Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Surf Break Maps: Seal Beach, Orange County, California

Seal Beach is the northernmost beach in Orange County…the last OC beach before you move north into Long Beach and LA County.

Seal Beach is bracketed by 2 large jetties. To the north you have the breakwater separating the outflow of the San Gabriel Rivermouth from Alamitos Bay. To the south you have a large jetty that separates Seal Beach from the Naval Special Weapons station.

The length, shape and orientation of these jetties actually play a large role in the size and shape of the surf throughout the beach. There are also 2 small jetties that help influence the beach…one is the south breakwater of the San Gabriel river, (which is considerable shorter than the north breakwater), and a short barrier wall that extends part of the length of the Seal Beach Pier.

There are 4 distinct surf areas throughout Seal Beach:

San Gabriel River Mouth (aka Ray Bay)
The San Gabriel river mouth is one of those spots that when it turns on it can be great, but most of the time it doesn’t really work all that well. Add in the fact that you have high levels of pollution and bacteria (and probably the occasional dead body) moving out of the river and you can see why it doesn’t get much press. If that wasn’t enough there are also a shitload of stingrays that hang out in the sand underneath the sections of the wave that break in the river-outflow…they like the warmer than usual water and the other nastiness that floats down the river.

That being said there are times when the river can become magical. S swells, particularly shorter-period S swells like the ones produced by hurricanes, can connect waves from the sandbar way up along the north jetty and line up a long right section through to the inside. On the right swell it is one of the longest waves in North OC.

Before you get to excited realize that this wave is pretty fickle, tide & wind sensitive, and if the sand is wrong it won’t connect all that well. A good rule of thumb for getting waves at this spot is to check it when the S swell is too big to ride at other spots.

Spot details:
Best swell direction:
SE-S (160-190 degrees)
Best Wind: N-NE-E, light-moderate Santa Ana winds are the best.
Sea Floor: Sand…and a ton of stingrays.
Best Season: Late summer through Fall
Crowds: On the right swell they come out of the woodwork.

Seal Beach Pier: North Side
North of the pier is sort of an average spot. Most of the year the surf near the pier is on the small side which keeps a lot of longboards in the lineup, and makes it a decent beginner spot. As you start to get a bit more swell in the water you start to see a couple of shifty peaks develop just to the north of the pier…these sort of die out as you move further north (and closer to the river).

Generally the best swell mix for this side of the pier is a west swell with a little something extra to cross it up (either some windswell or a bit of S swell). It takes a lot of swell to get this place really pumping which makes it a decent fallback spot if the swell is getting to big in some of the other areas.

Spot details:
Best swell direction: W (260-280 degrees)
Best Wind: N-NE-E, light-moderate Santa Ana winds are the best.
Sea Floor: Sand
Best Season: Late Fall through early Spring
Crowds: Average most of the time…gets heavy when other spots are too big.

Seal Beach Pier: South Side
Most times the south side is a bodyboard spot…but occasionally it turns into dumpy hollow shorebreak wave that, when it is really working, will occasionally toss up a rideable section to trick someone into paddling out on a surfboard.

The spot works best on large W swells. When it starts working you have some pretty decent looking peaks that set up close to the pier and break almost on the sand on the inside. A lot of this is due to the shape of the seafloor and thanks to swell reflection off of the breakwall under the pier (and the bigger jetty to the south). These little wedgers can throw some solid barrels on the right tides.

Since it takes a lot of swell it doesn’t really break all that often but when it does expect a large crowd in the water. The location next to the jetty helps to block out a lot of the wind and it can stay rideable even in stormy conditions. Again this is a much better wave for a skilled bodyboarder…but it can be surfable under the right scenario.

Spot details:
Best swell direction:
W (260-280 degrees)
Best Wind: N-NE-E, light-moderate Santa Ana winds are the best.
Sea Floor: Sand
Best Season: Late Fall through early Spring
Crowds: Average when working…and then gets really heavy as the swell gets bigger.

Seal Beach Cloudbreak
One of the few “big wave” spots in Orange County...though calling it a big wave spot is sort of a misnomer. It can get very big on the right swell but you never really see the hyper-critical section that you would normally associate with a “big wave” spot like Jaws, Mavericks, or Todos. Cloudbreak is sort of like a big wave that has had its teeth removed.

Now don’t get me wrong there is a lot of water moving around out there and it is very easy to get into surf that is well past most people’s comfort zone. It doesn’t really start breaking until the wave is already double-overhead+ and it doesn’t get good until it is much bigger than that. Before attempting to surf it you want to make sure you have a high surf skill level, great paddling/swimming endurance, the right equipment, and a buddy or two to watch your back in the lineup.

The wave itself is a large peak generated in part by long-period swell refracting in from deep water and a bit of reflection off the south jetty. As you can see in the picture the wave sets up a loooong ways from shore…so you can expect a long paddle from the beach and to be sitting in some deep water once you get outside. The spot needs a large, long-period WNW-W swell, and a very low tide to really start to work. Winds need to be almost nonexistent or light-moderate offshore…it gets blown out really fast because it is so exposed. Occasionally you can see some guys towing-in with jet skies when it is really big, but the lifeguards shut it down pretty quick if there are paddle-in surfers in the lineup.

Spot details:
Best swell direction: LARGE, long-period, WNW-W swell (270-280 degrees)
Best Wind: N-NE-E, light-moderate Santa Ana winds are the best.
Sea Floor: Sand…but you are really screwed if you find the bottom.
Best Season: Late Fall through Winter
Crowds: Can be crowded when it works…naturally it gets smaller as the waves get bigger.

Finally here is some video footage that is found on youtube...(sorry if the music sucks)


John Candy said...

There is one wave in Seal Beach you didn't mention but then again it only breaks on freak swells.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like 13th St, John. I lived on Dolphin Ave in the midsixties. About once a year there was a killer break that was a monster wall off 13th St. You would get crushed if you didn't get out quick most of the time but now and then it would hold up long enough. When it did, it was incredible: 13 -15 foot, locked in and praying.

john candy said...

I was referring to Esther, but damn that 13th st wave you're talking about sounds badass. It kind of sounds like the more inside section of cloudbreak, but it might not exist anymore. Maybe someone else knows?