Surfing El Niño: Santa Barbara County

El Niño

First Stop: Santa Barbara County

Words + Photos: Mike Townsend

When winter arrives, the first thing I ask myself is if I’m headed north or south. If it’s an El Niño winter, I feel a stronger pull in these two directions, both a reasonable driving distance from my home in Newport Beach. Santa Barbara County’s allure was unique this particular winter and this particular El Niño. Not as rainy or intense as others I can remember – 97-98 especially, with the copious rain and and the way conditions could drastically change overnight, river mouths breaking open and new sandbars forming – the effect this year was subtler, if no less strong. All this resulted in one quality more than others: consistency. And consistency, it turns out, has the uncanny ability to draw crowds. As I get older I find myself frequenting the nooks and crannies, no longer interested only in the name-brand break. Often the surfers I come across in these spots are of a higher caliber which, as a visitor with a camera, I can appreciate.


There’s a kind of nostalgia to the points I’m talking about, north of here, north of L.A. Suiting up and climbing down sage-covered bluffs to the beach has the vaguely academic feel of visiting an Ivy League campus in fall, where the presence of past generations of geniuses is still palpable just as, on good days, world-class surfers line up right in front of you. The Channel Islands opposite Santa Barbara County directly swell in an angle steep to the coastline, so energy hits the point before wrapping around and slowly dissipating into the cove. In this way, the region naturally selects for excellence, offering surfers a longer ride that exposes style and demands patience, calling for and curating the sense of timing and control required to link from the point to the cove.


However it played out in other parts of the world, this year’s El Niño made news in Southern California for failing to arrive quite as forecasted. The region’s liberals have drought on their consciences, and they didn’t turn a blind eye to the lack of promised water. But surfers and the ocean-minded here still felt it: a high-pressure barometric system that produced an eerie stillness with few clouds and no moisture. Waves that even in winter normally don’t break broke cleanly and consistently, and while they weren’t big enough to be intimidating, they cast a spell of beauty unique to the region, a blip in oceanic history this El Niño all too briefly represented.


As a non-local, I took the opportunity to be a voyeur, to shoot from in and out of the water, to capture the surfers who are products of the area, or those who came at El Niño’s call. With my camera, I could also pick up shots that actually wouldn’t be surfable – too hollow or too fast, but groomed by light winds into bottomless irresistible texture. Or the morning light would be shining through, picking up the water’s emerald greens as it lifted and curved. And on certain days, I had to not pick up the camera and surf instead, the days and number of waves caught blending together until I forgot everything except a certain color, quality, and smell.

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