Monday, December 17, 2018

High Surf Warning: An Adventure

“Fifty-foot high waves! People came in yesterday to see 50-foot high waves!”

That’s Chris, a server at Cliff House, a storied restaurant on the edge of the continent in San Francisco. “People had been tracking the storm,” he continued, “and that’s what they expected to see.” 

With a nod at the wall of windows in the bistro, Chris added, “I told them if a 50-foot wave came at us, we would all squeal like kindergarteners and run for our lives. A wave that big could take out the building.”

So what did diners see on Sunday?

“Nothing,” Chris said. “It was raining and the water was choppy. There was nothing to see.”


You can’t blame the wave watchers for trying. Obviously, they knew about the high surf warnings, predicted at 25 to 40 feet, that the winter storms were said to be bringing. They also knew exactly where to go for front-row seats.

Because I can -- I live 4.9 miles from Ocean Beach-- I often drive to the sea. I went there on Friday and again on Saturday to stare at 10-to-12-foot high waves. I like looking at water any time, and when the ocean gets rowdy, it’s especially invigorating to watch.

On Saturday, local weather forecasters had predicted wild conditions for Sunday and Monday, and repeatedly told residents not to go to the beach. If we did go, and if we dared to step one foot on the beach, they said, we might die if a sneaker wave roared in. I remember three rescue crews were out a week ago, and one of the surfers they brought in later died. With this new warning, no rescue attempts will be made, they said.

Still, my plan was to go. I would brave the pouring rain on Sunday and park at an overlook high above the waves, safe from any danger. But when I consulted with friends who live across the street from the Pacific Ocean, they said forget it. The waves on Sunday were just “so-so,” and not worth the trip. I checked out a webcam of the beach and agreed.

Then on Sunday night, the National Weather Service posted this:

HIGH SURF WARNING: A powerful west to northwest swell, the largest so far this
season, will impact the coast tonight through Monday with breaking waves of 25 to 40 feet. 

* WAVES AND SURF...A powerful west to northwest swell will create breakers of 25 to 40 feet, with breakers occasionally exceeding 50 feet at favored break points along the coast.

* IMPACTS...Large breaking waves along the coast will lead to increased wave run-up on beaches with waves topping and washing over large rocks and jetties. These waves can easily move large logs and other beach debris and cause localized beach erosion. Localized coastal flooding is also possible. Use extreme caution near the surf zone as these large waves will be capable of sweeping people into the frigid and turbulent ocean water. 


How exciting! High tide was listed as about 8 a.m. Monday morning. I decided to get up early and drive to the sea. The problem with that was the “get up early” part.

I am a night owl. I fall asleep about midnight and wake up about 8 a.m. every day without benefit of an alarm. I wake up then – but I don’t get up. I lounge around, maybe read a bit, play Scrabble on line, then eat a little. I schedule no appointments with anybody about anything before 10 a.m., when I am ready to engage with the world. Usually.

Here’s how it went this morning:

7:48: I wake up. What day is it? Sunday? Thursday? No – it’s Monday. OH! It’s the Day of the Giant Waves! I should throw on some clothes and drive west!

I pull the covers over my head. “I thought you wanted to do this!” chides my Inner Voice, which sounds a little like HAL, the malevolent computer in the movie “2001.” I recall that Douglas Rain, the actor who did HAL’s voice, died in November at the age of 90. Then I fall asleep.

8:12: I wake up again. I know what day it is and what I had planned to do. I grab my phone and look at a webcam view of Ocean Beach. It’s a big blur. I can’t see anything through the fog and mist. I find the National Weather Service site, and the warning about the high surf is still up. And yet I fall asleep again.

9:10: I wake up. I’ve got to get going! Giant waves are waiting! I already missed high tide, but waves this morning are predicted to be up to 18 feet high. Okay! I decide to take a quick shower and go.

HAL says, “The ocean doesn’t care whether you shower. Just go.”

But I know I can’t go from bed directly to the car and expect to get anywhere safely, so I take a shower. When I’m futzing with my hair, HAL says, “The ocean doesn’t care what your hair looks like.”

What do you wear to a High Surf Warning? In honor of another natural phenomenon, I choose a batik tee-shirt that depicts flowing lava. I bought it at a farmers’ market on the Big Island before the volcano there swallowed my friend Peggy’s house.

HAL starts to chime in again on what the ocean does and does not care about. I tell HAL to shut up and I’m out the door at 9:30.

9:45: Driving on Lincoln Way to the beach, I see a flashing yellow sign indicating that the Great Highway, which runs parallel to the water, is closed ahead. I keep going because I’m betting it’s closed south of Lincoln, which happens often because of sand covering the road. 

9:48: I’m turning north onto the Great Highway, which is open, and the parking lot along the sea wall is half full. The water is rowdy but not apocalyptic. Did you see that computer-generated tsunami in the movie “Earthquake?” This doesn’t look at all like that, but it’s eye-catching, with much faster, bigger waves than I saw Friday or Saturday.


A flashing sign, put up for this occasion, reads, “HIGH SURF WARNING.” I find a spot in the parking lot and note that the tide is out – way out. A huge crow sits atop one permanent sign warning of riptides. I wave, say, “Nevermore” and take the bird’s picture. Then I settle in to watch the water.

Then I see people walking on the beach, some quite near the edge of the sand, people who by their actions are saying, “Nyah-nyah” to the National Weather Service, the TV meteorologists and the sea itself. I’m not that kind of person. I stand by the car, staring at the water, and try to remember what I learned about winter waves off Ocean Beach in William Finnegan’s amazing book “Barbarian Days.” I can’t remember. Plus, I’m hungry.

10:20: I drive north, thinking I’ll stop at House of Bagels on the way home. Then I see something rare – a parking spot in front of Cliff House. I love Cliff House. The food, the d├ęcor, the ambience, the cocktails – it’s all good, every time.

Sitting in the bar there with my Full Moon Cocktail group, gazing out the floor-to-ceiling windows I once saw a dozen humpback whales go by. One waved a flipper at me, possibly one I’d met on a whale-watch trip to the Farallon Islands. Pelicans, in groups of five or 12 or even 20, fly by Cliff House all the time, as do cormorants and gulls and huge crows. 

And I’ve just seen a parking spot. In front! I turn the car around and grab it. I know this will mean an expensive breakfast out, something I never do. But I can watch the waves while I eat. And because I’ll be in the bistro, I’ll get one of their signature popovers. That’s worth something, because they don’t serve popovers in the bar.




I get a popover – three, in fact, though I send back half of them. I also get an omelet stuffed with fresh Dungeness crab and a creamy avocado. I resist the mimosa that my server offers.

But I do get to hear his story about the Sunday diners who came to see 50-foot waves.

For dessert, here is a view of Ocean Beach on a calmer day.