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My Own Secret Sandbar

Into the Sunset: An unidentified surfer grabs air at a rarely breaking spot in Santa Barbara.

It’s a funny quirk of surfing culture, that one is never supposed to blow the secret spot or publish news of the big swell. All the same, everyone knew about the big swell that showed up last week. In the parking lot, a guy said he owned a surf shop on the East Coast. He’d flown across the country. I hope he got a wave. I heard French, Aussie, and Spanish accents. Everyone turned out for the big party in Cali.

In the morning, we headed down to Rin- erm, a point south of Santa Barbara. There, the size showed to advantage. The water runs deep over an undersea canyon, then kicks up big when it hits the silty shallows of the rivermouth. It was nothing like the NorCali spots, the Grand Canyonlike troughs at Mavericks, for example. (Head over to surfline for some video of that craziness.) But big enough to inspire awe. And break a few boards.

After a serious gawking session, I headed down to the harbor to that “rarely breaking spot.” Even surfline didn’t give it away, posting video of “an epic California Sandbar.” It’s a little silly. There isn’t a wave in the world that looks like this one. And it isn’t especially hard to find. Maybe that was why the lineup stretched the length of an Olympic-sized swimming pool. And why only the best of the best got a ride.

When the Army Corps of Engineers decided to create Santa Barbara Harbor, they got out their digging machine and started shovelling. The result was the harbor.

And a sandbar.

To the sandbar, they added a breakwater, with a stout rock pile to keep the currents from undoing their efforts. Certainly, they didn’t set out to make a surf spot.

On a big swell, the sandbar kicks up a fast, steep wave that barrels like nobody’s business. The same shallow sandy bottom that forms the peak demands the perfect take-off, as blowing the timing means intimate contact with the sandy bottom. One board lay forlornly on the beach, its nose broken clean off. Surely, it wasn’t the only casualty.

But I am forgetting the breakwater, which gives this spot its distinctive sillouette. After all, nature creates its share of sandbars. Here, the concrete wall sends each successive swell careening back on itself, pushing the peak still higher and sending sky-high the signature arc of spray. Drop in too slow, and the backwash pushes back. Boards and ragdoll figures fly through the white water.

I stood on the breakwater, the spray towering above me. To get to the front of the lineup, guys walk, lemmings in a line, along the rocks and jump. A cranky old man watched nearby, muttering dire predictions. Really, this was the easiest part of the whole business.

After watching the mayhem for a time, I headed down to the beach. The swell started to drop off, though a few overhead set waves still rolled through. One of the mass of photographers, lugging a monster long lens, headed for home as I walked down the beach. “It’s over,” he said. I thought maybe he was right, but the afternoon sun warmed my skin and I hated to leave. When the film ran out, I didn’t reload, switching to the digital happy-snapper, lazily firing off a shot here and there.

And then, just about the time I started to think about the bike ride I hadn’t done and that maybe I’d had my fill, the real party started.

The signs showed subtlely at first. Suddenly, guys were making the drop. Every time. The overhead set waves, which had often gone unclaimed earlier, now found plenty of takers. Interesting, I thought. On the smaller waves, the moves started look a little more polished, a little more powerful. A little more pro. A Quicksilver logo caught my eye, then an Oakley. Still more interesting. A kid ran down the beach, autograph pad in hand. A tan, strong-looking guy smiled and signed.

And then, I saw the best surfing I’ve ever seen live. It was as if Tommeke and Ale showed up and pulled out all the stops to win the city limit sprint. Or, maybe better, as if Brian Lopes railed on your local descent, getting air and taking lines you’d never imagined existed.

Here’s Kelly Slater (right), bazillion times world champion. He’s like good and stuff.

The beer flowed freely on the beach and the local bros cheered the big moves. No prize money, no judges. Just a little play session in the sand box.

I shot until the light faded, walking back up the beach in the setting sun.


Clicky for more pics.

  1. marscat #

    hey you take some nice photos.

    11 December 2007
  2. jen #

    thanks :-)it was like being a kid in a candy store. such beautiful afternoon light, and some silly talented dudes doing crazy stuff. fun times!

    11 December 2007

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