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Nineties Nostalgia: An El Niño Tale from '97

Nineties Nostalgia: An El Niño Tale from '97

We just saw our first significant Southern California swell in a while and it's gotten us hopeful about the coming Fall/Winter surf season. Although this El Niño year's been underwhelming thus far, we keep hearing tales of past years in which a bland summer pivoted quickly into a mic drop of a fall season. All these juicy stories have kept us motivated to paddle out for maintenance's sake, in the hopes that 2023 becomes one of those memorable years. To help keep your stoke up, we're sharing an epic El Niño surf story from Penny Tibbetts, a lifelong surfer, US Park Ranger, and Wetsuit Designer. 

All words by Penny Tibbetts. Edited for clarity. 

In late September 1997, I was 22 and had moved to Nor Cal from San Diego for a few reasons, but experiencing more frequent big surf was one of them. I found the allure of big, cold water waves and less crowded lineups very appealing. I had taken Oceanography 101 earlier that spring semester, and the prof had lectured heavily on the El Niño phenomenon, including the prediction of a big one on the way. This was well before Surfline and the Internet was still in its infancy, so my ritual was a daily surf check, and living as close to the ocean as possible. 

It was a hot, calm and sunny day, typical for that time of year. The surf had been small for months, also typical for SF, an “endless bummer” if you will. As I crested the top of the mighty San Andreas fault, aka Skyline Drive Highway 35, the ocean was a truly sight to behold. I saw the huge glassy peaks and corduroy lines to the horizon of the biggest long period ground swell I had seen in my life to date

I grabbed the biggest gun I had at the time, a 7’6” Michael Baron (Byrne) and headed for Ocean Beach (OB).  I had surfed OB several times the last winter and I was in love with the place. This was by far the biggest I had seen it though. I never checked the buoy readings on my NOAA weather radio, so I don’t know how big it was. 

I could see huge distant peaks as I headed north on Skyline toward Sloat Street. There were waves feathering on the outer bars more than a half mile out, that you only see on the biggest days at OB. I would guess it was 15-20’+, but it didn’t matter really. I agree with Buzzy Trent who famously said “big waves aren’t measured in feet, but increments of fear”

I don’t remember seeing any other surfers paddling out at the time, but a couple were out with me later. I remember people asking me on the beach and the parking lot if I was actually going out there. I think they were assessing my sanity and or intelligence. I hit the water and endured a most brutal slog of a paddle out, one that is assured at OB over 10’. I wasn’t monitoring the time (a bit preoccupied mind you), but I would guess it took me 45 mins or so to reach the outside lineup. 

I was exhausted and chatted briefly with another older surfer. We would actually seek each other out and stay close, as is often the case in huge surf. All hands on deck in case of disaster. 

I was undergunned, but managed to snag a handful of modest waves. I got crushed by the lip on one, and I felt like Chihuahua being shaken in the jaws of a Pit Bull. After that brutality, I was done. I don’t remember much else about the day. This is the first I have ever written of it. It was an amazing fall of surf as I recall. The winter was long and brutal, with constant storm fronts starting around Christmas, hence the name “El Niño” or “the child”.

Dust off your step ups and stay in fighting shape if you can. It might be an interesting winter for surf. Helmets are always a good idea, especially in overhead surf. A helmet likely saved my life when I dove into a coral head at Teahupo'o last year. 

I am hoping for my first Mavericks session ever this year, as I just turned 48 and have always been deathly spooked by the place, especially after an indefatigable big wave god like Mark Foo had died there in 1994. 

Good luck my friends!