On California’s coast, humans ride out nature’s rage

Washington Post photo by Sally Jenkins
Golf courses on the Pacific Coast have been battered by storms.

CARMEL-BY-THE-SEA, Calif. – The last of the atmospheric river is passing through, with one more storm scheduled for this evening, and there goes a dragon’s tail of thrashing green-white onrushing waves, a king tide swollen by roaring rains and splintered timber from the sinky old piers. All of it is disappearing over the horizon line of a blue-gray-violet Pacific no clouds can seem to dull the color of, and trickling back come the golfers, looking so incredibly small and artificial in their sweat-wicking pastel polos.

For three solid unrelieved weeks, the pileup of cyclonic storms has obscured the Northern California coastlines with dense drifting fogs and white mist thrown off huge waves. Yet something has come incredibly clear: the difference between contrived, equipment-laden sports and the marvelous things mammals can do with nothing but a second skin.

The neat-mown Pebble Beach Golf Links is a trifling backdrop to the clouting storm waves, which have made the beach look like the dragon has taken jagged-toothed bites out of it. Vertical sand cliffs and black rocks are marked with staked signs saying, “BEACH CLOSED, HAZARDOUS CONDITIONS.” Yet just over there, a guy in a thin rain jacket is standing with a fishing rod on a promontory that explodes with sea spray, in hopes of snaring rockfish. On a sandy path, another guy in a windbreaker has decided to use an aged bare cypress limb to do chin-ups.

And out there, three wetsuit-hooded surfers are just visible in the frigid waters, their boards bowing and curtsying in the swells. One of them catches a last foaming ride and then flips on his back and strips his suit down to his bare chest, lolling in 54-degree water that would make a normal man hyperventilate and lose dexterity within 15 seconds. He strolls out of the shore break with his tea-green board under his bare arm.

Californians, man. Don’t ever call them soft.

According to the National Weather Service, this has been the wettest 22-day stretch since 1862. Santa Cruz has seen more than 22 inches of rain; in the Sierras, the snowpack is 200- to 300-percent above the usual level, and when the runoff came down from the hills to meet the onrushing Pacific surf tides last week, it threatened to cut off the entire Monterey Peninsula. The highway that normally would have carried folks from coastal towns to the San Francisco 49ers playoff game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara was totally shut down, thanks to a sinkhole the size of a slot canyon.

For days it rendered the jewel-like, overpriced golf courses in the area mostly unplayable. Rogue waves chased duffers off the oceanside 14th hole at Monterey Peninsula Golf Club, which sits just behind Pebble. At Spyglass and Cypress Point, holes stood barren, no one willing to shell out exorbitant sums for the privilege of getting their hats blown off and pants cuffs caught in an undertow.

Washington Post photo by Sally Jenkins
Clouds loom over Monterey Peninsula along the coast of California.

Meanwhile, not 20 yards across the dunes, a gaggle of surfers ride a rock-scored break called Cobblestones at Spanish Bay, having paid nothing more than the $11 fee to pass through the gates of 17-Mile Drive in their jeeps.

At storied old Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz, you can stand at a railing on a lighthouse bluff and stare straight down upon some of the best big-wave riders and daring athletes on the planet. It’s one of the world’s greatest free amphitheaters. The atmospheric river made it fierce with flood runoff and shattered timber, and the view of the wrecked beaches and piers was mournful – and dangerous seeming.

“There’s a lot of wood in the water,” said Grant Washburn, a 30-year veteran of the coast known for his mastery of the big wave break Mavericks. Also, a little-known side effect of storm surfing in brown-grey water is, “You get a sinus infection almost every time,” Washburn says. “Makes you sick. It’s impossible to do without getting a ton of water in the nose and ears.”

Washington Post photo by Sally Jenkins
Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz attracts some of the most daring athletes on the planet.

Still, on even some of the worst days the water has been pocked with surfers. Young John Mel, the phenom son of legendary surf titan Peter Mel, was captured by a Santa Cruz Instagrammer with his leap from the Steamer Lane rocks into a maelstrom. He flailed to the outer break, where he dropped into a frothing washing machine and zigzagged it on his gun. Washburn could only admire the kid’s “raw excitement for the whole thing.”

All of it has bedazzled this tourist from the East, who crossed into California on Dec. 29 having driven all the way across the continental states, just in time to meet the storm in the teeth. A rented wooden vacation cottage shudders in the gusts, and the woodpecker scarers attached to the shingles thwack like machine guns. In the local village, an American flag is so shredded that its tangled threads are inseparable from a clematis vine, and old cypress trees lay splintered and toppled, buzzsaws cutting them away from the roads. The little cottage is safer, as it happens, than the architectural marvels perched on the rocky seaward verges of Big Sur, one of which took a 50-foot wave straight through its plate glass window.

Golf? Football? How labored, unnatural and contraption-heavy they seem against the atmospheric river. Just walking around here is a risky endurance sport, but with sheer outdoors-habituated hardiness, the locals defy the signs and fill the scourged beaches every day, stepping heedlessly over the warning signs and salt-bleached logs of ruined piers. A mother trails three racing towheaded boys, one of whom stares undaunted at gigantic piles of sharded redwood and cypress, and says, “Mommy, I want a stick.” The wood mixes with kelp skeins the size of Shaquille O’Neal’s upper arms, torn from the ocean floor to the delight of the feeding otters.

Outstripping even the surfers, it’s the animals that show you true natural athleticism. The unsinkable otters laze buoyant on their backs in the pounding white water, and the seabirds hover and settle gently on the point of a rock in the gale, balancing on thin bare legs. Beat that for coordination, you think, as you lean into the wind along a one-way coastal road lined by wind-tortured trees that curve into . . . well, let’s just say a lot of vastness remains in this country, epic and open valleys seemingly still unmarked, where a human is simply an ever-diminishing dot.