Todos Santos Challenge

Big Wave Diaries: El Niño, 20 Years in the Making

Gary Linden

Trailer: 2015/2016 Todos Santos Challenge
With massive El Niño conditions forecasted for the 2015/2016 winter, this could be a big year for the Big Wave Tour stop at Baja California, Mexico.

The biggest El Niño in 20 years is upon us -- so say the scientists, along with every surfer in the North Pacific -- but what does this really mean?

Let's start with another question: Can anyone remember surfing in October in trunks here in Southern California? I have been surfing the West Coast for over 50 years and can't remember anything even remotely close to how warm the water has been and for so long. It's been over 70 degrees for more than three months! The warm-water game fish have followed the warm currents as well with record size marlin being caught just offshore.

What happens when BWT events get the green light? Watch The Call.

Without getting technical beyond my ability, when the water off the coast of Ecuador heats up to levels way beyond normal and stretches horizontally across the Pacific Ocean we have what is referred to as "an El Niño condition." As this warm water starts to spread vertically we start to feel its effects.

Surfline's El Niño Overview
Lead Surfline Forecaster discusses the latest El Niño findings. How will it compare to historical events?

How this relates to the big waves is fairly simple: Cold air travels to hot air. When the land is colder than the ocean in the morning we get offshore winds and then when the land becomes warmer than the water the wind turns onshore. Applied to a larger scale, this means the cold storms that bring the swells will move farther south -- right into our backyard. Farther north will get the brunt of the storms, with wind, rain and cold, while big wave spots a bit farther from the epicenter will receive the huge waves and clean conditions. It means good odds for Big Wave Tour (BWT) stops like the Todos Santos Challenge in Baja California.

The last El Niño of the intensity forecasted for this year was coincidently the winter of 1997/1998, the same year we ran the first ever big wave event at Todos. It featured some the biggest waves ever ridden in a contest up to that point. The huge wave that Taylor Knox (USA) rode that day was measured at 52 feet and appeared on 26 magazine covers around the world. The event planted the seed that eventually grew into to the Big Wave Tour as we know it now. It seems incredibly likely that this year we have a chance to breathe some new life into our tour, which has been so patiently waiting for waves of this size.

Read Gary's personal account of charging Pe'ahi in January 2015.

The most notable El Niño in my lifetime occurred in the winter of 1969/1970. On December 4 of that year, I was lucky enough to be able to surf Rincon (in Santa Barbara, Calif.) in the biggest waves that I have ever seen hit the California coast. It rained a lot that year as well, but along with the other 99 surfers in the water that day the only thing I remember were the incredible waves that swept through the point.

Vaughan's Todos Dreams
When the El Niño swell hits the west coast of North America, look for California chargers like Nic Vaughan to be racing into the lineup.

That same swell saw big-wave pioneer Greg Noll (USA) reach eternal legend status as he paddled out at Makaha Point and rode what was considered the largest wave ever ridden up to that time in history. Unfortunately, there are no photos so it can't be compared to today's standards, but it will nonetheless live forever in surfing lore.

When the big waves arrive this winter, do yourselves a favor and make sure you are prepared physically and equipment-wise. History repeats itself and whether you want to ride big waves or some sheltered secret spots, this is going to be the real deal. The surf will be consistently larger than normal and in full force. Squeeze out every drop of enjoyment possible -- you may not see waves like these for another 20 years. My new 10'6" balsa board is ready to roll. See you in the lineup!

Check the Big Wave Tour event schedule to see what could run in the next few months.