Bigfoot & Novelty Waves

Around middle school was about the time surfing invaded my brain. It was my oyster, my escape, but being 20-30 minutes away from the nearest spot with no easy access made it more of a dream. My school was literally tucked under a levee on San Francisco Bay and every morning as I rode my killer BMX bike to school I would look at the various marshes and sand banks and think how rad it would be if a miracle swell swamped Fort Point, did a dog leg around the Bay Bridge, made a hook around Hunter's Point and then wrapped into my little corners of point break nirvana. Some days, during summer and fall, the fog would creep over Daly City like a giant tsunami blasting the Santa Cruz mountains and flood the bay with 30-40 knot wind chop that marched down the middle channels. Waves but not waves. Close but not close enough. Wishing they were ride-able was about the time when my love affair with novelty waves began.           

            Novelty waves are swells that break in weird places you would never expect. They happen from once or twice a year to maybe once in lifetime and can be storm, wind, boat, or human generated. They can be well inside harbors, canals, rivers, or large lakes. There's no reports or cams, and there might a be a local or two, but for the most part it's the equivalent of a Bigfoot sighting—plenty of accounts but no photos. Most photographers search for the biggest, prettiest waves possible. I search for the rarest and shittiest. It may be a one-foot slop but it also has picturesque backdrops—surfers hate shooting with me but I love searching for these types of miracles.

            That is Avalon. Avalon is a picturesque harbor on the east side of Catalina Island. Despite a fascinating history and truly beautiful scenery, Catalina's more known for being the place where the famous actress Natalie Wood died (partying in the harbor), a disturbing annual pirate fiesta on boats, and most of all, "The fucking Catalina Wine Mixer" (from Stepbrothers). At one point in time the entire island was owned by William Wrigley Jr. of Wrigley Gum fame. He owned the Chicago Cubs as well and for many years the team would actually play spring training there. In the 70's Wrigley deeded 88 percent of the island to a conservancy so that's mainly why it's so undeveloped. The fact it faces directly east, is 22 miles off the California coast, and everyone from San Diego to Santa Barbara can see it makes you wonder how Avalon gets waves—but it does. Kind of. 

            I've always been told the west side of the island sucks. Just cliffs and no waves. Still not sure (the jury's out on that), however, thanks to social media, Kevin Schulz showed me an Instagram post of a head-high peak in Avalon during the famous "Marie" swell in 2014. One of the biggest hurricane swells in decades, it wrapped around Catalina's corners, found it's way into the harbor and tore shit up—it also made waves, surf-able waves in a normally serene harbor. A novelty wave.

            Then there's the Santa Ana's—the famous offshore devil wind that cranks up when a high pressure sits over Utah, forces air down the mountains, through the desert, and out to sea creating gale-force gusts that light up Southern California like kindling—nightmares for firemen, a treasure trove for the surf world (if there's swell). This year was no different. Kevin is one of the few surfers who would shoot places like Avalon with me. Despite being fairly tall, he's skinny-girl skinny and can whip his Rustys around in literally nothing. He too has a passion for shitty, photogenic waves and got me motivated when he saw what was the first days of a major Santa Ana brewing. His girlfriend's dad is an L.A. County fireman on Catalina there are basically only two firemen for the whole island which is heavy. Anyway he too was heading over. The winds were getting good—large, and ride-able wind chop good. So we went. 

            We took the ferry at dark the day before and as expected the gusts were growing through the evening. Normally Avalon Harbor is stuffed with boats, however when we arrived they were ominously missing. The Santa Ana's are so strong, boats break from their moorings and blast into the breakwall so the Harbor Patrol has to spend all night stashing them in safe places. The previous year a few people died when they were trying to save boats but got crushed instead—it's extremely treacherous. The next day we also woke up to news of the beginning of a fire in Ventura that eventually became the Thomas fire‑one of the most devastating in the state's history. Chaotic on all levels, we went straight for the beach to see chest to head-high wind swell marching in. Novelty waves at their finest. Dreamy—for us. 

            The beach at Avalon isn't sandy. There's a flat pebbly stretch that goes deep fast and is sandwiched by a boardwalk, a small pier, and waterfront restaurants. The famous landmark known as the Casino sits at the far Northern point and fairly close to the beach is a road with more restaurants and kitschy tourist stores. As we watched the chop pour in, a six-foot plus high tide was filling in as well and the normally serene beach was now a massive backwash fueled destruction machine with pieces of railings and lifeguard stands filling up the harbor. Island residents came out of the woodwork, watching and telling stories. Kevin paddled out and began doing what he does best, making shit look somewhat edible. As the morning progressed the tide just kept getting higher and higher and Kevin eventually was pumping down the line and boosting into one-foot of water and pebbles.

            It didn't last long. We had one session, had a look around the corner, then went back for a second and gave up with some credible proof under our belt. That was all we needed. As we were packing up getting ready to catch our ferry back to the mainland, the locals kept telling us tales of how good it would get when the tide dropped. According to them, we hadn't seen the great harbor at its windy finest. That was fine with us. We had our evidence and yes there is a Bigfoot on Catalina. 


-Aaron Checkwood

Sunglass Promotions Manager