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Treebeard's Stumper Answer
16 May 2003

Tasty Waves

Summer is just a few weeks away, and I'm starting to dream about kayaking and surfing. Of course it matters where you go, since some beaches always seem to get the biggest and best waves. That's the stumper. Our local waves are caused by distant storms that send swells marching across the Pacific Ocean. So why is there usually such a difference in surf size and quality at our local beaches only a few dozen miles apart, like Refugio and "The Ranch" and Jalama, and all the beach breaks in between? Summer is the perfect time for research on these tasty waves!

On a recent school trip, we watched the big waves break off the point at Spooner's Cove in Montana de Oro State Park near Morro Bay. There's a smudge on the face of the wave just to the right of the break that I think is a surfer trying to get past this triple-overhead wave. There were a few surfers out there using jet ski pilots to tow them into the big waves. It's thrilling to watch. You can feel the waves in the ground! But the surf in the nearby cove was only a few feet high. That's the stumper.

I was a surfer kid growing up in Santa Monica in the 60s. As soon as we could drive, we headed north to California Street (aka "C Street") in Ventura and beyond. But we rarely went past Rincon (or maybe Hammond's) because the waves always seemed to stop at Santa Barbara. We had a name for every section of beach along that 20 mile stretch: Fairgrounds, the Overhead, Tanks, Solimar, "Silent Reef", Seacliff, Stanley's, Oil Piers, lot's more. Some of this culture is captured in the classic 1963 book Surfing Guide to Southern California by Bill Cleary and David H. Stern, now back in print.

The tanks and oil piers are gone, and the beaches have changed. Stanley's Diner was a roadhouse south of Rincon, and the beach beyond the dirt parking lot always had waves. The restaurant was finally torn down and the beach itself was buried under rock in 1970 to make room for a highway turn-off to an oil refinary. It's up to groups like the Surfrider Foundation to make sure this never happens again. The Stanley's Reef Foundation has a plan to restore this beach and others. Does anyone else remember the 7th Jetty (counting south from the pier) at the entrance to the (then new) Channel Islands Marina in Ventura that sometimes had HUGE waves with a nasty backwash? We walked to the end of that jetty on a flat day and were buried by a set of huge rogue waves that broke over us as we held on for life to the beacon pole... wahoo!

I'm getting nostalgic. The stumper is why do some beaches consistently have waves that are bigger and better than other beaches just around the corner. Waves come from storms thousands of miles away, so why aren't all local waves the same?

Ocean waves are bent, reflected, focused and blocked, and they interact just like sound and light waves. On our south-facing Santa Barbara beaches, the swell direction and the Channel Islands wave shadow are the main reason why one beach has surf when another is flat. Swells march across the ocean in deep water, but they become surf in shallow water so shoreline features like points, coves, reefs, and underwater canyons make a big difference. The interactions are complex, but surfers learn to "read the waves" just like visual artists and musicians use color and sound. It's time for research!


I had every intention of working on this stumper last summer. I certainly did plenty of "research" at the beach! But now I have new stumpers to worry about, and I have to get out with my camera to feed my Treebeard's Photos fotolog. I doubt I'll get back to this, but here are a few links to get you started.

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