Bombora Round Out: Big Wave surfers anticipate El Niño [PHOTOS+VIDEO]
by Ed Solt
“El Niño” has replaced “stoked” as the most uttered surfer jargon in the South Bay. The promise of epic surf has many surfers preparing in their own ways.
Mike Balzer, photographer and chief organizer of the South Bay Big Wave Challenge, might not be waxing his big gun but he’ll be cleaning the glass on his big lens to capture the ultimate rides, as he did during the last El Niño in 1997.
“Ultimately, El Niño is an educated guess by the experts,” Balzer said. “What we know is that we’ve had the largest area ever of warming water recorded in California history — ingredients for storms and phenomenal surf. Our fingers are crossed.” [SEE STORY ON EL NINO PHENOMENON AND FORECASTS FOR THIS WINTER]
In the previous El Niños of 1983 and 1997, consecutive weeks of large surf stormed local shores. Wave heights consistently reached twenty feet and over while occasional monumental surges produced freak waves estimated over thirty feet high.
The South Bay Big Wave Challenge is a contest awarding the surfer who rides the biggest wave between November 7 and April 1. The wave must be caught and photographed between Indicators in Palos Verdes and Hammerland in El Segundo.
Balzer said that 19-year-old Noah Collins of Manhattan Beach is one of the young guns to watch this Big Wave season.
“Noah Collins is on it when the Jetty is big and firing,” he said. “As evidence that he’s not afraid to go out in heavy tubes, he seems to break a board every big wave session.”
Collins lives just a block from El Porto and so forgoes many surfers’ habit of incessantly checking online surf reports.
“I wake up every morning hitting the snooze button because I am so tired,” Collins said. “When I finally get up I am like, ‘Oh gosh, got to check the waves…’ If I see huge lines coming in, I jump on my bike to the Jetty.”
The bike ride to the jetty is suspenseful. Moments from epic sessions replay in the young surf cat’s mind while pedaling up The Strand.
“Pumping down the line in an overhead, super powerful tube, not knowing if the lip is going to close out and implode on you, or in a moment spit you out of a barrel…is what I live for,” he said. “The adrenaline is addicting.”
Local photographer Lucio Gomes aka “Porto Surfer Photography” captures the first tremors of the big swell Wednesday, January 6th, 2016.
Collins is inspired by a generation of surfers who eat healthy, train, and work out, such as local big wave surfers Nic Vaughn and Alex Gray, who’ve made their mark on the international surf scene.
“I prepare for big waves in the gym and went especially hard this off-season for El Niño,” he said. “I live in the pool and love doing crossfit to strengthen my core.”
At 5’6”, Collins’ big wave gun is actually a 5’10” step-up from his 5’7” everyday shortboard. It is a board he only rides in eight-foot plus waves, the surf that’s forecasted this winter.
“We don’t get big waves often. When we do, I’ve taken a beating and rode waves with the power comparable to Hawaii,” he said. “I’m using this El Niño season to prepare myself for big waves all over the world.”
Chris Wells, 47, has been a finalist in the South Bay Big Wave Challenge repeatedly since the contest launched in 2010.
“I wake every morning to a pot of coffee, checking out all the surf reports and the buoys,” he said. “Swell direction, swell periods, tides and conditions factor into my decision on where to surf. It’s knowledge about the local spots I’ve gained over the years.”
As a relatively older surfer, Wells feels that training all year round is what keeps him in tune and ready. He swims and does breath exercises in a pool and does cardio training constantly.
“When I was younger, I’d just surf,” he said. “When you surf big waves, you must know you will get your ass kicked. When you train, you are prepared physically and mentally to deal with what the ocean throws out at you.”
Wells is loyal to his shaper, Wayne Okamoto of Oakfoils Surfboards, and rides semi guns in the 6’10” to 7’2” range.
“Growing up, I’d always undergun myself, and paid the consequence,” he said. “You need something big enough to paddle around and get yourself in position. At the same time, we are not surfing a heavy big drop like Mavericks and need to be able to maneuver. At one spot in particular, you need to make the drop and then cutback to set up for the barrel section or you’re going to get creamed.”
Wells has seen many riders on boards over 8’0” take the gas. With such a big board, the nose of their boards usually gets caught in the arc of the wave.
“Tyler [Hatzikian of Tyler Surfboards] is the only one I’ve seen pull off a big board in big surf,” he said. “He’s always in the frontrunning for biggest wave of the winter, has El Porto and Hammerland figured out, and is due to win the Big Wave Challenge.”
Hatzikian is one of the surfers Wells lists in his dozen or so guys that are out locally on any given giant swell. This list includes Angelo and Michael Luhrsen, Derek Levy, Steve Howe, Connor and Kyle Beatty, Matt Mohagen, Matt Pagan, Randy, Tracey, Matt, and Jamie Meistrell, the young guns Noah Collins and Will Reid, and Natalie Anzivino.
“Tracey does the most critical big wave snaps I’ve ever seen and I feel Natalie should get special recognition for being a female charger. There should be a separate award in the Big Wave Challenge for women, ” Wells said. “Catching the biggest wave of the winter, it’s a punch chance — there’s so many great surfers in the South Bay, it depends on being at the right place at the right time.”
Will El Niño be as epic as Wells predicts?
“If it’s as consistent as in 1997, we’re going to be stoked,” Wells said. “I remember three weeks straight of pumping big surf. Normally a big swell builds, peaks, and then backs down. By the end of the three weeks, the lineup was empty. Everybody was either bruised, battered, or just wiped out.”
Hermosa Beach Surfing Walk of Fame inductee Derek Levy is a veteran of both the 1983 and the 1997 El Niños.
“1983 was the heaviest, the benchmark for El Niños,” he said. “It was breaking beyond the breakwall on the way outside with a left going into the breakwall.”
Since that 1983 El Niño season, which was his first, Levy has only ridden a red 7’6” Becker gun. Riding the same equipment enables familiarity with how the board reacts, helping a big wave surfer feel comfortable out in the lineup when the waves are of consequence.
“I’ve caught the biggest waves of my life on that board,” said Levy.
Levy said training with fellow local big wave rider Randy Meistrell gets him ready for big wave charging. At the Dive N’ Surf pool, the two practice underwater breathing exercises, including five sets of running with eighty pound sacks of rocks. Most important for Levy is obtaining a Zen mindset.
Footage courtesy of Martycam. check out youtube.com/user/martycamvideo for more archival videos
“We sit underwater statically for up to two minutes or so in the deep end,” he said. “It’s about the longest you’ll be held underwater and it teaches you confidence and not to panic and blow out all your oxygen.”
Levy was anticipating this week’s surf. By the time this newspaper went to press, El Niño was expected to have stormed local shores.
“With three back-to-back-to-back swells and good conditions predicted, I have butterflies. It’s going to get real right now,” Levy said. “It takes me a few waves or a few wipeouts to let my butterflies go. Once I let go, I feel calm and comfortable and think to myself that I could have caught a bigger wave.”