reaching land.

As the winds blew across a stretch of sea, small waves known as chop were born. As the chop moved, it combined with other small chop waves to form larger ones until a sizable, uniform swell was formed.

"It's a pretty interesting process," Anderson said.

Yet it was a dry explanation for those like Fahley, who often set their schedules to the timing of swells, tides and winds.

"I can't really say why I surf, I just do," Fahley said. "And when it's like this, you've got to get out and take advantage of it. . . . The ocean will be flat again before you know it."

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