I was 14 and living in Florida in 1998, but I still remember the headlines. Biggest California In 20 Years. Mudslides Wreak Havoc On West Coast. And it was all thanks to some weird weather phenomenon with a name I’d never heard before: El Niño.
So, what is El Niño anyway?
In layman’s terms, as the ocean off North and South America warms, the jet stream dips further south, allowing stronger storms to move closer to the West Coast, equating to more powerful swells for California and Hawaii, while also having a domino effect on weather across the rest of the world. And as I’m sure you’re aware, that’s exactly what happened during the 2015/2016 winter.
The ocean acts differently during an El Niño year and so do the surfers who chase it. Whether it was flying to Oahu to New York to Puerto Rico on back-to-back-to-back red-eyes to score this might be the swell of the winter in three different places (like Balaram Stack), paddling out on the day of the decade at Maverick’s and nearly getting caught inside on the wave that landed Kai Lenny his cover (like our online editor, Brendan Buckley), or paddling out at Jaws, injured, on the day of the Eddie and battling through pain to catch the best wave ever ridden at the world’s greatest big wave (like Albee Layer), surfers were doing everything in their power to be everywhere this winter — even, in some cases, places they don’t really belong. Like Brendan writes in “Just Up the Coast” on Pg. 74, “This winter evoked irrational behavior in all of us. It created a sense of urgency, like there was some never-again opportunity waiting for you out there. And it wasn’t enough just to take part in it — you had to find the line and cross it.”
Cross the line? Shit, a lot of surfers ignored the line completely. As Greg Long says in Taylor Paul’s exploration into the current state of big-wave surfing [“Go Straight and Inflate?” on Pg. 62], “The increased safety — with inflatable vests and the rescue teams in the channel — really allowed us to explore what was possible this year. But there were multiple times that I saw people using the technology as a means to go beyond their skill levels, taking off on waves they otherwise wouldn’t have.”
And it wasn’t just the Maverick’s and Jaws crowd pushing their own boundaries. El Niño made all of us go a little crazy. We overcharged credit cards to purchase new quivers for waves we probably shouldn’t ride. We set 3 a.m. alarms to check the latest buoy readings. We drove from San Diego to Mexico and then up to Santa Barbara before lunch. We broke boards. Broke egos. Broke relationships.
Timmy Reyes’ girlfriend even went as far as to say she hates El Niño after Timmy spent five months traveling to four countries on three continents, racking up more than 20,000 miles in an airplane and 10,000 miles in a car.
Was it all worth it? That depends on whom you ask. If you scored (like Timmy), then definitely. And if you didn’t (like myself), well, at least you can take Dayton Silva’s advice in “Tips for Telling a Proper El Niño Tale” on Pg. 26 and fabricate your own El Niño story when revisiting this winter way down the line. Because, as Dayton writes: “If a tree falls in the forest and you were the only one there to hear it, you make that tree sound like whatever the f–k you want.”
Soooo…how good was this El Niño?
Ask me that question again in 20 years. —Zander Morton
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