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Surf Tips

Summer Of Our Discontent

Contrary to popular belief, summer is not a season that excites most surfers in northern and central California. Regardless of how the stereotype of sun, sand, surf, and bronzed bodies is portrayed, most surfers in the region view the summer months with a mixture of emotions ranging from frustration and disgust to resignation and grudging acceptance. It is, more often than not, the time of year when one’s favorite board is stowed away in the back of the garage and the small wave boards – the logs, the fishes, the hybrids, and the funboards – are dusted off and carried out into the light of day.

Summer in northern California is generally characterized by marginal surf and agonizingly long flat spells. These, coupled with ferociously strong afternoon winds and crowded beaches, make the summer months not something to be enjoyed but, rather, something to be endured.

Understanding why summer surf in northern California is less-than-advertised requires some basic knowledge of meteorology combined with local weather patterns. The two dominant pressure systems over the northeast Pacific Ocean that affect weather and swell patterns in California are the Aleutian Low and the North Pacific High. During the fall and winter months, the northern hemisphere undergoes its peak season of storm activity. Much of this activity is a result of the Aleutian Low, which, as its name implies, is located in the Gulf of Alaska, near the Aleutian Islands. Like all low pressure systems, it is associated with strong winds, clouds, rain, and generally stormy weather. It is responsible for generating most of the northwest groundswells that batter the California coast during fall and winter. However, during the summer, the Aleutian Low breaks down and is replaced by a large high pressure system – known as the North Pacific High – which migrates northward and develops over the northeastern Pacific Ocean. It sits like the proverbial 800-pound gorilla, affecting nearly all weather patterns that come its way. Most east moving storm tracks are deflected north of the North Pacific High, and thus few storms develop. This results in a significant lack of groundswell waves along the northern and central California coast.

Even the vaunted California stereotype of lazy summer days filled with spacious blue skies and abundant warmth doesn’t quite live up to the hype in this part of the state. Mark Twain was once reputed to have said that the “coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” He was referring, of course, to the typical pattern of dense fog and overcast skies that typically congregate along the coast during summer. This phenomenon is known as “June gloom,” and is largely a result of the pesky aforementioned North Pacific High, which among other things, generates northwesterly air flow. These northwesterly winds push warm surface waters away from the coast, causing “upwelling.” As every oceanographer knows, upwelling is when colder, nutrient-rich water from deeper depths rises to replace warmer surface waters. This colder water, in turn, interacts with the warmer air and condenses, creating a thick layer of fog. This fog bank typically develops in the morning and burns off by the afternoon, though an entire day of lingering June Gloom is not unheard of.

Strong afternoon winds are also a typical characteristic of summer. These usually appear like clockwork in the early afternoon and can gain strengths of between 10 and 15 knots. They are mainly produced by the North Pacific High in conjunction with hotter interior temperatures. As interior air heats up during the day, it rises, creating low pressure over land. Onshore winds rush in to fill this vacuum of low pressure. These winds can wreak havoc on a surf session by mercilessly chopping the water, creating all manner of bumps and warps that make surfing a challenge.

Afternoon seabreeze can wreck the already small waves

This is not to say, of course, that summer is completely devoid of rideable waves. Notice that I’ve couched the above discussion in words and phrases like “generally,” “frequently,” and “more often than not.” Southern groundswells, generated by winter storms in the southern hemisphere, do occasionally reach the central and northern California coasts. And when they do, they can be epic. Having traveled several hundred miles across the ocean, they have had a chance to organize themselves into long, well-groomed “wave trains.” By the time they hit the reefs, points, and sandbars they can be big, powerful, and flawless – definitely something worth waiting for.

Given all this, then, what’s a Norcal surfer to do? What’s the best way to survive – and perhaps even prosper – during the summer doldrums? Simply hunker down in front of a surf forecast website with a six pack of beer and a bag of chips and hope for the southern hemisphere to throw some swell up north? That’s one possibility, of course, though one that would no doubt get tedious after a while (and fattening). Another possibility is to dedicate oneself to riding crappy wind swell (wind swell waves are produced by localized winds that blow not too far offshore and are characterized by short wave intervals). Although most wind swell waves wouldn’t win any aesthetic awards – they are usually ragged, bumpy, and sloppy – they nonetheless can be fun to ride under the right conditions. And – little known secret – riding crappy waves is actually a great way to improve your overall surfing. If the wave doesn’t offer you much – and most wind swell waves don’t – then it’s your responsibility to make things happen. Riding wind swell forces you to make the most out of each wave and to be creative. In fact, wind swell can actually teach you about all the intricate dynamics of surfing – for instance, how subtle changes in foot placement on your board can dramatically influence your surfing. For example, generating speed on groundswell produced waves doesn’t pose much of a problem. More often than not, it happens by default; other times it requires nothing more taxing than a well-executed bottom turn, where you generate speed as you rush down the face of the wave. However, it takes more of an effort to generate speed on wind swell waves. If the rider doesn’t actively intervene by pumping up and down, weaving from side to side, or staying high up on the wave, then he or she will inevitably stall out. Learning these kinds of subtleties can go a long way in improving your overall surfing.

Typical June Gloom summer day at Waddell Reef

Riding crappy wind swell is also a great time to work on perfecting your maneuvers. View it as a time to practice all those cut-backs, floaters, and lip-bashes you’ve been dreaming about. Maybe you can even throw in an aerial or two. In short, your surfing doesn’t have to be lousy just because the waves are sub-par.

Luckily, there are several other options for surviving a northern California summer. Travel, for one. Summer in northern California is a good time to pack up the boards and get the hell out of Dodge. Seek greener pastures – or in this case, bluer waves – elsewhere. With the southern hemisphere awakening from its own long slumber, numerous places open to a direct southern swell window, like Central and South America, are at their best wave-wise. And for those with deep pockets, make note that places in the Indian Ocean, like Indonesia, the Maldives, and Western Australia, have some of the best surf on the planet. They don’t call the Mentawai island chain the “Disneyland of waves” for nothing.

Still, if certain factors prevent one from traveling, like lack of funds or a hostile spouse, there are other ways of passing the time. The height of a summer lull is a great time to break out that huge paddleboard that’s been gathering cobwebs in your garage. Paddleboarding, whether the current stand up craze, called SUP (for Stand Up Paddling), or the old fashioned prone-on-your-stomach, is a great workout. The New York Times once described it as a “kind of gym in the water.” It’s a full body workout that strengthens the core and provides cardiovascular benefit as well as toning the arms, shoulders and back.

At Waddell Reef, this surfer is just looking to get wet

If, on the other hand, you happen to be landlocked, there are a myriad of things you can do to stay in surfing shape. While most surfers have tended to eschew the label of athlete, surfing is, in fact, a physically demanding sport that requires of its practitioners a goodly amount of physical coordination, balance, and skill. As such, being in good physical shape will help you to be a better surfer. There are several very good exercise DVDs designed specially for surfers that are currently on the market. Taylor Knox, one of my favorite professional surfers, recently put out a workout DVD entitled “Surf Exercises” that emphasizes balance, core strengthening, and stretching – all of which are crucial in advancing your surfing to a higher level. Equally instructive is the DVD “Surf Stronger – The Surfer’s Workout,” which was developed by a strength conditioning specialist and focuses on developing power and flexibility using a fitness ball, light weights, and one’s body weight. It stresses building and strengthening muscles that are typically used in surfing – including the arms, abdomen, and thighs.

For surfers who don’t like strict workout regimens, there are numerous other ways to keep in surf shape during the summer months. Running is one way to develop cardiovascular fitness; vigorous hiking or biking are others. Playing sports like basketball, flag football, soccer or tennis, among many others, are great ways to stay in shape. Yoga is another excellent way to keep the body flexible, supple, and healthy.

The bottom line is to keep active – do something that gets your heart rate up for at least 20 or 30 minutes. (Of course, before undertaking any fitness program consult your physician.).

In short, while summer in northern and central California can often be a challenge for surfers, there are numerous ways to pass the time and stay in top surfing trim. It just requires a little imagination and a willingness to try new things. So, even if the waves suck, get out there and have fun!

Thomas S. Garlinghouse

Tom Garlinghouse is a free-lance writer who lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains with his girlfriend, Lauren, two dogs, three cats, and a rabbit. He is an avid surfer who can frequently be found haunting the numerous reef breaks north of Santa Cruz.

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12 years ago

Hi Sally,

Thanks for writing. Yeah, this summer has been better than expected. There have been a handful of fun south swells here up north. Just goes to show that one can’t always secondguess Mother Nature…

12 years ago

I’m jealous, I don’t get any waves in the summer where I live. South florida just doesn’t bring it.

Sally Zehm
12 years ago

Surprisingly, in San Francisco we’ve been getting really rad South swells lately! Just a heads up ((:

12 years ago

Hi Thomas,
Glad you liked the article and thanks for writing. Yeah, the surf during summer can be rather frustrating. Of course there’s nothing like a good south swell; we do get those on occasion. They are definitely worth waiting for. In general, though, the best time for surf here is fall and

Thomas Brew
12 years ago

Nice article, California i always had down as a good summer surf beach, Now i guess i’ll change my plan and go there in one of the winter months 🙂

Thomas brew Founder

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