Wax On, Wax Off: First Glimpses of Fall Conditions

Offshore Conditions in Baja
Offshore Conditions in Baja
By Nolan Hall

and the hottest weather of the year are already showing up this year, even as early as late August. It brings back memories of last year, coughing and surfing ash-covered waves under dark, smoky skies. Early Santa Anas bring that haunted dryness that feels like fire waiting to ignite. But they also might mean some great surfing to close out the summer. The various contest promoters, as well as Surline.com, are predicting good conditions for this year's remaining summer events, including the Hurley Pro at Lowers, which starts September 12th. Meanwhile, we've all been enjoying good waves and hot days at the beach. This first taste of the fall season reminds us why the place we live is one of the great surfing capitals of the world.

Santa Ana Winds
Santa Ana Winds
NASA

Every year around this time, a buildup of air pressure over the vast Great Basin, the desert region that stretches between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains, creates a flow of bone-dry, hot air that pushes west. It spills through the mountain passes of Southern California and Northern Baja toward the coast, fanning the flames of wildfires and carrying plumes of debris out over the ocean for miles. The moisture-filled heat of early summer and the tropical storms that send weather our way fade. Plants on hills and bluffs turn crackly. This means that sometime soon, the Santa Ana Winds will blow down through the canyons, thinning the air and clearing the sky. You can see for miles. At night, you can see the stars. You frequently choke on the dust and wildfire smoke carried in the thin, dry air.

As if the name of the winds doesn't give it away enough, Orange County is prime Santa Ana Wind territory. Already moving fast, the winds get even gnarlier when they funnel through the Santa Ana Canyon, past Prado Dam, through Yorba Linda, past Santa Ana and on to the coast along the Santa Ana River. When the wind hits the coastline and the flat flood plains of North Orange County, it definitely carries some power behind it. 

The arrival of fall, which some here call our "real summer," means all the groms go back to school, the blackball comes down, and most of inland California eventually stops vacationing here. It's bittersweet. But combined with a steady flow of swells, the winds can create some of the year's best surfing conditions during the late summer-early fall changeover, and on into late fall. Some places, as you may have noticed during the last week or so, get really blown out. But even when they're howling pretty good, these winds can improve the shape of the wave. Exposed spots like Huntington Pier and upper West Newport sometimes catch the wind perfectly. Waves hold up a little longer against the wind, their lips crumbling into tiny flecks of spray. You'll paddle over a sunny, green swell and be showered. Rainbows tend to hang in the spray above each breaking wave. Waves that might usually be full of sections and bumps magically turn into clean lines.


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