Massive Swell Pounds California: An Interview with Surfline Forecaster Sean Collins

From a Patch article I published on Friday September 2, 2011.

Waves from a storm that originated off of Antarctica have pounded Southern California beaches since Wednesday resulting in at least one drowning in Orange County and resulting in broken surfboards up and down the coast and epic rides for the region’s best surfers.

Beaches that saw larger than usual surf with sets up between 8-10 feet included Imperial Beach, Coronado, La Jolla, Solana Beach, Oceanside, Trestles, Huntington Beach, and Newport Beach among others.

“Yesterday, one reef in La Jolla was breaking with eight wave sets and was at least triple overhead,” said marine biologist and surfer David Kacev.

According to Surfline, the size of the sets breaking at Newport Beach’s infamous Wedge, were between 15-20’ yesterday.

Image representing Surfline as depicted in Cru...

Image via CrunchBase

Lifeguards from Imperial Beach to Zuma are patrolling beaches to make sure inexperienced surfers and swimmers stay out of the water and out of trouble.

The drowning victim, Jowayne Binford of Long Beach, was an inexperienced ocean swimmer according to his mother, Gail Binford, in an interview with KABC-7.

On Tuesday, Sean Collins, Chief Forecaster and President of Surfline, alerted Southern California authorities about the dangers posed by the swell. In a press release he stated that, “Extra caution is urged to keep the public aware and safe from these large waves and associated rip currents.”

Sean Collins at work. Photo courtesy of Surfline.

Collins was the first person to accurately forecast swells on a regular basis in the ’70s and early ’80s. He pioneered and created the first ongoing surf forecast available to the surfing public via Surfline and 976-SURF in 1985.

From his coastal headquarters in Huntington Beach, Collins and his Surfline team provide surf-related weather and forecasting services to lifeguard agencies in California, the Coast Guard, US Navy Seals, National Weather Service, and surf companies.

Surfer Magazine named Sean one of the “25 Most Influential Surfers of the Century”. In 2008, he was inducted to the Surfer’s Hall of Fame in Huntington Beach. He is the author of California Surf Guide: The Secrets to Finding the Best Waves.

Sean acted as Chief Forecaster for last week’s Billabong Pro Tahiti surf contest at Teahupoo, in which the same swell that is now pounding Southern California resulted in 40-foot waves and closed harbors throughout the island chain.

When I caught up with Sean, he was on his way to New York City to act as Chief Forecaster for the $1 million Quiksilver Pro New York surf contest, that will be held on Long Beach, New York from September 4-15.

Q. When was the last time we had a southern hemisphere swell this big hit California.

A. Actually this is the biggest out of the southwest for quite a while, I think that last one like this was April 2004. The swell in July 2009 that hit the US Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach was actually a little bigger, but not as long period. Depending on the swell period some areas will focus the swell energy better like on Wednesday. The 20-22” periods were really focusing into some areas but completely missing others. Once the period dropped on Thursday most other areas began to see the swell.

Q. It seems like the swell hit earlier than forecast and the estimate of its duration is now longer than originally forecast?

A. Only because the spots that focus the longer periods picked up earlier. If we forecasted for that, most spots and surfers would have said we were wrong. We did say that the swell would be filling in Wednesday afternoon. Longer periods travel faster than shorter periods so that is why the long period spots flared up first. Longer swell periods also help the swell to wrap into San Diego County where spots need more southwest in the direction, or longer periods to feel the ocean floor to wrap in.

Q. Is it hard to predict the surf that is generated from southern hemisphere storms?

A. It’s the most difficult because there is so little data in the middle of the ocean to validate the models, and the models are off all the time. A difference of 5 knots of wind speed between 40 knots to 45 knots in a storm off New Zealand will result in a 24-hour difference in arrival time here in California and a difference of 4-feet in surf face height.

Q. These large storms off of Antarctica that produce massive swells are pretty unique. Generally how often receive southern hemisphere swells?

A. On the long term average we receive about 50 swells a year from storms in the Southern Hemisphere. Most of those swells create surf of 3 feet on the wave face, 40% of those swells are over 5 feet, 10% are over 8 feet. This swell is obviously in the top 10% and we usually receive about 5 major overhead southern hemisphere swells a year. But this swell is definitely at the top of the best swells and will probably be the largest southern hemisphere swell we’ve received in the past few years since the July 2009 swell. Again, most of San Diego County is not exposed to all of the southerly directions like other areas in Southern California so you may not see as many there.

Q. When large sets hit one location are they hitting different areas around the same time?

A. Powerful long crested swell like this one do have sets that arrive at the same time along a few miles of beach. And the swell energy travels in these big patches through the ocean with big lulls in between.

Q. Besides the Wedge in Newport Beach, what locations in Southern California Cal received the brunt of the swell?

A. La Jolla wrapped in it great. And then everywhere from Oceanside up to Huntington Pier was solid. North of there was shadowed behind the Islands (Catalina and Channel Islands). The LA County South Bay around El Porto, north to Ventura was also very solid. Malibu was epic Thursday but saw very little of the swell on Wednesday, due to the swell period and island shadowing issues.

Baja Tales

Israel scores a good one on the East Cape.

From my IBPatch Southwest Surf Column of April 27, 2011:

There is a lot of speculation these days on whether it is safe or not to travel south of the border. To ease concerns and dispel some of the myths, Surfline recently did an interview with me, Sean Collins and Gary Linden on how to stay safe while surfing and traveling in Baja.

Due to the ongoing drug war in northern Baja, the justified concern over safety for traveling surfers has meant that those of us who cross the border find a lot of uncrowded waves. More importantly we meet lots of friendly people, camp on white-sand beaches with perfect waves, and enjoy the warm, clean water.

Lots of IB surf families are veterans of Mexico—and especially Baja—travel. The Johnson surfing clan, Daren, Terri and Josh, took a trip with a couple of extra IB groms over Spring Break.

Israel, Daniel and Josh on the East Cape.

“Baja was fun,” said Terri. “On the way south, the guys stopped at the Wall and Conejo (Terri flew down). Neither place was epic. The Wall was flat and Conejo was windy, though they did get a few waves at Conejo.

“Then we surfed a few days in Todos Santos where it was peaky and fun – water was warm and clean. Spent most of the next week on the East Cape where we caught loads of waves with warm water and surfing in trunks. Coming home Daren and the boys surfed Scorpion Bay and Alejandro’s. Small waves but the groms still had fun.”

According to Terri,  “I saw more sea turtles of all sizes on the East Cape than I’ve ever seen down that way before. Even had a big one pop up right in front of me as I was paddling into a wave at Nine Palms.”

Daniel hits the lip on the East Cape.

I am looking forward to taking a family surf safari with the Johnsons to the fabled point breaks of Oaxaca in June. Should be a blast.

Daren and I both share the same philosophy about surfing with our children. We both know that we are lucky to have even a chance to spend so much fun time with them now. Because in a few years they will be grown up and off on adventures of their own.

Last year Daren and I sat on an East Cape beach watching our sons surf perfect right point waves. I nodded in agreement as Daren said, “I have as much fun watching the boys ride waves as I do surfing.”

The Merrills—Steve, Julie and Cheyne—are also hardcore Baja vets. Expert fishermen and surfers, Steve and Cheyne are as likely to score great waves and big fish. Their Spring Break expedition to the Cape Region landed both.

“Steve and Cheyne caught some great surf in San Jose del Cabo,” said Julie. “We did not have time to surf the day we arrived, but over the next two days, there were six-foot waves coming in at regular intervals. For three hours each day, between around 12:30-4:00, there were only six guys out, and that included Steve and Cheyne in the line up.

“On the third day the surf was flat and blown out so we made our way to the East Cape and checked in at Rancho Leonero, a fishing resort,” Julie reported. “It’s very quiet there and very laid back, much different from the hustle and crowds of Cabo San Lucas.

“We took a panga out the next day and caught bonita, cabrilla, pampano, and yellowtail. The hotel cooked our catch for us and we shared it with as many people as we could. It tasted incredible and we ate until we couldn’t eat another bite. Already we are talking about our next trip to Baja and have already started planning our summer road trip. Can’t wait!”

So what are you waiting for? See you in Baja!

Surfing at the JR

Israel snags a good one near the Pier. Photo: Alan Jackson

The surf is flat. Luckily there were a few corners to be had on Monday and Tuesday.

According to Kevin Wallis, Chief Forecaster for Surfline “’With La Nina conditions likely to prevail through the winter and into at least the early part of the 2011 spring, we can expect dryer than normal weather with our swells generally coming from a more ‘northerly’ direction. The northerly direction of the swells will limit size for Southern California, particularly at those breaks that face southwest.”

And despite the flatness, last Saturday the JR was once again a magical time on the beach for all.

Contest director John Gillem said, “It is the smallest surf ever, but we couldn’t ask for better weather.”

It was so warm that Tom Christiansen surfed in his speedo.

Alec Mackenzie, the best contest announcer of all time (he trained as a boat driver at the Jungle Boat ride at Disneyland), said, “What looked like a six inch day turned into 12 inch surf.”

Reminiscing about old surfboards, Alec recalled, “I have an original Simmons board. And I bought a Dempsey board bought for $17 at Value Village.”

Anyone who knows thrift stores knows that you find cool stuff at Chula Vista’s Value Village thrift store. The groms once bought a board sock there for 75 cents. And I bought a 1970s O’Neill front-zip long-arm spring suit for four bucks.

But nothing beats scoring a Dempsey surfboard for less than a double sawbuck.

The first couple of surfing, Taylor Jensen, and Nava Young, were at the JR. Nava is the author of, Surf Food: The Ultimate Surfers Cookbook, a musician, and the daughter of surf legend and historian Nat Young. Taylor of course is one of the world’s best surfers.

I caught up with my neighbor, fellow surf scribe and SUP expert John Ashley before he paddled out for the SUP final. “Failure to prepare is preparing to fail,” said John, quoting John Wooden.

John came in 2nd in the SUP division after Kelly Kraus.

Kelly is always prepared.

Russ “Mr. Fitness” Elwell was on the beach. A former lifeguard and schoolteacher, Russ is 76 and in better shape than most guys in their 40s. “I do yoga, weights and paddle,” said Russ.

Russ also remembered surf sessions with Dempsey Holder. “He used to take me out in the lifeguard boat out at the Sloughs. Jimmy Voight was one of the best surfers out there,” said Russ. “Dempsey knew more about surfboard design than most people give him credit for.”

Terry Gillard swept the Masters, Open, and Best Noseride divisions. The first time anyone has taken all three. Terry is an outstanding surfer and a pleasure to watch in the water (see below for complete contest results).

Congrats to the Coronado Surfing Association for once again holding a great event that benefits youth education and recreation.

See you in the water.

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