Riders on the storm: Santa Cruz surfers’ yin-yang relationship with historic megaswell events

The waves crashing into and around the Walton Lighthouse on Jan. 4 were larger than most can remember.
(Via Clay Butler)

There is much cleanup and rebuilding to be done after the storms battering Santa Cruz County, damage that hadn’t been seen for decades. There is also an epic sandbar building up off the San Lorenzo rivermouth. It’s a complex equation for those who live their best Santa Cruz lives tapping into the ocean’s energy and often risking their own personal safety for reasons few others could understand.

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Richard Schmidt is old enough to remember the winter of 1982 better than most.

And as the person who put Santa Cruz surfing on the map because of his supreme comfort in extreme ocean conditions, from Hawaii’s North Shore to Mavericks, few appreciate the sheer madness of days like last Thursday more than he does.

But Schmidt can’t relive the epicness of the San Lorenzo rivermouth sandbar that formed back in ‘82 as a result of a similar megaswell and storm without recognizing what else was going on.

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“To think the bodies of those who died at Love Creek could have washed out right there at the rivermouth,” Schmidt, 62, said with a sigh. “That’s heavy perspective.”

On Jan. 4, 1982, 10 miles up that same waterway, the meteorological event that would create barrel bliss for surfers well into the summer months at the rivermouth was swelling the San Lorenzo River’s banks to dangerous heights and saturating the nearby hills to an ominous level.

Those heavy rains would result in a historic landslide in an area on the eastern edge of Ben Lomond known as Love Creek, as a 1,000-foot slab of mountain slope crashed down upon residents below, killing 10 of them while they slept and destroying 30 homes.

Given the confluence of historic swell and high tide, it’s a miracle that no one died during Thursday’s event along the Santa Cruz County coast, which occurred nearly 40 years to the day later. The property damage on land is substantial, and will take many months and probably years to fully recover. Some losses might never be made up.

But the experience of being part of such a unique weather event, watching it up close, viscerally reacting to it, spontaneously becoming part of it, are all the natural instincts for the watermen and women whose pulse beats in rhythm with the ocean. It’s why so much of the social video that went viral Thursday came from the surfer world, where humans seem to draw comfort from testing their limits in nature.

The odds were against the ocean providing any practical surfing opportunities during the kind of swell that rolled in Thursday. Like in ‘82, the coming days and months are where the magic of built-up sandbars bring mystical once-every-decade type waves back to life — and occasionally reveal new ones.

Surfers ride a wave created by the back surge of the San Lorenzo River on Jan. 4.
Surfers ride a wave created by the back surge of the San Lorenzo River on Jan. 4.

Yet, surfers are crafty, creative — and, yes, even a tad bit unhinged — creatures. Which is why by day’s end a small crew of Santa Cruz’s best, along with one of the world’s best (Southern California’s Kolohe Andino came up to surf with his fellow top pro and buddy Nat Young) were finding their way into massive scraggly barrels at the building rivermouth sandbar in the ocean.

Meanwhile, the inside of the San Lorenzo was providing one of the all-time mini novelty waves, a Yoo-hoo-colored longboarders’ dream. And an epidemiologist’s worst nightmare. But those who partook appeared to do so with history-seizing, rather than any hepatitis fears, as their guide.

The closest story of near-catastrophe had unfolded up the road on West Cliff Drive as the tide and swell collided that morning, and it was a shocker sending reverberations throughout the social media space.

Several hours later, a few of the area’s most confident wild-water surfers would decide to make their own unique 40-year-storm, bomb-cyclone memories — narrowly escaping similarly bad outcomes yet shaking it off as the type of “comfortably out of control” experiences they thrive on.

‘Yeah, that was kinda crazy’

This was not the “full send” Zach Wormhoudt had anticipated. That surfer term refers to the moments when the ocean sends something extreme at a human and the human doesn’t flinch, sending caution to the wind without hesitation.

The lifelong Santa Cruzan has been sending it on 40-foot waves up the coast at Mavericks for more than half his life, taking heavy wipeouts on the heaviest days.

So there was little reason to think Thursday’s short jaunt from his Westside house down to the sidewalk above Its Beach at West Cliff Drive and Columbia Street, where he planned to watch the surging swell while sipping his coffee, would end up in perhaps his closest near-death experience.

“Yeah, that was kinda crazy,” the 52-year-old Wordhoudt said, in his typically understated way.

Wordmoudt parked his white Chevy 4x4, grabbed his coffee and got out to watch the unfolding spectacle. A moment later a massive wave exploded up and over the cliff. Wordmhoudt, maybe 15 yards away, turned toward his truck just in time, camera video rolling, to watch the wave throw a massive piece of rock through his windshield.

How would Wormhoudt be now had he decided to watch and sip from the car instead? “Probably not very good,” he said. “They immediately deemed the truck totaled.”

Neighbor friends nearby would later see a tractor moving the piece of rock and grabbed it for Wormhoudt as a fateful souvenir. He probably won’t bother creating a pedestal for it, but it will find a fitting spot in the backyard as a reminder of his strange brush with mortality and perhaps climate change’s latest salvo.

Everybody gets their kicks off of this stuff, but it’s a pretty sad day for Santa Cruz I’d say.

— Zach Wormhoudt

“Everybody gets their kicks off of this stuff, but it’s a pretty sad day for Santa Cruz I’d say. I mean a lot of these things that got damaged may not come back,” said Wormhoudt, who knows his local history. His late mom, Mardi, was the mayor of Santa Cruz when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck back in 1989.

What this will mean for any expedited fortification of West Cliff Drive, the businesses along the Capitola Village Esplanade or either of the heavily damaged wharfs, only time will tell.

Meanwhile, whether he likes it or not, Wormhoudt’s mind will probably keep wondering about the physics behind how that 80-pound chunk of cliff came so close to killing him last Thursday.

“It’s a pretty big rock to have moved as it did — very strange,” he said. “But I’ve got nothing to complain about. People lost their business and their livelihoods.”

‘Comfortably out of control’

Shaun Burns didn’t expect to suit up, grab the biggest surfboard in his quiver and head down the street on Thursday. But there he was at Swift Street and West Cliff, staring out at his backyard since childhood, experiencing it all anew.

“There were waves breaking out there in spots I had never seen before,” said Burns, 30.

And surprisingly, they looked good, And surfable. His friends and fellow millennials John Mel and Alo Slebir had succumbed to the “froth factor” — seeing an ocean lineup one simply must join — in the same zone of Swift Street to Mitchell’s Cove a few hours earlier while the tide was still treacherously high. They survived intact, but it proved challenging.

Burns’ plan seemed more solid, entering near Stockton Avenue as the tide descended, getting a push outward from the lowering tide and, he hoped, finding some sandy exit zones on the way in.

The “roaring rapids” of the 20-foot swell and strong current took plenty out of him on the paddle out. But once he gotten out near enough to the waves he’d seen from shore, sitting at way outer Stockton Avenue, he knew why he’d taken the risk.

Surfer Shaun Burns in action
Shaun Burns watches action at the Cold Water Classic in November.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I’ve never seen those kind of waves, throwing out big and hollow like that, in Santa Cruz,” Burns said. “It was a really cool sight and rad to be out there.”

Already gassed, he knew he could probably afford to catch only one in order to conserve enough energy for the unknowns of the trek in. He scratched into one and rode it all the way through into Mitchell’s Cove, farther than he’d hoped. Rather than touching down on sand on the beach at Mitchell’s, Burns skirted through a rocky zone nearby, luckily sustaining only a small ding to his board on the way out.

“It was a little scary getting in right there because there was no sand,” he said.

Burns describes his feeling throughout the adventure as “comfortably out of control.” It’s a description that sums up much of what surfers who live to push the limits remain perpetually in pursuit.

It’s what led John Mel’s dad, Peter, to claim the singularly defining moment of his big-wave surfing career almost exactly one year ago at Mavericks at age 51. It’s what will keep each individual surfer pushing their personal limits as long as they’re in the game.

“To see it be the biggest in your hometown it’s ever been and to tackle that and get a piece, I guess that’s what it was about for me,” Burns said. “I was glad I had the confidence to give it a try since it was happening right in my front yard.”

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