As one day of rain and a “cold” night or two advertise, we are being carried into the winter season on the coast. In answer to Mark Twain (“nobody does anything about it”), the good thing about the weather is you don’t have to, especially here, and even less than that. We have two seasons, not four: summer and winter, and some times even those are interchangeable. Some people would say we don’t have any seasons at all, nor even real weather, like Michigan wind chill or Georgian swelter, not real weather. The only way we can tell the season has changed is because one needs a new T-shirt while the other needs a new sweatshirt. Shops, anyone?
And yes, I’d like to think Twain would answer the weather THING with the same words turned around, “we” are the ones with the “real” weather, 37 million Californians can’t be wrong, and Santa Cruz, not San Francisco—even in “winter”—is “heaven on the half shell.”
What we do experience as winter that much of the world does not are sea storms churning in from the Pacific. Being more or less in the middle between arctic and tropic, we get swipes from both sides in a mix. “Seastorms” is a term Robert Stagnaro at Gilda’s Restaurant on the Wharf likes to use and sort of gives away his long history on this structure that spans sea and land in half a mile. I would guess sailors bouncing around out there don’t use that term as much, since there is no other possible reference or source. There are storms, period, like there are storms, period, on land. Kansas farmers don’t talk about “land storms” in a tornado.
But on the coastal receiving end of the grand North Pacific Gyre, this sense of “otherness” rings. It’s coming from a related but different realm. This realm affects a Kansas farmer in his corn field just as much as we, but here we can taste it. Brine and sourdough spring from surf into the air.
Winter brings a change of animals as well, and you can better guess what season it is from the presence of surf scoters vs pigeon guillemots than the T-shirts vs sweatshirts. Surf scoters are black sea ducks with what looks like squashed pizza on their bills and a white spot on the head. They seem to switch shifts with the other by season. The summer guillemots (also black birds, but with a white racing stripe on the wings and red pointed beaks) leave one day in fall and the next day the scoters are bobbing in the surf.
On the beach, summer sunbathers (almost like a species) leave and shorebird varieties move in. Scurrying sanderlings, sandpipers, willets, and strangely out of place crows stitch the sand or pry through kelp clumps.
Whales are on the move, grays and humpbacks from Alaska are in route to Mexican lagoons, though most of these cruise far offshore on the southern leg. Conversely, recent weeks have seen a number of humpback whales lounging just half a mile or less off Main Beach attracted all summer and fall, the wisdom goes, by the dense schools of anchovies and sardines themselves foraging through a rich planktonic soup at this northern point of Monterey Bay. The wharf was the best place to view these humpback short of getting wet or seasick, or for getting wet and seasick too for kayakers, boaters, and board paddlers.
What can we expect this winter?
The equator is dealing the hand this season, more so than the Bering Sea with its “cradle of storms” swipes. It looks like we will have another La Nina winter caused by stiff winds from Peru to Indonesia that sends the sea surface westward while drawing up cold deep water. The spin-offs from this enormous swath of cold water furls wet and dry capes over far away regions. For us, this will translate as cool to “cold” temperatures, chilly raintrails and storms --and surf!
Weather that would send sane people indoors will attract hordes of otherwise to the beach like lemmings and plunging headlong into the drink. The water temperature has dropped to toe-curling low 50s at least since last week (new wetsuit!) and “the swell” can be expected as a presence from now on, unlike last summer when the translation of the Spanish “pacific” actually was.
Winter storms can rearrange the furniture here, and even the coastline. The earlier four wharves along Cowells and Main beach all had major run-ins with winter storms. A picture, for example, in 1908 that shows a stop of Teddy Roosevelt’s visit in the navy’s new Great White Fleet also shows Cowell’s Wharf (when there was one) heavily damaged by a storm from the week before, with islands of pilings barely standing, not a level platform.
How does this modern Wharf fare in winters?
Pretty well, it turns out. Its design engineer, Henry J. Brunnier from San Francisco, spent a winter in 1912-13 at whatever hotel was working on Beach Street then, watching the swell patterns and determined the best height, angles, and construction goals. He dropped some plum lines in the surf for “soundings” and figured a wharf that could accommodate ships had to be half a mile long, which it is today. Why ships? Do you see any ships hugging the Wharf now? In the winter of 1912-13 one might ask, “do you see any cars? Trucks? Do you see Highway 17?”
A full time crew keeps this Wharf in good repair and inspiration today. A severe season like the El Nino of 1998-9 took out sixty pilings of an approximate 4,000. FEMA came to the rescue for that season. The Wharf rarely has to close, and even then this from an abundance of caution, such as occurred for the tsunami warning last March.
The Wharf is actually the best place to enjoy a good storm, cozying up in a restaurant-bar and discovering that clam chowder on the Wharf is the real reason winter was invented.