There’s a saying: “Never leave home to chase a chubasco.”
OK, not really. I made it up. But there should be because there’s barely a West Coast surfer alive who hasn’t been left at the proverbial altar by an Eastern Pacific hurricane. Case in point: A few years back, at the sight of a particularly large spinner, a convoy of friends drove 12 hours deep into Baja. They arrived at their destination by midafternoon, just as the swell was beginning to hit. By dark, the surf was head high and building rapidly. Their hopes for the next day were so high they could barely sleep. At daybreak they burst out of their tents and found the surf to be … waist high and dropping. The surf had peaked during the night.
They suffered a long, quiet drive home.
And then there’s the tale of the two Olivias. Two major hurricanes, roughly 20 years apart. The early ’80s Olivia, with sustained winds of 210 mph, rounded the Los Cabos horn and sent a macking triple-overhead two-day swell directly at Southern California. The younger Olivia, a touch smaller in size but with an even more ideal SoCal-window stationary position, produced … almost nothing. To this day, it’s one of the most curious swell no-shows in history.
Both stories speak to the frustrating and unpredictable nature of West Coast hurricane surf. The fundamental problem is that cyclones travel from east to west–something that even an American public-school graduate can tell you is moving away from California. Even a storm that takes a more northerly track has iffy odds of sending the West Coast surf. It’s like trying to throw a rock at a bull’s-eye from a moving vehicle that’s going the wrong way.
In addition to a cyclone’s pathology, there’s a litany of other things to worry about: tracking speed, storm circumference, eastern wall wind strength, swell interference, island shadowing, sea state, swell angle, and local weather conditions. There’s a plethora of shit that can block the fan.
If that isn’t enough, there’s also the fleeting nature of hurricane surf. More often than not, when a storm reaches the swell window, it stays at full strength for less than a day before it hits colder water and peters out, or changes direction. Unlike a typical three- or four-day southern-hemi groundswell love affair, hurricane surf is usually a one- or two-day quickie–an oceanic “wham, bam, thank you, ma’am.”
This past August, however, an overachieving rebel named Lowell paid no attention to any of this. Instead of maturing in the normal Gulf of Tehuantepec spawning grounds, Tropical Storm Lowell decided to bloat up in an area usually reserved for fully mature storms on a western head for Hawaiian waters. There, Lowell grew to outsized proportions with tropical-storm-force winds extending an impressive 200 miles from its eye. What Lowell lacked in velocity, it more than made up for in girth.
Lowell’s true act of rebellion was still to come, though: Using atmospheric ridging to loiter, it took its sweet time and slowly drifted northwest for a few days, sending its massive eastern wall wind fetch directly toward Southern California. This nearly unprecedented act brought a unique, prolonged, short-period SSW swell to West Coast beaches that would still be the talk of the town to this day if it weren’t for the immediate show-stealer to follow: a diva by the name of Marie.
When Hurricane Marie first appeared on the long-term computer forecasts, it looked to be some kind of mistake–perhaps a programming error or a software glitch. Not because a storm of that magnitude or track wasn’t possible, but because it came so close to the Lowell event. There was no way we could get that lucky twice in a row. On the heels of Lowell, the odds of Marie blowing up to a Category 5 storm and entering the Southern California window as it was peaking in intensity were miniscule. If it were to happen, it would be a meteorological convergence for the ages–a full-on freak event. Not since hurricanes Gil and Henrietta 30 years prior had a dog-and-pony show worked in such extended, swell-producing partisanship.
As Marie’s Category 5 reality began to coalesce, I thought back to a story of a similar swell, a story that sounded preposterous upon first hearing. Years ago, an acquaintance told me about a serendipitous summer business trip, driving from San Francisco to San Diego during one of the last great tropical swell events, Hurricane Lane in 2000. This guy said he was driving down the coast just minding his own business when he looked over to his right and saw one of California’s most fickle point-breaks … going off. “Impossible,” I scoffed at the time.
Despite the area being completely blocked from south swells, he went on to tell me that he got to surf overhead, uncrowded barrels for hours, in board shorts. I burned with jealousy. How could this be? I had tried to score this place for 30 years and had seen it overhead exactly twice.
I relayed this implausible story to Surfline founder and fellow right-point lover Sean Collins. He confirmed that the whole area is blocked from south swells, but if a strong short-period swell shot from exactly 180 degrees it could sneak through a tiny gap between two barrier islands and get in there, at least for a little while.
That guy was telling the truth. I remember Hurricane Lane well and it was a strong swell event that produced big surf for days. At some point it must have sent some 180-degree short-period swell through the gap. That guy wasn’t a pathological liar; he was just a lucky bastard.
So that’s how I found myself ignoring my own advice about chubascos, driving north at 4:45 a.m. on August 27, 2014. Under the cover of photojournalism, I was poised for the kill; I was about to out-think the hordes and score an empty cranking pointbreak. On top of a pile of stellar photos, it would be a grand trophy for my shelf.
When I got to Newport, things were looking up. Way up. The point was double to triple overhead, with the biggest sets arriving in two- and six-wave bursts. To escape the atmospheric haze, I drove just south to a favorite shooting bluff and within half an hour witnessed the biggest set I’ve ever seen hit the Corona del Mar jetty. Foamers was in true ’70s form, the left inside the harbor was nothing short of all-time, and The Wedge was a circus for the ages.
I hopped in the van and continued north toward Malibu. It should take about an hour to get there, I reasoned. Wrong. With the mainstream news media all over the swell, the Coast Highway traffic was at a near standstill. It took more than an hour to get from Topanga to Surfrider. News of the swell began to filter in: a death at Malibu, Laird shooting the pier, 25-foot faces at The Wedge, Jamie O’Brien’s board-transfer stunt, 10 pros getting Pipeline-ish barrels at The Point. On and on. Social media was ablaze. Drones were deployed in force. The airwaves were abuzz. Surf was literally in the air.
I got lucky and found a parking spot about a mile shy of the Malibu pier and walked the rest of the way. At approximately 1:30 p.m., I paddled out and immediately got caught inside by one of the biggest sets of the day. My 25 new friends and I duck-dove the first three waves, and then could only watch as a surfer caught one of the biggest waves of the day. While swallowing whitewater, I looked up to see him get to the bottom of an easily double-overhead wave. It was a 15-foot face. At First Point. In Malibu. In Los Angeles.
This wave was also notable for another reason: As the rider sped toward the pier, you could see that he intended to shoot it. But as he got closer, a problem arose: This wave wasn’t going through the pier; it was going around it. In 37 laps around the sun since I began surfing, I’d neither seen nor heard of that happening. The surfer seemed to be equally boggled by this development and kicked out.
Heading north again, my confidence grew. There were eight guys out when I finally made it to the point. The surf was small but picking up quickly. I had timed it perfectly. Two- to six-wave southerly sets were beginning to show, and the conditions were pristine. I grabbed a log and paddled out in board shorts. I rode some shoulder-high gems and headed back to the van. I reckoned the swell was now bending through the gap at about 170 to 175 degrees and would turn more southerly overnight. I could barely sleep. I got up at dark and ran down to the point with my shortboard. Emerging from the brush, I could see that the surf was … waist high and dropping. The swell had peaked overnight.
Never leave home to chase a chubasco.
“Living north of Point Conception, I thought it was unlikely the swell would make it up around the turn of the coast. It never got as big or looked anything like it did down south, but there were waves coming from the strangest angle I’ve ever seen. Some spots that faced the right way had size, but then the normal beach that you surf every day might be flat. I came across a wave I’ve never even seen break before. The swell was pushing up the beach so hard, it made this closeout into a shreddable left. It probably won’t ever break like that again.”–NATE TYLER
“Hurricane Marie produced some of the best conditions I’ve ever seen in California. I’ve never felt a swell with that much energy hit around here before. I surfed Newport Point on the big day; it felt like a playful 10-foot day at Pipeline, but without the consequence of hitting the reef. I also scored some secret beachbreaks around San Diego that had a real open ocean feel.” –PAT MILLIN