Guest Column

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The endless flat spell

A placid summer surf season ends before it began.

Looking at the summer of 2007 in Malibu terms, it has been a disaster. Not in the Hurricane Dean sense, or the earthquake that rocked Peru, or the tornado that hit Brooklyn and flooded the subways, but a sort of reverse disaster, a placid disaster, as in Lake Placid, with a capital P and that rhymes with T and stands for Terrible.

Since April, Malibu has had exactly two south swells: One semi-boomer in early April that built up for a week and tailed off for a week and allowed things like Kalani Robb shooting the Malibu Pier backside. And then the Fourth of July swell, which had a bit of gusto but showed up at the same time as thousands of holiday-goers, who added to the chaos.

There was a ray of hope when a hurricane appeared off Mexico and moved north, but hope turned to despair when that hurricane wobbled off toward Hawaii like a drunken sailor and drenched the south side of the Big Island. They didn’t need the rain. We needed the swell.

In between and on all sides of those two swells: Blah. The Pacific Ocean has lived up to its name by being almost phenomenally calm.

Joey Everett is a professional Los Angeles County lifeguard (and involuntary but effective white shark fighter) who has spent many summers dialed into the ebb and flow of the ocean around Malibu, and this summer, he said, has been mostly ebb: “Normally I like to lifeguard the towers at Zuma when there is a pumping swell,” Everett said. “It gives me the opportunity to hang with the boys, grab a few rescues and score a few barrels. Consequently, this summer only gave me one opportunity, that being the 4th of July. On the other hand, my four-year-old [son] Jack and I having been hanging down at the Point and charging the one-footers rolling into the gully on our boogie boards. Hanging on the beach and just doing some father-son bonding is priceless. I highly recommend this to all for overcoming small surf blues.”

Like that volcano in Alaska that is threatening to erupt and throw off airline routes, the flat spell has waylaid the best-laid plans of men and contest organizers. On the 17th of August, the good intentions of contest organizers for the Malibu Invitational to benefit cancer survivor Lyon Herron had to he put on hold, as First Point couldn’t produce enough wave energy for them to hold their event that day.

Around Malibu, one of the indicators of an approaching swell is Allen Sarlo speeding down PCH to LAX to jump on a plane and head south of the Equator for his secret spots in the Society Islands. When Sarlo drops everything and heads south, a good swell usually shows up in Malibu a few days later. This year, Sarlo has made that flight only once, Fourth of July. He has been seen jogging along Billionaire Beach and is also responsible for an outbreak of kite surfing among Malibu regulars like Andy Lyon and Dave Ogle: “When I am up here in the ‘Bu, I have been kite surfing every chance I get,” Ogle said. “It is such an exhilarating sport that it has all but made me forget about surfing the small surf in L.A.”

Along with the outbreak of kite surfing, the endless flat spell has also driven many surfers into paddle boarding as a way to keep the back and arm muscles fit just in case the Pacific decides to get an act. Bill Kalmenson is a First Point regular who spent his summer paddling well outside the surf line: “Lack of swell has made for an almost idyllic paddling summer,” Kalmenson said. “I have wracked up the miles clawing my way across flat seascapes … I am in final prep mode for the Catalina Classic, and my motivation for the race is the same as the chicken when he saw that road: get to the other side.”

So what exactly is the deal? Why has this summer been so flat?

Armchair forecasters point to Global Warming as a possible culprit, but www.wavewatch.com forecaster Mark Sponsler says it ain’t so: “This summer followed right on the heels of one of the worst winters in recent memory, and the problem stems from what’s occurring up at the jet stream level over the South Pacific. There are two branches of the jet in the Southern Hemisphere: The southern branch and (you guessed it) the northern branch. The southern branch is the one responsible for producing storm activity at the ocean surface. It typically flows west to east just over the north edge of the Ross Ice Shelf. In a good year it frequently will push north after it tracks under New Zealand, forming a thing call a trough, or a little eddy or wave in the jet that supports surface level storm development. Down at the ocean surface, low pressure systems pushing under New Zealand fall “up” into this trough, which in turn imparts fuel allowing the low to strengthen. The net result is you get a nice storm at the ocean’s surface driving fetch aimed to the northeast toward both Hawaii and the U.S. mainland.”

You get all that?

There’s more: “But this year the jet has been flowing mostly zonally, or flat west to east,” Sponsler said. “This directs eastward migrating storms along that same heading, and doesn’t provide any space or juice to help fuel their development. In short, no troughs, no storms. And if there’s no storms, there’s no surf.”

There is a silver lining in all of this, at least for some of us. John Philbin is a surf instructor who spends the summer pushing beginners into waves at Third Point. Philbin’s secret motto is “Pray for flat!”

Philbin says, “An almost lifeless ocean is great for what I do, because there is just enough surf for beginners to stand up, but not enough to sweep them down the Point from Third to First. This has been the best season for teaching surfing I have ever seen, but I don’t know if that is going to make anyone else happy.”

School kids are back in their places with gloomy faces inspired by the sadness of the end of a summer that never really started.

As for the rest of us: Pray for fall.