Words by Morgan Williamson
El Niño’s been a long time coming. Each year it’s seemingly on the cusp, over beer stained bar tops and in the car parks it’s all anyone can talk about. I hear it’s an El Niño year, it’s coming. Over summer it was the explanation for any strange thing; water’s trunk-able in October: Must be El Niño. Hammerhead sharks off Los Angeles: Oh, El Niño. It rains once in Southern California: El fucking Niño!
Nothing instills spite quite like reading the forecast, the perfect swell and wind direction that’s due for the next day, waking up early (for once), prying your eyes open with caffeine and staring into wind blown, meagre waves. That’s what this El Niño’s had the tendency to do on the US west coast. To truly score, you have to be on it. The direction’s been specific, there has been a few golden days and yes, it’s been better than previous winters, but without the great El Niño hype it’d be easier to enjoy. So you wake up, surf all morning at your local, it’s decent, you get out of the water thinking ‘well, surfing’s better than not.’ Optimism begins to radiate as you happily spill water out of your nose a few hours later. Then you flip through Instagram and are overcome with jealously… that’s what was happening in Santa Barbara this morning? Where’s mine?
The last significant El Niño was back in ’97/’98. “That year was magic,” the honourable Taylor Knox, who won 50k for his 52 foot wave at Todos Santos which appeared on 26 print covers that year tells Stab. “The swells in ’98 were more North, this year they’ve been mostly West. The difference between this year and the last El Niño was ’98 had bigger swells. I haven’t seen anything giant like I did that year. Last week was big for sure, the biggest swell I’ve seen in the past few years. It’s been a great winter but doesn’t seem as good as it was almost 20 years ago.”
“It rained a lot more in ’98,” Mr Knox remembers. “When there’s rain you have more options. We were dodging storms more then, trying to find wind-protected spots. It was colder, rainier and more intense. This winter we’ve had some storms but it hasn’t been dumping down rain. Although yesterday and last night we saw some pretty crazy weather.” This morning the news was in a frantic sensationalistic spin, but unlike the ordinary Southern California flood and wind watch that results in a few light gusts and sprinkles, trees were uprooting and falling through the roofs of family homes. The wind was snapping palm trees at their core, power outages ran rampant, victory at sea was the common coastal dilemma and the words “stay inside” sputtered through radio frequencies.
“I’d give this winter a B so far,” says Taylor. “Last time all the river mouths were completely blown out up the coast, every stream was busting at the seams, that hasn’t happened yet. Even places like Doheny had these perfect sandbars. It’s been good, but it’s not in the Oh My God calibre of the winter in ’98. It was so good then, everybody could stay in their area and score good waves. When the huge swells were coming through they were from the North. This year it’s been coming straight from Hawaii.”
“With all that said, I’ll take this winter all day long,” Taylor says. “It’s been great, there’s been waves all the time. I’m not complaining at all. To me, this is when you surf. Surfing in summer gets kind of boring, you only have so many options with the south swell. On the norths your options triple. Winter in California is the time.”
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