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Swell Day at Beach With Storm on a Roll

Monster winter waves pound the Southern California coast and more are on the way.

December 22, 2005|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

Full of the bravado that comes with being 17, bodyboarder Shane Dugas looked at the massive waves at Seal Beach on Wednesday and told his friend, "I'm going to go big."

Five minutes later, Shane crawled from the churning surf, dazed and covered in sand after free-falling down a 10-foot wave and hitting the ocean floor.

"I was kind of knocked out," said the high school senior from Bellflower of his brief ride on one of the largest winter swells to hit Southern California in memory. "But I'd do it again in a heartbeat."

A nearly continuous line of 8-to-12-foot waves pounded the coast Wednesday, closing piers in Los Angeles and Orange counties and keeping surfers out of the water at most breaks. Meanwhile, city and county crews used bulldozers to build -- and rebuild -- seasonal berms that protect homes.

The surf was unusual not just for its size, but for its direction. Unlike most big winter swells that race down the coast from the Gulf of Alaska, this was generated by a powerful storm about 1,000 miles due west. The swell hit many Southern California beaches that are usually sheltered from large winter surf by Point Conception, Santa Catalina and the Channel Islands.

At popular surf spots in Ventura County, such as Rincon and Surfers Point, the powerful waves were too much for most surfers. Few managed to paddle out through moving walls of churning whitewater to get in position to ride one of the giants.

That didn't stop the public from congregating to admire nature's spectacle. Hundreds of motorists stopped on the shoulder of the Ventura Freeway next to Rincon near the Santa Barbara County line to watch the waves bend around the point that forms the break and foam into the bay.

Others who congregated in the Ventura Harbor parking lot saw waves crash over the rock-and-concrete breakwater and spill into the harbor.

In Orange County, the normally placid south side of the Seal Beach Pier was one of the few ridable surf spots, its jetty and ocean bottom working together to produce multiple A-frame breaks.

Hundreds of people lined the beach with binoculars and cameras.

Close to shore, about 30 short boarders and bodyboarders streaked down the steep, hollow waves, often disappearing under a wall of mocha-colored water. Surfers who managed to escape the wave still standing often raised their fists in triumph, triggering shouts from the beach.

Armed with big-wave boards, other surfers rode giant swells -- whose faces were 15 to 20 feet -- about a half-mile from shore along the jetty that shelters the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station.

Farther out to sea, four watermen -- including a surfer towed into the waves by a personal watercraft -- took advantage of a rarely seen break next to the oil platform named Esther, nearly two miles from shore.

"It's definitely the biggest surf I've seen here," said Jason Litty, a 35-year-old surfer who called in sick from his hospital job in Orange. "It's so out of control."

Exactly how this swell measured up against monster winter waves of the past is a matter of debate. Many surfers said it was the biggest since El Nino-generated waves in 1983 destroyed piers, buildings and an oil platform along the Southern California coast.

Others, including Seal Beach lifeguard Capt. Ross Pounds, said waves generated by a 1998 storm were larger.

Wave forecaster Chuck Menzel, president of wetsand.com, said clean conditions -- light winds, warm temperatures and clear skies -- made this swell stand out from some of its stormier predecessors.

"The conditions and waves were spectacular today," Menzel said, adding that the swell was big enough that most beach breaks couldn't handle it. "We had better surfing earlier this week."

For all of the poundings, surfers and the coast appeared to escape major damage Wednesday. Lifeguard agencies across Southern California reported some rescues, and one surfer in Seal Beach broke his leg.

A restroom was damaged on the Venice Pier, a beach parking lot in El Segundo was flooded and the waves pushed boulders into a bike path between El Segundo and Manhattan Beach, lifeguards said.

After two hours of surfing in Seal Beach, Steve Leitner, a 31-year-old real estate agent, acknowledged that he was nervous each time taking off on the giant waves.

"I always got a nice surge of adrenaline," he said. "That's why we're out there."

And there's more to come. The swell is expected to continue today, though slightly smaller, while two more massive swells are forecast -- one to hit around Christmas, followed by another a few days later.

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Times staff writer Ken Weiss contributed to this report.

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