The Coast News Group
What's called junk surf can be beautiful if you know what to look for. Photo by Chris Ahrens

In praise of ‘junk’ surf

Referring to waves as “junk”  seems nearly blasphemous.  If not, it at least seems ungrateful for the waves that continue to pour freely onto our coast season after season, year after year.

I grew up 25 miles inland and during the early ’60s we usually arrived at the shore just in time for the onshore winds to begin blowing. That meant that the pristine and previously oil glassy or offshore groomed surf was now what everyone called junk.

It didn’t matter to me and the crew with me — we were about to break a five-day surf fast and so dove into whatever the ocean was offering, which was usually junk.

Our local beaches at the time were either Huntington or Newport and without kelp or cliffs to block the onshore wind, they usually blew out before noon. 

While few cared to join me in a feast of leftovers, I learned to savor it, and began enjoying the challenge of negotiating the bumps and air drops caused by less-than-perfect waves.

The habit never died and even after I had lived in North County for decades, I would often show up, surfboard in hand, just as the wind turned.

Everyone laughed as I paddled out into the lineup as they were leaving. But the joke was on them as I surfed alone rather than competing with a party of 40-plus.

It’s no wonder that spring is my favorite time to surf. The waves are often onshore, sometimes blown to the point of looking unrideable.

But if you look closer, you’ll see it’s like a swap meet where piles of useless junk can camouflage the occasional gem. A quick section will peak up offering a moment for you to bang your rail joyfully against it. A micro tube invites the nimble to a momentary cover-up. A wind chop allows you to air drop for a while before reconnecting.

Some of my best memories are of junk surf with maybe one or two friends sharing in the treasure hunt.

I recall one day when Swami’s was double overhead and littered with whitecaps. My friend, the late Pat Flecky, paddled out and I quickly followed him. We were alone in the lineup when a set arrived and I stroked up a 10-foot face while Pat dropped in, all smiles as he bounced his way to the bottom and hit a deep turn.

Moments later I looked back to see him carve his way to the inside and kick out near the lifeguard tower. The next wave was mine and I inhaled the unparallel joy of surfing without a crowd.

The face of the wave was not pretty, but there was more to it than the shallowness of good looks. It loaded up and cracked hard on the reef as I hit my first turn and began the race to the beach, occasionally thrown off balance by some weird side chop.

While most surfers wait for the flag to point toward the ocean, indicating an offshore wind, I enjoy seeing that the banner move in the opposite direction, indicating onshore winds and junky surf.

As cars stacked high with surfboards follow the wind toward their inland homes, I move like some salmon, against the current, in the other direction.

Once there, the ocean is a lonely place filled with beauty that few have the eyes to see.