The much anticipated El Niño weather phenomenon has finally arrived in California, and it is a spectacle of nature. The biblical storm conditions are not only a welcome gift for a drought-stricken state, but also a bonanza for a small cadre of extreme surfski paddlers eager to chase huge swells that are the calling card of El Niño. Since mid-November, along the coastline near Half Moon Bay in northern California - my home and favorite place to paddle for nearly two decades - we’ve been blessed with non-stop glorious paddling conditions. We have embraced the stormy seas, reveling in the chaos, surfing into valley-sized ground swells that dwarf a 20’ surfski. We love to paddle into the towering wave faces right up to the edge of the reef, where the surf explodes, shooting a plume of spray 50’ into the air. Then we quickly turn tail, and chase the steep sets across the bay, whooping and hollering like Slim Pickens riding his missile out of the bomber door in Dr. Strangelove.
The quaint coastside town of Half Moon Bay is home to a giant pumpkin contest, and the Mavericks big wave competition. Here man and nature have combined to provide the perfect ingredients for a surfski paddler to test his abilities in big ocean conditions. Thanks to the protection afforded by the jetty at Pillar Point Harbor, one can launch in tranquil water, and paddle out into a maelstrom of waves so big, they create ominous shadows across the sea as you pass beneath their feathering crests. It’s a moment to contemplate one’s mortality, and whether to paddle on, or stand down.
January is still just the opening act for El Niño’s latest production. Already, this is a winter that will be talked about for generations. Supercharged by the strongest El Niño event on record, storms born thousands of miles offshore in the northeastern Pacific Ocean march incessantly towards the Golden State, creating havoc when they reach the continent’s edge, with coastal flooding, beach erosion, and weeks of high surf warnings from the Oregon border to Tijuana.
Our paddle sessions are always “out and back” from the harbor when the swell is big, and we choose from two different routes depending on the wind direction. If the wind is southerly – our favorite – then we paddle upwind and offshore for about 45 minutes before turning downwind and surfing straight into the harbor. The downwind portion of this run is magnificent, close to perfection with thrilling surfing on wind waves; however, if the swell is really huge, as it often is this winter, it can be the most frightening paddle of your life. A spooky beam sea makes for very technical paddling. The swells jack up in front of you, especially if the tide is low. The waves appear ready to plunge and break, sending you straight down to Davey Jones’ locker. A section of challenging water from the harbor entrance to the first buoy is only about a half-mile long, but feels much longer. My training partner and fellow storm chaser John Dixon and I call this channel “Hell’s Gate”.
Dixon started paddling surfskis in California in the 1980’s using a vintage Odyssey ski, popularized by a gifted waterman named Steve Sinclair who ran a kayaking outfit on the Mendocino coast called “Force 10 Storm Sea Skiing”. John was an early member of the Tsunami Rangers, whose daring exploits are immortalized in books, articles, videos, and TV specials. He has designed several popular surfskis for Huki and Epic, as well as numerous unique prototypes for his personal use. John got me hooked on the sport in the early ‘00 years, and we’ve been riding the big surf off our home town beach together ever since. This winter, we’ve logged many miles in stormy seas, taking advantage of the bounty while it lasts, and paddling almost every day. It has become an embarrassment of riches, but it is there for the taking.
Steve Sinclair, father of storm surfski paddling. Mendocino, CA circa 1980. Photo by Will Nordby
Sometimes Dixon and I don’t make it through Hell’s Gate, because it’s just too hellish. We have to steel ourselves for the battle. It’s like running through a mine field of exploding whitewater. If the swell isn’t breaking too heavy through this passage then we go for it, paddle a few miles offshore, and are rewarded on the return to the harbor with the ocean downwind run of your dreams, a sweet, spanking ride, linking bump to bump, crest to crest, slashing and slicing along with the wind and waves. I get lost in a state of surfing ecstasy, pulled along in an adrenaline frenzy that’s as good as it gets for a surfski paddler. It lasts for all of about 15 minutes, but in that special moment, it’s the most fun you can have with wet clothes on!
If the wind is light, or northwesterly, then the most intense surfing occurs right in the heart of Hell’s Gate, and we paddle laps in this dynamic area up and down the swell for miles, riding the back of the beast directly towards the beach. The challenge here is to get as close to the violent impact zone on the reef as you can before turning around. It’s a tricky business, because the area is not clearly defined, and you can easily paddle too far if you’re not paying attention - or just unlucky - and get clobbered by a rouge breaker. The consequences of such a wipeout are not too severe as long as you are leashed to your ski, remount it, and then paddle directly back to the nearest bar to think about it for a while, and tell everyone how big that wave was! (They get bigger with every beer.)
When a big swell is firing, Hell’s Gate is a boater’s nightmare, barely navigable, and surfing it is not for the faint of heart. The swells are moving very fast – up to 20 miles per hour for the longest wave trains – and you can’t catch them until you gain momentum on the smaller bumps. Once the boat is gliding over 7 mph, with a mighty effort and will, you can push over the lip of a heaving mound and fly down the face of it in a blaze of glory. I swear you can feel the G-forces as the ski planes across a big, steep swell, wind nearly blowing your hat off, the paddle blade chattering on the surface as you cut back and forth with the rudder to trim on the wave, trying to ride it forever. These are perfect giant surfski waves. We nearly kill ourselves trying to catch them, heart rates pegged to the red line, then we recover a bit on the ride, and paddle as hard as we can for the next one.
Once these big swells have broken on the outer reef, they lose some of their deep water energy, and reform as steeper, slower waves that are easier to catch. We’ll ride those sets as close to shore as we dare before the swell feels the bottom, and then like a samurai warrior, the wave decides it’s time to commit honorable seppuku. In a desperate act of self-preservation, I always peel off before this happens. After about an hour of hard paddling and surfing in these conditions, you feel like you’ve done something. Something a little crazy. It’s good to be alive!
The infamous Mavericks surf is generated by gale force winds off Japan and the Gulf of Alaska. Given enough wind and enough fetch, wind-waves can eventually morph into long period wave trains as they race outward from the low pressure systems that created them, gaining energy along the way as the swells lengthen, and grow to massive heights. The longer the wave period (the time for two consecutive crests to pass a fixed point), the larger and more powerful the waves become. Half Moon Bay is a bull’s eye target for the big wave trains rolling in from the north Pacific. When they arrive here, they are like an angry mob inciting a riot.
In February 2010, a winter that featured a mild El Niño, the Mavericks contest was held in the largest surf ever for a paddle-in competition. The swell was consistently over 20’ at 20’ seconds all day. We paddled out to the lineup on our surfskis, of course, to get a ringside seat and watch the gladiators hurl themselves off 45’ precipices. Just getting to Mavericks that day required a treacherous two mile approach around a series of navigational buoys. Waves were breaking in very deep water, in places that I have never seen them break before, or since. The word awesome was invented to describe this seascape. Hell’s Gate was a gauntlet of destruction. Some of the smaller charter boats would not leave the harbor for fear of capsizing. The deep oceanic swells roared like tsunamis. One rogue wave, doing its best imitation of a tsunami, washed over the jetty and injured spectators, causing wide spread panic, and a future ban on spectating during the contest:
I never leave the harbor without taking a close look at the buoy reports to check the wave periods. It can mean the difference between a relaxing paddle over the Mavericks reef, or a life-threatening encounter with a surprise wave towering over your boat and tossing you aside like a piece of flotsam. For the past month, the swell has rarely dropped below 15’, with periods between 15 and 20 seconds. So much raw energy, so many big waves! (For a description of how wave periods can effect wave heights, this is a good overview: http://magicseaweed.com/help/forecast-table/wave-period-overview .
From April through October, the seas along northern California are generally mild, storm-free and often foggy. The best surfski paddling in the summer is usually on San Francisco Bay, with consistently good downwind conditions, and everyone is hot to do as many downwind runs as they can. Winters can be wet and stormy, but the winds are typically short-lived, unstable, and not as good for surfski on SF Bay. So the guys that are up to the challenge like to come over to Half Moon Bay and take advantage of the good ocean surfing in the winter. This is our time on the coast! Some of the crazies that have joined us in this delirium recently are Carter Johnson, Dave Jensen, and Robin Graham. In December, we initiated South African Olympian Michelle Eray to Half Moon Bay on a 20’ day, along with US Olympic hopeful, Maggie Hogan. They managed very well out there. Evidently, the ability to paddle hard and fast like an Olympian can be helpful for negotiating these waters.
To fully enjoy big water conditions, and the stormy, turbulent days, we have to choose our surfskis well. (Full disclosure: I manage the local Epic Surfski Test Center, and have access to all their boat models for demo.) Nothing else matters if you don’t feel stable on the boat, so when the ocean is at its most tempestuous and foul, John and I grab the Epic V8. (John borrows his wife’s V8.) It is our secret weapon for tackling storm seas. Considered an entry-level boat, but with an extremely efficient hull, the 21.5” beam gives it all the stability one could desire in a surfski; and the 18’ length is an advantage when dropping into the steepest swells. You can carve and maneuver a bit easier than a longer ski, and once a ski is surfing, they’re all going the same speed. Some of the most magical rides I’ve ever experienced on a surfski have been with the V8. You can get in and out of a critical situation, such as a wall of seething whitewater bearing down on the stern, and as long as you have some speed, the boat will squirt out into green water like a big wave gun! The longer skis may not recover as easily in that spot. The “extra” stability gives comfort, and confidence, too, just when you need it the most.
If the swell and winds are moderate – under 10’, less than 15 knots - we usually switch to the V10 Sport model, which is ideal for rough water, and when you want more speed, but with more stability than the elite competition skis. If the seas have calmed for a day or two, and there are still swells to surf, we’re quite happy to move up to faster, narrower models. It’s all a matter of expectations. We’re not racing. We’re out there to surf our brains out, have fun, and come home stoked. Flat water paddling is for summer time.
As the Mother of El Niños rages on, I’m exhilarated just thinking about the next paddle out into another winter wave train. We’re getting a little spoiled now with the realization that yesterday was better than today, or tomorrow might be the best day ever! How many times throughout history has one surfer said to another, “You should have been here yesterday”. Tomorrow’s forecast is a beauty: SW winds 5 to 15 kt. Wind waves 1 to 3 ft. W swell 14 to 17 ft at 16 seconds. Chance of showers. Viva El Niño!
Half Moon Bay session, 1/19/16:
About the author:
Kenny Howell’s journey into the universe of paddling began in 1978 on San Francisco Bay, and the journey continues ever further and farther. From Costa Rica to Alaska, from the Hawaiian Islands to Florida's Gulf coast, he keeps searching for the "perfect paddle day"! "Sometimes, the perfect day is racing across the Molokai Channel on my surfski with 100 other athletes. Another day, it's messing around on Stand Up Paddleboards with my kids on an alpine lake.” For over 10 years, Kenny wandered the wilderness of the American West and Baja California guiding sea kayak and whitewater raft trips. He has paddled dozens of whitewater rivers in North America and Central America, once kayaked across the Sea of Cortez from the Baja Peninsula to the Mexican mainland and back (the first crossing in single sea kayaks), and now competes in ultra-distance paddling races. He has won the Tsunami Rangers extreme conditions race several time, and was the first place solo paddler in the 2015 California 100. He has completed the 32-mile Molokai Challenge three times.