The Great Californian Wave Hunt

I think that most people, regardless of their affinity for surfing, dream of doing a road trip through California at some point. Short of the great American cross-country road trip, cruising up the California coastline is the kind of trip that’s held up in the mythos of America, and what it means to travel through America.

Visiting my family in Mendocino County as an adolescent never really lent itself to surfing, so it’s only in the last few years that I’ve been able to get in the water down there. Aside from long weekends spent in Santa Barbara visiting friends, my exposure to surfing the California coastline was very limited. In November of 2015, I changed that and indulged in one of my greatest fantasies: the Great California Road Trip.

We landed at LAX on a sunny Saturday morning and dipped into Inglewood to pick up our wheels for the next two weeks - an upgraded mini van rental named Stinger. Stinger was covered in the most ridiculous jellyfish spray paint job, and I was in love. It was the stuff of stereotypical surf trip dreams. With a pop up sleeper up top, room for our boards in the back seat, and a tailgate that opened up to a mini fridge, countertop and a grill, we were pretty well set. After a quick jaunt through Koreatown to grab a bite with a friend, we hit the road.

We made our way north of Malibu to Leo Carillo state beach where we stayed in an overpriced state-run campground a short walk down to the beach. 

In the morning we made our way to Neptune’s Net and scoped as locals snagged some short, rocky rides.  With nearly two weeks to kill, we figured we could be a bit picky (rookie mistake) and carried on up the coast through the endless farms of Oxnard up to Ventura.

Ventura was all the things my little surfing heart longed for in November - warm weather, sunny skies, and friendly people. It was also where I realized that in my hastiness to get out of LAX, possibly the worst airport on the west coast, I had missed a ding on my board courtesy of either the airline or the airport. Either way, I had to grab some ding repair and wait in the sun for my board to cure while my travel companion jumped in at the bottom of C-Street and I watched with a level of impatience I didn’t even know I had. 

That night we stayed just north of town at Emma Wood, where the train rocks past the campground all night long, blasting its horn at all hours. Sleep is for the weak anyways. We woke up to close-out waves crashing several metres from the foot of our van. 

Story of my life, C-Street wasn’t going and Ventura was dead calm. So we found our way up to Rincon. Rincon was small but clean, glassy, and consistent. It was more busy by virtue of being Rincon, but everyone in the water was hyping each other and it was all of the good vibes. The feeling of finally getting into the water was unbeatable. With the sun on my face and salt in my hair, I finally felt like I’d gotten what I’d come for. Vacation mode was officially engaged and my cares were far and away. 

After an idyllic session at Rincon, my travel partner was keen to head further north and happy to continue cruising and be diplomatic, I acquiesced to leaving Ventura and continuing north to Carpinteria where it was much, much colder. Like, ‘down jacket over head to toe wool baselayers with every single NXNW wool scarf and headband I owned’ colder. 

There, again, we had no waves. It was starting to look like the only place we’d get any was even further north towards Morro Bay.  Luckily, a stop off in Santa Barbara proved to be worthwhile as we paddled out by the Campus Point and surfed long cruisy waves and bobbed around with the seals. The waves were on the smaller side but still better than anything else we’d had aside from Rincon.

We paddled back in, that happy kind of exhausted that surfing makes you, and made our way to San Luis Obispo to indulge my wine obsession and do some tastings before setting up camp in Pismo Beach.

If Ventura was everything I had expected and wanted a Southern California surf town to be, then Pismo Beach was everything I had kind of hoped it wouldn’t be. I imagine in the summer that Pismo Beach is probably bumping, but aside from a questionable marching band performance, Pismo was a strange ghost town where I’m fairly certain you can find the corpse of the American dream out back in a dumpster behind a burger shack. However, beside the Pismo pier there were waves to be had, and waves were what we had come for. They were quick to close but we’d already learned that we couldn’t afford to be picky this trip.

Camping out in a parking lot stealing some restaurant’s wifi, Magic Seaweed alerted us to the troubling news that the swell would die down even more over the next few days. Not to have our fun defeated, we carried our vacation vibes with us further north again up Big Sur to Monterey to check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium and their Tentacles exhibit. 

This not only helped us kill time until the waves came back, but also indulged the marine biology nerd in my heart. We spent the next few days alternating between surfing at Morro Bay and Pismo Beach, with the few stalwart cold-water Californian surfers. 

After pining away for the warm Ventura sunshine for a few days of this, my travel partner and I finally agreed to head back down to Goleta and visit our friends at UCSB on the way back to LA before our flight. While I was thrilled to see our incredibly gracious hosts again, I was pleased in equal measure to shed my down jacket and feel some sun on my skin again out in the water.

After we said goodbye to Stinger back in Inglewood, I took some time in the Air Canada lounge with the complementary hard bar to think back on the trip and how it had stacked up next to my fantasy.

November is certainly a quieter time to do a trip like this - the lineups were nearly nonexistent.  I determined that Rincon is the stuff of dreams, and while Morro and Pismo gave us a lot of love during our time there, there’s a lot to be said for a splash of warm sunshine with your wave.  Most importantly though, I confirmed my highly scientific theory that one can quite happily live off of little more than bread, cheese, wine and ocean baths for nearly two weeks as long as there is a little surf to be had. And even with the meagre waves we had, it was still an important trip to be done and one that I’d love to repeat - just not in November.