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June 21-28, 2006

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Surf City, No Matter What U Say

Huntington Beach be damned, Santa Cruz is still the true home of California surfing

By Rob Pratt

Metro Santa Cruz 2006 Summer Guide:
Frans Lanting | surf spots | theater | concerts | festivals

By floating a municipal ordinance, the Southern California city of Huntington Beach managed to lay claim to the moniker "Surf City, USA"--much to the chagrin of the citizens of another coastal California town some 400 miles to the north. Yet the city and environs of Santa Cruz can boast a long tradition as a center of surf culture in North America, with more than a dozen world-class surfing spots, including one that many claim generates the biggest wave in the continental United States.

Surfing first landed on the continent at Santa Cruz. A trio of visiting Hawaiian princes, apparently missing their home break and willing to brave the comparatively frigid waters, procured suitable redwood timbers and in 1881 surfed waves that formed at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River, which reaches the Monterey Bay at the east end of what is now the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

Though still capable of generating surfable waves when a stormy winter builds up the right kind of sand bars, the river mouth is no longer a surf spot of choice. Construction of the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor in the mid-1960s caused sand to pile up north of the breakwater, forever altering the way waves break at this historic surf spot.

The top spot in town is now a half-mile west of the river mouth. Steamer Lane, so named for the route shipping traffic used to approach the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf, can generate 20-foot waves over a reefy point when strong winter swells from Aleutian storms swing into the Monterey Bay.

When the conditions are right, top-dog surfers at Steamer Lane can catch a wave in view of the lighthouse that overlooks the point, ride a full quarter of a mile past the "To Honor Surfing" statue and land at Cowell's Beach aside the wharf.

Cowell's Beach is arguably the most congested surf spot in Santa Cruz. With gentle waves forming inside of a sand-bottomed cove, Cowell's is populated with beginning and intermediate surfers, as well as experienced surfers seeking a respite from the aggressiveness of Steamer Lane.

Surfing instructors frequently bring schools of newbie surfers on foam-padded boards to Cowell's, which on crowded summer days guarantees a fun house of out-of-control surfers all vying for a spot on every 2-foot wave that rolls into the cove.

The center of the surfing industry in Santa Cruz lies a few miles south on the outskirts of the city of Capitola. In a single one-block stretch of main-drag 41st Avenue sits surely one of the world's greatest concentrations of surf shops. The global headquarters of surfing mega-retailer O'Neill has an address here, as does a mammoth new Billabong store, which glowers aside favored homegrown surf shops Freeline Design, Santa Cruz Surf Shop and Paradise Surf Shop.

All of these stores are within walking distance of Pleasure Point, one of the greatest concentrations of top surf spots in Northern California. Along a mile-long stretch are nearly a dozen excellent surf breaks, from 26th Avenue and Sewer Peak at the north end (experts only) to the jetty at Capitola Beach on the south end (great for beginners when the tides are right). For local surfers, these are the holiest of the holy, and outsiders are generally not welcome (except at Capitola Beach) unless they're skilled surfers respectful of local protocol.

Outside of Santa Cruz, surf spots are less accessible but more dramatic. The rocky coastline north of Santa Cruz offers a number of excellent and challenging spots for experienced surfers, elegantly chronicled in Daniel Duane's Caught Inside: A Surfer's Year on the California Coast. Most of these spots are easily identified when surf's up by a clutch of cars parked on the dirt shoulder on the southbound side of Highway 1.

Between Santa Cruz and San Francisco, a monster wave sleeps most of the year, only rising to pound the shore of Half Moon Bay with 30-foot waves when the winter swell is just right. Mavericks, home to the "Men Who Ride Mountains" invitational surfing contest, has earned a reputation as one of the biggest breaks in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

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