3 min read

The promise of the big swell

San Clemente is a popular surfing destination in Southern California.
A swirling, foamy, sloppy mess of waves south of T-Street. But that wave curl is pretty gnar!

SNOW WAS FALLING heavily under the tarmac lights as workers ferried bags and restocked planes. The Delta app already notified passengers of a 45-minute delay. This was the third consecutive day of heavy snow in Minnesota, and the flight home to Orange County was on the curfew clock. Each minute that ticked by meant we were closer to being canceled, as John Wayne International Airport can’t accept flights past 10 p.m.

We needed a pilot, who was flown in from Denver as airlines scrambled to avoid a Southwest-level meltdown during a series of weather events across the country. A variety of delays left us teetering on the brink. Leaving two hours late, the pilot promised the most direct route available. Three hours and fourteen minutes, she said. Mark it at wheels up. She squeezed some time and we managed to land in Santa Ana amid heavy winds, steady rain and a looming bomb cyclone. Literally trading one storm for another.

The taxi driver’s Tesla had all four windows down as the 53-degree outside air swirled through the cabin and rain spattered the seats and sills. As he sped from taxi stand, the windows went up simultaneously and the quiet whir of the battery powered vehicle filled the void. In 20 minutes I would be home for the first time in more than two weeks.

Orange County was on the southern edge of a massive storm battering the state with steady rain, some minor flooding and strong winds expected. Also expected: the epic swell surfers have been waiting for. Set after set was pounding the coast, and the Magic Seaweed app was predicting 10-12 foot waves for T-Street in San Clemente the following morning.

With the worst of the storm gone, I headed out around 6:45 a.m. Just down the street, my local beach access was closed. The surf was so big and ferocious I audibly gasped. T-Street is about 20 minutes south of my Laguna Beach location, and I cruised the Pacific Coast Highway through haze, a soft mist and blue shadows.

T-Street is popular and reliable as a surf destination, and I was expecting a gong show of people and cars. I was surprised when most of the parking spots were empty and only a few neighborhood locals were milling about. It was dead.

Scanning the water, I saw four surfers about 150 yards from shore, rejecting each rolling beast, waiting for something better — or easier — to ride. To the south, the sun was beginning to crest the coastal range, the haze was thick and the surf generally messy. The waves were so close together – one right after the other –  steaming toward a break near shore before pulling the sandy beach under in its retreat.

Over the next hour, more surfers showed up. Many found the paddle-out challenging. The shoulder burn was intense. Some retreated and walked further south. About a half-mile down a larger group was in the foamy froth, but they weren’t riding waves. They bobbed and ducked the onslaught. It looked like a whirlpool on turbo.

As it turned out, T-Street wasn’t where the action was on this morning. It was further north near Seal Beach, where the waves were pumping and the locals were awestruck by surfing GOAT Kelly Slater and the promise of more big wave sessions as a trio of new storms was marching across the Pacific.