With eroding fortunes and beach fronts all along the coast, who would have believed Santa Cruz would emerge from the January storms with new real estate? Not just beach front real estate, but new beach!
Emerged from the precious lowering tide that raises the surf at Steamers Lane is not just fresh surf, but fresh beach! In fact, the surf has been evicted a little bit further seaward.
It is still transforming. Billy Stars, retired fire fighter and local historian, said this sand invasion started out big-time at the Lane. In the days following, it shuffled inward towards Cowell’s Beach to where it is today by the stairs at Westcliff Drive.
This does not happen every year, or even every other year; rather the opposite. The “normal” pattern is beach scouring in the winter and beach reformation in spring to summer. Storm heavy waves from the northwest pummel the coast of California and send oceans of sand southward along shore. Beaches are stripped of sand in the winter. I have seen Cowell’s Beach scoured of so much sand in winters that remnant pilings of the long-gone Railroad Wharf, formerly standing beside our present one, stick up in the sunlight.
Normally the continuing wave action, however, re-deposits the sand in new places over time and, by summer, beaches have built back up. But not to the extent that there is a new beach where there was not before. So why a new beach now?
Asking research questions in the parking lot at Cowell’s Beach Surfshop where the informal knot of local historians convene on weekends, the consensus is there have been at least three similar events over the last ten years. The last beach surprise of comparable size ocurred five to seven years ago.
This event started out as the normal winter loss, according to Kevin O’Dillary. At popular surf break breaks like “Its” beach (for bogie boarders) around the point and “Mitchell’s” up coast a ways, the sand was stripped out. But then massive amounts of sand wrapped around the point and filled in the rocks and shallows in the lee of Steamers’s in mid January. It kept growing by about 20 feet a day for another week, says Billy Stars, then started shuffling inward toward Cowell’s Beach, where it is now.
So what is different this year?
Cormac Carey claims the magic happens when we get a northwest storm system to take sand from the beaches spanning “It’s” to “Natural Bridges,” churns this sand in suspension on its way south. Then a strong wind out of the south whips the waves and sends it all in to the Lane and Cowell’s.
Again, Mitchell’s, for example, is scoured of sand down to bare rock.. If that one-two punch doesn’t happen, a northwest storm system and a strong wind out of the south, the sand keeps traveling south.
And so does this rare phenomenon affect anything ? It affects at least two things: the first one is surf! And surfing! How so?
Surf might be described as failed waves. And what makes waves fail is the sea bottom.
It all starts far out to sea. On a fine day an air mass moves from a high pressure area to a low pressure area, with a twist from the spinning earth. Over the placid surface a breath sighs past, then another, longer. The air-water friction raises little bumps upward. The new breeze hits these rises and pours its energy into the blockage, to raise the fractures a little higher. Soon the rivulets in the sea are a choppy sea. The wind hits more sloped surfaces and blows more energy into each, raising them further.
Below, this energy keeps going in a new medium, and it takes a shape and direction. The shape it takes is a circle. Waves, defined as the distance between one crest or trough to the next crest or trough (depending who measures), form. This distance extends downward as well, forming a bottom of the energy circle. At this point, the wave is more energy than mass. The wave energy travels, but the water itself does not, it just lifts and falls. As it lifts, more wind energy is translated to water-born energy. As the crests grow higher the wind pours in yet more energy as the storm strengthens. And it does so at a monstrous rate, quadrupling. A six foot swell receives four times the energy a three foot wave receives, not double. . This might go on forever if it wasn’t limited by a few things: density of the water, gravity, wind speed, and ocean depth.
The deeper the water, the longer the wavelength can grow, and the faster the wave can travel. How fast can it go? In 1960, an earthquake in Chile sent energy waves 6000 nautical miles to wreak a tidal wave on New Zealand in twelve hours, or 500 mph. Wavelengths will not exceed about twice the depth distance of the ocean they travel in. And as waves reach land, the sea bottom slopes upward to pull on the wavelength’s velocity. The wavelength shortens and the surface height rises.
To remain a wave, a ratio of height to length has been found to be 1:7, that is a wave one foot high has a wave length 7 feet long. And it cannot exceed a depth to height ratio of 1: 1.3, meaning a wave one foot high needs to move in a depth at least 1.3 feet. It also must keep a slope of 120 degrees or less.
But as a wave travels to shore, it keeps getting tripped up by the ocean bottom, until finally, it is tripped up. The top keeps traveling faster than the base of the energy circle, the top becomes unstable and falls forward. We have surf in Santa Cruz.
And the new sandy bottom has raised, bringing new waves with it, although quirkily, which changes by the day, by the hour. The new beach extends under the new surf all the way to the harbor mouth to help create a gently rising boost all along the shore. Barrels, dude! Surfing heaven!
And what is the other thing this rare phenomenon affects? Party!
The attraction an ocean beach creates for humans is not rational. Consider.
If the attraction was mere sand and sun, why do residents of Santa Clara Valley and beyond flock to the coast and Santa Cruz when they have perfectly fine mud flats in Alviso at the south end of San Francisco Bay? Why face that terrible summer day drive over the Santa Cruz Mountains on Highway 17? And why do people just stare and stare at this blue expanse? Do they stare at the sky as much?
There is a charm with the sand and the surf. The waves prancing around bare feet ignites kids and the adults that scold them. The screams and shouts that ring across the water to the deep end of the Wharf are timeless. Generations echo.
In the sunny ease, talk turns around shoving waves, even as they retreat; of scary monsters with big teeth, sharks! Rogue waves! Shipwrecks! Drowning! The most delicious worst! Screams from the scary rides on the Boardwalk stoke it on. Basking at the edge of a delighting frightening blue expanse seems elemental in the human psyche
The newborn beach the historians in the Surfshop parking lot remember best was in 1982 or ’83. Dave Skrable reports that beach was “huge,” much bigger than this one, and lasted well into summer.
Funny thing, it was definitely a beach, but not a “legally” recognized one. Cowell’s and Main Beach had ordinances attached to it, but this one did not, and so it became a party zone for the locals. Out of town visitors went to the Main beach and the locals went to the magic beach. Soon beer kegs and speakers with music booming staked out claims like a gold strike. Barbecues wafted with smells of hot doges and hamburgers. Dave would go out surfing with his girlfriend at the time, and ride waves tandem; she would stand up in front and he would paddle and ride behind. The music would wash over them from the new shore.
Pete Pappas, owner of Cowell’s Surfshop, remembers it too, “It was huge. People had music and parties on it.” He himself would swim out to a float that was set there at the time and body surf the whitewash that broke over it. He said, “that was a blast.”
So this is history in 2010: a new beach with a new decade! The world is yet filling with marvels. But don’t wait too long to try your luck in the new waves. Kevin predicts this new beach is being dealt out of cards with each new tide. “It’s fading,” he announces. By summer it will be gone.”
He is echoed by Paula, owner of Beach Street corner store. “Any time this has happened since I can remember, the new beach was gone by summer.”