Humboldt winter brings dark mornings with chilly temperatures, ferocious winds, eerie skies and rainy predictions. For some, the winds are reassuring. They mean a storm is brewing — one that has traveled thousands of miles to greet our shores with waves. While everyone else is hunkered down with a hot beverage, watching movies or staring out the window, only a handful are on the beaches to greet such a gift, paddling into a wave that throws spray in their eyes. They are a handful equipped with rubber, fiberglass and adrenaline: surfers.
Despite the title of Bruce Brown's iconic surf film The Endless Summer (1964) — which many, including Brown, think should have been named The Endless Winter — the best and largest waves a surfer can possibly hope for come in winter. And while it may not look like a stereotypical surf scene, Humboldt County sees its fair share of enormous winter waves.
Between Russia and Northern California, there is little to nothing in the way to halt or even slow a low pressure system from marching in. Many areas of our coast allow massive storms to roll straight in, but there are some places where bays, headlands and rocky outcroppings offer enough shelter for surfers to catch some waves.
The Trinidad area takes the prize for the best chance of catching waves in the dead of winter. The most consistent spots are around the stretch of coast from Moonstone Beach to College Cove. These spots are close to one another and have waves that you can surf almost year round. College Cove is the best for when storms are at their worst. The cove boasts head-high waves and shelter from ferocious winds. Take in the 270-degree view of trees and rocky outcroppings — not to mention a blowhole — and you'll see the true reward to surfing College Cove is its beauty. Not the place for a perfect wave by any means, but this mushy to dumpy beach break offers challenges for both beginners and experts alike.
There is another wave not far from College Cove that shares some of its beauty and landscape. Just south of College Cove, Trinidad State Beach is slightly longer and allows for a bit more of an open direction for storms yielding bigger waves that can still be surfed. I would recommend surfers with a little more experience give this beach a try, though beginners can take a swing at it if they are on top of forecasting and aware of their limitations. Wedging (steep waves) and more powerful waves are on offer with cleaner and more open faces for experienced surfers to perform on. This beach break has a little more power and at least 200 degrees of jaw-dropping scenery. It's distracting in a good way while you're in the lineup waiting for a wave to come in.
Now, from Trinidad Head to Houda Point to the south, there isn't much for surfing. It's more a sea kayaker's paradise with a giant sheltered bay in the shadow of Trinidad Head, with its spires of rock shooting up from the sea and an abundance of marine life to appreciate. But there is a nice coastal drive to Houda Point featuring beautiful views from the road above. Houda itself doesn't necessarily have waves but Camel Rock, the odd shaped rock just to the south, surely does.
Camel Rock is a somewhat well-known surf spot up and down the California coast. Its name is perfect since the rock the wave breaks off of does in fact look like the back of a camel. The conditions here only align perfectly on a handful of days out of the year. Still, many surfers around the county and state run to this beach with board and wetsuit for the chance at this rare wave. It is one of the longest waves in the county and if you are one of the lucky ones, you'll get a wave to remember.
And just a short hop, skip and a jump away from Camel Rock is Moonstone Beach. On the right day, one could surf a wave there from the tip of Camel Rock. This beach, fed by the Little River, is entertaining beyond just the surf, with scenic walking opportunities, fishing and rock climbing. Unfortunately, out of all the beaches mentioned here, it's the most open to winter-driven swells. Oddly enough, that makes Moonstone my recommendation for beginners.
Along with most of my friends, I started surfing on walls of white water. Once a wave folds over, erupting with white foam, it moves in like a long, slow wall-like wave all the way to the beach. That wall eventually dwindles down, getting smaller and smaller until it reaches the shore. So, long story short, on the biggest of days, the waves break far out to sea, giving beginner surfers plenty of opportunity to catch them as easier white, foamy waves closer to shore.
Now the likelihood of anyone randomly showing up to one of these beaches and actually getting good waves is right up there with a sunny day in winter (trust me, it's rare). So use the tools that surfers up here, along with fishermen, kayakers and even beachgoers, rely on to stay informed about weather and swells at the beaches. The National Weather Service is a solid source at www.wrh.noaa.gov. It covers everything you need to know before you paddle out, from wind direction and strength to hourly wave buoy reports.
Our ocean temperature averages around 53 degrees and in winter it can drop to a chilly 46 degrees. Our part of the Pacific Ocean requires a 5-millimeter wetsuit with a hood and booties. Wetsuits are never optional; at these temperatures hypothermia can occur in as little as 10 to 15 minutes.
Winter surfing in Humboldt is daunting. The wind whips in your ear as you put your leash on. You jump in the cold water and feel your wetsuit tighten around you. Walls of white wash from the first wave throw water in your face and you shake it off and keep paddling. Once out past the lineup, you sit and wait while raindrops fall. A bump of ocean appears in the distance and you paddle with the wind at your face. But then you feel the power of the wave behind you, pushing you into a fiberglass glide and you stand up to ride it. Once you get there, well, you tell me the rest.