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Monster from New Zealand Swell, 1975


Memorable 1975 south swell lasting from September 20 to 29; the result of a nearshore Baja hurricane swell combining with a cyclone swell originating a few hundred miles northeast of New Zealand. The 1975 West Coast summer surf season had been dreary, and after a weekend of moderate three to four-foot waves—bigger than nearly anything seen in the previous eight weeks—most surfers expected the swell to once again taper off. But on Tuesday, September 23, the waves unexpectedly bumped up to four to six feet; on Wednesday it increased to eight to 10 feet; and on Thursday the swell peaked at 12 foot at a few prime south-facing beaches. Offshore winds and 90-degree weather prevailed throughout.

Part of what made the swell memorable was how unexpected it was. "Those basically were the dark ages," wave forecaster Sean Collins later recalled. "And the whole the southern hemisphere was a complete void. Just zero weather info coming from there." Collins, who was miles ahead of other surfers of the time in his ability to predict swells, scored perfect point waves with no crowds at Scorpion Bay in Baja.

Wave-starved surfers in Southern California made the most of it, and the premier summer breaks were all jammed; Malibu had as many as 300 riders circulating through the lineup at once, with spectators bunched together on the sand, as surf journalist Richard Safady reported, "like the Sgt. Peppers album cover." In San Diego, visiting Hawaiian demigod Gerry Lopez rode double-overhead waves at Windansea, in La Jolla. The biggest surf was found at the Newport Wedge, a vicious bodysurfing/kneeboarding break located at the south end of Newport Beach, where waves hit 18 feet. Lower Trestles didn't get over 10 feet but was "as good as it gets," according to longtime California surfer Mickey Muñoz.

At a beach in Sonoma County, just north of San Francisco, an unknown surfer named Dale Webster rode the swell for seven days in a row and decided afterward to see how long he could keep his streak going. As of early 2013, Webster's every-day run was still going—a feat of endurance unmatched in sporting history.

Southern California lifeguards prevented most swimmers and some surfers from entering the water during the biggest two days, but more than 400 rescues were nonetheless made between Venice Beach and Will Rogers State Beach in Los Angeles County. In large part because the annual summer sand buildup acted as a buffer, there was virtually no property damage.

Surfer magazine covered the swell in its December 1975 issue, calling it "The Monster from New Zealand." The big California surf was featured in two surf movies: A Matter of Style (1975) and We Got Surf (1981).