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Monday, September 5, 2011
Updated: September 6, 3:41 PM ET
Laborious weekend

By Kimball Taylor

To stall when one should run is the hallmark of an accomplished surfer. To stall on a heaving wall four feet off the rocks is the sign of a madman. Ryan Arthur.

"Egos and boards were breaking everywhere," said San Diego's Chris Patterson. He'd been working in Los Angeles when the pre-Labor Day freight train arrived. Sneaking out to some LA County pointbreaks that normally thrive on northwest swells Patterson found surfers on the bricks, tangled in rocks and boards in pieces. The swell that brought glory to the WCT event in Tahiti a week earlier played rope-a-dope in California. Long lulls were punctuated by sets of nearly a dozen waves. This meant that the guy who botched the drop on the first or second wave of the set became a 10-count punching bag. To think that just a week earlier many of these same surfers watched Keala Kennelly and Maya Gabeira negotiate the poundings of their lives at Teahupoo and went out eagerly to meet a bit of the same at their home breaks.

The entire system may have had too much time in the imagination before it hit the West Coast. The Billabong Pro set an emotional scale for the possible and Golden State warriors set forth like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. There were however, ominous signs preceding the first pulses. Mission Beach, San Diego, was closed on two separate occasions due to shark sightings. One was sparked by a reported 12-inch fin, the other a 14-incher. Then on Wednesday, as the first licks of the new south sent pulses over an infamous La Jolla slab, another sighting near the seal rookery built a case for a full-on Shark Week panic. Fortunately the New Zealand swell washed right over the top of the media hype. By the time someone caught an actual photo of a shark in the lineup at Swami's, basically no one cared.

It was the rip currents caused by the long interval and size of the swell that proved deadly. Bodyboarder Jowayne Binford paddled out at Seal Beach with a group of friends when a rip caught all of them. The group made it back to the beach minus Binford, 26. Then his bodyboard washed up. Lifeguard boats and a helicopter plied the high seas but without any progress, the search was scaled back Wednesday evening.

Thursday saw a relatively light crowd on Lowers Trestles. Some of the lucky in the lineup figured that the swell struck earlier and harder than estimated. With the late morning high-tide this theory was proven correct. Surging shorepound boiled over the cobbles, beach and into the wetlands.

"It was like a tsunami hit," described one of the Lower locals. "Bags, towels, bikes, boards and backpacks were sent deep into the bush." The iconic, and obviously well-designed, state parks port-o-potties were levitated in a surge and moved eastward a number of yards -- remaining up-right the entire time. Meanwhile at another state park the same phenomenon washed a smuggler's boat ashore at Point Mugu. The boat split in half and 500 pounds of weed fell out. Imagine if this had happened at Lowers, the crowd might have been as levitated as the port-o-potties.

The swell that was supposed to peak Thursday showed no signs of slowing by Friday. Beaches closed out from San Diego to Santa Barbara. This sent surfers looking for structured breaks. The Ranch was cracking double overhead. Points north of Santa Barbara showed their wintertime faces. Malibu was an 8-to-10 foot thunder dome attended by the capacity of Staples center. San Diego's Big Rock somehow fit 30 surfers into its 10-foot take off zone. With maxing sets lumping over the shallow reef, well, the phrase "monkeys in a barrel" became quite literal. Equipment was the hazard however. One guy's leash slipped between his big and middle toe and ripped into his foot about four inches. Another man's leash got wrapped around a kelp ball and he nearly drowned. "I ended up wearing the majority of that swell on my head," he said a few days later. One surfer's fin made a malpractice-worthy incision on his foot as a spot called, ah, Hospitals.

Saturday backed down to manageable size. Surfers who'd dug into the dirt down in Baja were chased back across the border by the first bands of a tropical storm that threatened to make a mud bog of the peninsula. Unfortunately, the lesser size of the sets did not decrease the danger of this swell. Back in California a 42-year-old surfer was found collapsed over his board at San Onofre. Although the cause is still unknown, some suspected a heart attack.

As the swell went mild, Baja's tropical storm began to pitter patter on Southern California. The swell that brought pot-laden panga boats, a shark scare, 20-foot Newport Wedge, pointbreak spine snappers left town with a drenching. She was impressive and full of drama, but not too many asked her to stick around.