Surfing El Niño: San Diego County

El Niño

Third Stop: San Diego County

Words & Photos: Mike Townsend

El Niño visited the San Diego area early on this winter, destroying sandbars in its path and rendering one of our usual winter beach breaks less than ideal for the rest of the season. This year’s El Niño favored point breaks anyway, so it’s not like we were upset when the sandbars shifted. We just went elsewhere. But the few times we caught Blacks before that happened more than made up for any passing nostalgia afterwards.


When Blacks is worth surfing, there are two possible sets of conditions: a light drizzle that accompanies storms we want to take advantage of regardless of weather, or sunny with no wind. Whichever hand we’re dealt, we graciously accept it – no nearby break compares in size, interval, and strength. Carefully, we slide down the “goat trail,” a shortcut down the side of a cliff that’s so-called because it should be too steep for humans, but apparently isn’t. We descend as quickly as we can, ocean in view, loaded up with a board under each arm and backpacks stuffed with gear. On our way down, we attempt to gauge the size of the waves, to determine whether we’ve correctly matched our board to the day’s conditions. But at Blacks, you can’t really know the water’s magnitude and strength until you’re in it.


On those early season El Niño days I’m thinking of we lucked out with sunny days, a completely dead wind, a long interval swell, and negative tides – Blacks’ best qualities in winter. When we finally reached the water and suited up, it moved powerfully sideways, like clay being thrown on a pottery wheel. What actually happens is that the waves refract off of a deep southern canyon, and when they meet up with the swell a peak as tall and narrow as a teepee is created. With the right equipment, you can match its speed and get down the face of the wave as it is thrown sideways.


Positioning yourself correctly is another rule of the game, a matter of rhythm, or perhaps simply of patience. There’s a trick played on you out there that makes you feel as if you’re in the wrong place, or that once you get to the right place the wave has shifted. I usually prefer to wait it out but sometimes get caught in the chase, following the unfortunate cycle of moving over just as the wave I’d been waiting for finally comes in.

Whichever hand we’re dealt at Black's, we graciously accept it – no nearby break compares.

I’m not big on astrology, but over time I’ve come to view Blacks as not unlike myself, a Gemini. For years now its two faces have shown themselves to me, and I’ve learned how to maximize the potential inherent in its fickleness, contradictions, and ironies. If it’s rainy or you misjudged what to pack, you go with it. In the water, you wait. You climb down the goat trail, a shortcut that’s nowhere near short enough. On the way back it’s twice as long, made worse by the direction of your climb, the amount of energy you have left (almost none), and the weight of your waterlogged wetsuit. But you don’t complain; in fact, you enjoy it, and sometimes, if you’re lucky, days like the ones we had this winter come around.

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