September can be a magical month for Southern California surfers. High-pressure weather systems often park over the region, serving up hot temperatures and glassy conditions perfect for long days in the water.
With children in school and the tourists back home, the crowds have thinned out. Add a serious swell to the mix--such as the one churned up by Hurricane Lane last week--and Southland beaches come as close to a surfers' paradise as they ever do.
Twenty-five years ago this week, such a scenario was building and the first hints of an amazing south swell started rolling in.
Spawned by a storm southwest of New Zealand, nearly 6,000 miles away, the swell was incredibly wide, hitting big from Baja California to Santa Barbara.
It built steadily and by the time it peaked on Sept. 25, 1975, surfers were calling it one of the best summer swells ever, one so epic that Surfer magazine devoted 14 pages to it and gave it a name: the Monster From New Zealand.
"Everyone clings to the memory because everyone had a piece of it," said Bill Sharp, publisher of Newport Beach-based Surf News magazine. "If you were a surfer in 1975, in one form or another, in some spot, on one of the days, you rode the Monster From New Zealand.
"And that's why it's so cherished."
Sharp, then a 14-year-old sophomore at Corona del Mar High, said he probably skipped afternoon classes to head down to Lower Trestles on the biggest day.
"I was totally unqualified to be out there," Sharp said. "I caught two or three waves and was stoked just to have been a part of the whole scene."
Big wave legends George Downing and Mike Hynson were in the lineup, but Herbie Fletcher was the star of the show, Sharp said.
Fletcher, a surf champion and surfing entrepreneur from San Clemente, said he can't recall a bigger south swell since. Trestles was breaking huge and hollow, 75 to 100 yards farther out than usual.
"You got to drop to the bottom with lots of speed and go out in front of the wave and then it all starts going on," Fletcher said. "It was at least triple or quadruple overhead, it seemed like, but I'm not tall.
"It was just big."
It was big everywhere and Woody Woodworth was doing his best to document it with his single-shot manual-advance camera. He surfed at night, sometimes until 2 a.m. by the light of the moon, and shot photos by day.
By Sept. 25, Woodworth was bleary-eyed and nearly out of his five rolls of film. He drove in his '63 Corvair Monza from his Corona del Mar home to Surfer magazine's office in Dana Point to get more film, shooting more breaks on the way back.
When he returned to the bluffs overlooking Corona del Mar and the jetties that create the entrance to Newport Harbor, the sea was a "seething caldron." Woodworth wrote in an Internet account:
"I squealed the car to a stop in the middle of the road and ran to a vantage point to record the biggest set of waves I have seen there to this day. The set was a blue/black tidal mass moving through the ocean visible a half mile before hitting the jetties.
"Each wave creamed over the rocks heaving a 10-foot wall of whitewater down the inside of the Wedge jetty. The Corona del Mar side was obliterated as well."
Woodworth snapped off a few images, then jumped back in his car and rushed down to the Wedge. The beach was packed with onlookers watching body surfers, belly boarders and surfers test 30-foot wave faces.
Adding to the thrill of surfing during the era was that there were no reliable surf forecasts. No one was sure when a good swell was coming or when it would peak.
"Those basically were the dark ages," said Sean Collins, who started the surf forecasting service Surfline in 1985. "The southern hemisphere was a complete void. There was zero weather info coming from there."
Collins, who was there for the Monster From New Zealand, surfing Scorpion Bay, two-thirds of the way down the Baja peninsula, says surfers shouldn't expect anything similar for Monday's 25th anniversary. Any celebration is bound to fall flat.
"We've got a little teeny pulse coming in this weekend, which is really not very good," Collins said. "And next week is looking bad."
Scott Zornig, long-distance ocean swimmer, plans to jump in the water Friday in San Clemente and not get out until he reaches Seal Beach the next day.
Zornig, of Rancho Santa Margarita, is calling the 40-mile swim the Swim for Hope and is raising money for cancer research.
Two and a half years ago, Zornig's wife, Wendy, was diagnosed with bone cancer, forcing Zornig to give up on a plan to swim 40 miles on his 40th birthday.
Wendy Zornig's cancer is in remission, thanks in large part to treatment at the City of Hope. And Zornig, 41, is showing his thanks.
Zornig, who became the 89th person to swim the 20.4-mile Catalina Channel last September, has averaged about 20 miles a week training since January, 50% in the ocean. He has covered every mile of the route that he expects to finish in 20 to 24 hours.
"Right now, I feel physically and mentally ready for this," Zornig said. "The big unknown is the water conditions, temperature, currents and wave height."
Laguna Beach professional mountain biker Brian Lopes wrapped up the national dual slalom title at the NORBA National Championship Series event Sept. 9 at Mammoth Mountain.
Lopes lost in the final to Wade Bootes, an Australian who lives in Huntington Beach, but won the series title with 620 points to 600 for Eric Carter of Temecula.
Capistrano Beach's Leigh Donovan won the women's dual slalom event at Mammoth and finished third in the series.