In the Green Room with Mike Wallace
For NorCal surfers, spring is a frozen curse, arriving with all the subtlety of a claw hammer. Winds in winter swing back and forth between the north and south with each passing front, offering shelter for the opportunistic surfer. But the “great spring blow” takes on a more sinister and persistent westerly tack, leaving nowhere to hide. With the consistency of a cheese grater, it shreds the last vestiges of north ground swells without a trace of remorse.
The resulting upwelling of icy water from the depths of the Farallon Escarpment sends local water temperatures diving below the 50 degree comfort zone. Even the most trusty and durable 4/3 wetsuit is taxed to its limits to make the transition into spring without revealing a catastrophically weak seam or pinhole. No, can’t stress over dropping close to four bills on a new one. Perhaps it’s time for that 5-mil beauty with a hood—well worth the price to stay in the water for more than forty-five minutes without losing any valuable appendages. Kiss “goodbye” to that new summer shortboard now.
Like income taxes, spring arrives each year with crushing certainty. Make the most of it; hope for a big refund or an early season south swell to keep your salt water spirit from shriveling up. You repeatedly check the SurfPulse report page each morning like a pale desk-bound creature—perhaps there will be a window today when the wind backs off, my precious, the tide doesn’t drain, and a few workable bowls magically appear?
Instead you read: “If you like doubled-up close-outs in freezing winds with a possible corner or two, today’s the day for you!” The Wise report confirms pretty much the same bleak scenario (without the sarcasm) and the O’Neill report in Capitola is only marginally better. Now, if you can only scrounge up that $70 for a tank of gas for the round trip?
Maybe it’s time for some long-deferred maintenance on the house instead, or an extra-long walk for the pup (pacing back and forth at the beach, of course). Little league games seem to take on all the passion of the majors—or is that just you cheering a little louder to mask your dry, wave-empty soul?
Elective surgery starts to sound like a viable option to quell boredom, judging by the well-timed convalescence of your surf crew. Time to get those ear canals drilled out (Jochen), rehab that pesky rotator cuff (Bruce), fully heal from that malicious strep infection (Scott), or luck out and avoid it all (Phil).
Conspiring against you, those fire hose gusts help Mother Nature reclaim your yard and spread native flora among your cultivated plants and lawn. Those dandelions and clover patches spread like a late-season flu and aren’t going to weed themselves, you know! Too old to skateboard, so maybe it’s time to dust off those Calloways and replace the missing cleats on your golf shoes? Nah, not that desperate yet…
Friends with the time and means plot to escape to more exotic and offshore locales, preferably with Southern Hemi exposure. Names like Punta Leone, Hanalei, Scorpion Bay, Nias and Tavarua are whispered in hushed, reverent tones. No point in bragging openly to those inmates left behind. Mental note: work harder this year, save more dinero, or marry into money.
Fortune smiles and a spontaneous mission to San Diego on a family retreat scores two days of bliss at Black’s. Not exotic, but 4–6 feet, light offshores, and fast, super-clean walls are like liquid antibiotics for spring fever. The quad is really moving now—a pump here, a hack there; let’s just flow into a backside layback as that next section throws, now I remember.
Surreal, instead of scowls and “stink eye,” locals greet you with smiles, nods, and friendly banter even as you hungrily devour every wave scrap in sight. It gets crowded as the sun rises above the skyscraper-like cliffs, but it seems that not only is the water warmer in SoCal, so are the water men and women. Figures, it must get good here a lot; plenty to go around. Suck down some gulps of air after that last set, let the heart rate settle, best not to be too greedy. A few hardy longboarders even deign to trunk it as a heat wave rounds out the week and the residual windswell drops, petering out in time for the brittle, arid return trip north, back up the I-5. No regrets.
A pilgrimage down to Windansea, the wellspring of surfing’s youthful irreverence, reveals a shapely reef that can handle both north and south swells indiscriminately. Inviting Baja-blue water and small sloping walls hint at the potential of the place, especially for longboarding, if the locals let any through. Very likely it was precisely the spring doldrums in evidence that drove founding club members, like the late Woody Brown and Mickey Dora, Greg Noll, Skip Fry and Mike Hynson, to set sail for adrenal-pumping shores of Hawaii and beyond.
In 1968 author Tom Wolfe prophetically captured the ethos of the juvenile California surf counter-culture, which, inevitably, has been absorbed back into the mainstream: “The Pump House Gang lived as though age segregation were a permanent state, as if it were inconceivable that any of them would ever grow old, i.e., 25. I foresaw the day when the California coastline would be littered with the bodies of aged and abandoned Surferkinder, like so many beached whales.” A palm-covered palapa still stands as a tattered monument to their pioneering and mischievous spirit, if not the millions of their more conformist descendants.
Time to head home, knock out a few chores, melt the grey winter wax from the quiver and start fresh. Maybe unload a couple of boards on SurfPulse classifieds or craigslist, and order that new little Christenson fish after all, just in time for “Dubya’s” tax rebates to arrive? If all else fails, cash it all in for a stand-up board and paddle off to Cabo. No, still not that desperate…
You truly know its spring when no fewer than four Maverick’s regulars show up at the Princeton Jetty (aka “Little Mavs”) for that last meager south swell. Armed with an arsenal of longboards and discs, they knife hungrily and shamelessly through the confused crowd on the hunt for the familiar plum little peaks of their gromdom. No names mentioned… but, Ion, dude, that seated take-off and 360-butt spin rates special mention.
This surfing addiction of ours has both karmic and physical facets, a spiritual connection with nature that distinguishes it from most other sports. But that clearly leaves a deep void for many water men and women when the Pacific stops giving, turning moody and spiteful.
Sometimes the best you can hope for in spring is to get a windswell fix often enough to rinse out the tree pollen from your itchy-dry sinuses and keep your wetsuit from contorting into a stiff straitjacket. Or, pray for a flurry of early-season south swells not to be ironed flat by the relentless and cruel onshores.
Embrace spring, don’t fight it. With some inspired creativity, convalescence, or a well-timed trip and a heap of patience we can all get through it together before the dense summer fog obscures the surf altogether.
Mike Wallace has surfed for over two decades on the East and West coasts, Hawaii, Europe and NorCal. Currently a resident of Moss Beach with his family of four, he can often be found haunting the beaches south of Devil’s Slide in search of the perfect sandbar with his one-eyed dog, Moose. Comments? Mike(at)surfpulse.com