Although other regions might lay claim to seasonal epicenter status (think Oahu’s North Shore from November through January or Bali from May through July), Southern California is where the surf industry calls home. Magazines, brands, millions of surfers and billions of dollars have all flocked to this famous stretch of coastline, where top-level pros compete with white-collared weekend warriors for set waves and image often supersedes skillset when it comes to establishing street cred—at least for the sad majority that doesn’t seem to know the difference. And yet, for all its sold-out hedonism and slavish idol-worship, the coastline between Santa Barbara and San Diego still remains the global stereotype of the surf lifestyle. Although the rest of us may dream of Hawaii, Indo, Fiji or South Africa, as far as the non-surfing world is concerned, wave riding and Southern California are practically synonymous.
Legend suggests that a group of Hawaiian princes crewing a boat near Santa Barbara may have been the first to ride waves in Southern California in the late 1800s, but the first confirmed surfing demonstration was in 1907 by George Freeth, whom Jack London had seen surfing in Waikiki and memorialized in A Royal Sport: Surfing in Waikiki. Then, in 1912, Duke Kahanamoku stopped through California on his way to the Olympics in Sweden, and the rest, as they say, is history. From the beach boy culture of the ’40s and Gidget mania of the late ’50s to the first issue of the world’s first surf publication (Surfer) in 1960; from the shortboard revolution of the ’70s and OP Pro riots in 1986 to the industry boom in the ’90s and Huntington Beach’s bid for the title of “Surf City, USA” in 2008—when it comes to the commoditization and mainstreaming of surfing and the surfing lifestyle, Southern California has been and still remains the crazy, messy, unapologetically grandiose center of it all.
The Surf: Although regional point breaks such as Malibu and Rincon were once considered the pinnacle of oceanic perfection, Southern California contains a little of everything when it comes to wave styles and shapes, including beach breaks and rock reefs. In general, this is an intermediate surf zone.
Five Waves Worth Surfing:
- Malibu: One of the best righthand point breaks in the world, Malibu is as rich in history as it is crowded.
- Rincon: “The Queen of the Coast” lives up to her name nearly every time she breaks, sculpting righthand point break walls that peel for hundreds of meters.
- Blacks: One of Southern California’s best beach breaks, Blacks is on occasion also a big wave spot, as an offshore canyon focuses energy onto its sandbars.
- Lower Trestles: One of the most crowded waves in the world, but for a reason—this right and left cobblestone point/peak is one of the most high performance waves in existence.
- Cortes Bank: Located over 100 miles off the coast, this underwater sea mount can see waves in excess of 50 feet.
The Water: LA is a massive, sprawling metropolis of nearly four million people, and a crowd of that size is bound to produce a lot of pollution. The water can be particularly dirty after rainfall, especially near river mouths and other areas with heavy run-off, and cities will often close beaches and post water-quality warnings informing surfers and other ocean-goers of elevated bacteria levels. Temps can range from 56 to 64 F (13 to 18 C) in Santa Barbara and 59 to 71 F (15 to 22 C) in San Diego (depending on the season), so it isn’t uncommon to see bikinis and boardshorts in late August and 4/3 wetsuits with booties a few months later.
The Season: Southern California picks up swell year round, with different regions and spots thriving under different conditions. South swell magnets such as Newport Beach fire between May and August, while waves like Rincon prefer the west or northwest swells of winter. Many areas break on any swell, from straight south to straight north, so there is almost always somewhere to score a few waves. Winds are typically offshore each morning until around 10:30 a.m., with early summer occasionally suffering from a consistent eddy (onshore) flow, and early fall often enjoying non-stop Santa Anna winds, which can result in all-day offshores.
The Vibe: In Southern California there is crowded and there is really crowded—and the difference between the two usually depends on where you are surfing, when you are surfing, and what the swell is looking like. Waves like Trestles, Huntington Pier, Malibu and Rincon are some of the most crowded in the world, but for the intrepid surfer not afraid to get up early, do a little searching and settle for average beach break, there are still waves to be had.
Things To Do: Southern California is party central, and if you don’t mind plastic smiles topping plastic bodies bought with plastic credit cards is a great place to mingle with the beautiful people. For your surf celebrity fix, check out the US Open of Surf at Huntington Beach in July or the World Tour event at Trestles in September. If you don’t like people and parties and concrete jungle, you should probably go somewhere else.
Where To Stay: There are a number of sub-regions in Southern California, including Santa Barbara/Ventura, LA, Orange County and San Diego. Depending on where you choose to locate yourself, you can find campgrounds, hostels, hotels, motels, apartments, villas and beachfront palaces. The good news is that the entire coast can be driven in under four hours, which means that literally hundreds of different surf spots are only a short drive away. But remember, timing is essential—getting caught in rush hour traffic can blow an entire day.
What To Bring: An entire quiver—shortboard, fish, longboard and mini-gun. Depending on the swell and where you choose to surf, you could use any or all of these boards in a two-week trip. Cool water wax, a wetsuit (depending on the season), your fanciest duds for a night on the town and a pocket full of cash are other requisites if you expect to survive in the City of Angels.
Getting There: Los Angeles airport may be the most trafficked in existence, and it is possible to fly there from virtually anywhere in the world. US visa regulations apply to foreign visitors. Airport code: LAX