The big swell of ’17 marks the history of surfing in Santa Cruz

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  • Even though the swell direction of January 21 wasn’t ideal for Steamer Lane, the Westside icon still produced some afternoon bombs. (Contribution – Bryan Trenberth)

  • The ’17 Great Swell wasn’t clean enough to ride Mavericks, but it was still impressive in all its dirty glory. (Contribution – Brian Overfelt)

  • The good people of the National Weather Service were just as excited about the Big Swell of 17 as the surfers. (Contribution – NWS)

  • The good folks at the National Weather Service were just as excited about the big 17 swell as the surfers. (Contribution – NWS)

  • Although Mavericks was not ridden on January 21, Clint Kimmons still went to the big wave spot for a peek. (Contribution – Brian Overfelt)

  • Capitola Wharf was beaten by the megawell on January 21. (Contribution – Mike Hopper)

  • The mouth of the San Lorenzo river was firing on January 21. It was also loaded with driftwood. (Contribution – Bryan Trenberth)

SANTA CRUZ – Every decade or so, a swell shakes the Californian coast with such size and ferocity that it leaves a mark in the history of surfing – January 1953, December 1969, January 1983, January 1998, November 2001 – and now, maybe, January 2017.

The National Weather Service reported a 34-foot swell on Saturday, making January 21 buoy readings among the highest on record, according to forecaster Drew Peterson of the agency’s Monterey office.

The big wave elite of northern California agreed.

“The biggest swell since 2001,” said Mavericks forward Jeff Clark. “On the drive to Santa Cruz from Half Moon Bay, I saw waves crashing a mile and a half from the beach.”

The swell was so big that it closed almost all the surf spots on the central coast. Yet when the strong southerly winds from the front calmed down and the tide fell, a handful of Santa Cruz County spots suddenly appeared passable.

At around 9 a.m., a handful of surfers, including Nat Young, Darryl “Flea” Virostko and Isaac Campbell, paddled through a forest of tree trunks to surf 12-foot faces at the muddy mouth of the river. San Lorenzo river.

“It was a lot of work,” Young said after throwing a huge tune on his last wave and carefully resuming his way through the wreckage to shore. “Exhausting.”

Meanwhile, about a mile east, the real show was just beginning.

“I have never seen such big waves at Pleasure Point,” said Clark.


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At 10:15 a.m., as the swell peaked, Shawn Dollar caught a wave with a 20-foot face, electrifying the crowds gathered along East Cliff Drive.

But for every Shawn Dollar who rose to glory at the inaugural Pleasure’s Point summit, another 10 surfers were thrown back to shore.

“We waited too long and the tide has gotten too low,” said Clark, 59. “We were turned down.”

Perhaps the most daring feat of January 21 came from a team of big wave veterans led by Tyler Fox which included Chris Cortez, Taylor Paul, Tyler Joseph and Kyle Thiermann.

“I’m not sure who the idea was; maybe mine. We tried surfing from Pleasure Point to New Brighton Beach, ”Fox said.

The five paddled through a canal between Rockview and Sewers around 1:45 p.m. and into the teeth of one of the biggest sets of the afternoon.

“I was the furthest away and the set broke 100 meters beyond me. I got pounded by the first two waves and the third broke my leash, ”Fox said.

Fox, an outstanding surfer in Mavericks even on the heaviest swells, is no stranger to heavy water, but found himself shocked at the punishment inflicted by the normally booked spot.

“I have never felt this kind of power at Pleasure Point in my life,” Fox said. “When I was underwater I laughed at myself a bit, thinking there was no way I was going to die at Pleasure Point.”

After Cortez was sucked into Rockview and sent back, it left Joseph, Paul and Thiermann – all of whom managed to sneak up to the first peak and paddle through triple waves.

“After the first wave we stuck to the plan and caught waves all the way to New Brighton Beach,” said Joseph. “I caught maybe six of them and they were pretty much constantly double above all the way down.”

The roughly three-kilometer trip took an hour and a half, according to Joseph, 27, who has been riding Mavericks for six seasons.

“By far the biggest swell I have seen,” said Joseph.


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