East and West

Rob Gilley

Previously in denial about his photographic past, Rob Gilley now rummages through his trove of mediocrity.

If you’re looking for surf website page views, there’s few better ways to pad the numbers than to set off a West Coast versus East Coast surf debate. Just take a side, kick back, and simply watch the online comment boards fill up the with gallons of transcontinental venom.

To me, this whole East versus West thing seems a bit silly. Like comparing blondes to brunettes, or beer to wine, or Lucky Charms to Cocoa Puffs.

Are we that competitive as a species that we have to make our surf spots compete too?

Sheesh.

With the risk of sounding Reynoldsian, personally I’m just so happy that Planet Earth has oceans and weather to create swell trains on oceans and that there’s different types of land that can change these swell trains into rideable waves that I’m not really worried about which place is better than another place.

Seriously—even if it’s on Mars, and it’s going off, and I get to Mars or I’m on Mars already, then it’s all bueno.

If you remove the competitive aspect, however, a non-partial analysis of the surf on the Eastern and Western shores of the United States is actually pretty interesting. The combination of meteorological, topographical, and oceanographic variables involved is kinda cool. Further, some of the sociological and philosophical aspects of why surfers insist on arguing for their respective home turf also seem to be worth mentioning.

Like the jingoistic patriot who claims his country is better than anyone else’s without ever visiting anyone else’s, the East versus West debate is usually done by surfers who have never explored the length of their own coast, let alone the other side of the continent.

For example, most San Diego regulars have no idea what Palos Verdes is like, let alone New Hampshire, and many Florida surfers have no idea what it’s like to surf in Montauk, let alone the Ranch.

Yet they argue until they’re blue in the face.

As a long time California surfer and surf photographer, and a person who has seen a handful of good days up and down the East Coast, I thought I might offer my perspective.

The first thing that West Coast surfers need to know is this: if you happen to score a good day on the East Coast, chances are you’re going to get more barreled in one session than you have all year. Because of the nature of the offshore winds that follow the local storms, and the pier and jetty adorned, close-to-shore, top-to-bottom type beach breaks that line the coast from South Carolina to New York, you’re going to get pitted off your gourd. Think of a combination of Oxnard and Huntington on the best Santa Ana swell day of the year.

On much of the East Coast, the swell might not last more than eight hours and you might not be able to do a proper turn, but who cares: you’re going to spend a lot of precious time ensconced in Mother Nature’s womb.

And what those East Coast surfers who haven’t been to the West Coast need to know is that it ain’t all Huntington Beach: California alone offers 700 miles of the most varied, hard-to-pigeon-hole surf possible. Just when you think it’s crowded, you’ll find a perfect spot with two guys out. Just when you think it’s mushy, you’ll score an epic tube orgy. Just when you think it’s localized, some hard-ass looking guy with mutton chops will give you a righteous wave. The west coast of the United States is like several countries in one. How can you generalize a coast that includes Mavericks, the Ranch, Trestles, and Black’s? Ocean Beach, the Harbor, Rincon, and the Cliffs? Nelscott Reef, Pleasure Point, Malibu, and Oxnard?

If the North Shore is the 7-mile miracle, then it can be argued that California is a 700 mile one.

And as the first couple of weeks of this January have demonstrated, once the Pacific gets going, the West Coast is a virtual backstop that receives consistent swell for days on end.

On the other hand, a frustrating thing about many West Coast spots is that most of the long period groundswells can be shadowed and inconsistent, further detracting from already crowded conditions.

An uninitiated surfer with a rudimentary knowledge of meteorology might be able to write off East Coast surf because of consistency using the fact that winter storms on Earth travel westward. Well, as it turns out, not exactly. Because of the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream, and the associated travel route of a classic Nor’ Easter, weather fronts actually push off the mid-Atlantic coast and push northward before heading towards Europe. This can create some very powerful, short period south swell for the North Atlantic States, who further benefit from the offshore winds that follow in a Nor’ Easter’s wake.

However, these swells usually coincide with extremely cold conditions—some of the coldest conditions consistently surfed by man—and require deep blue, vacated nut sacks to challenge.

But let’s also not forget that in summer and fall, Atlantic hurricanes, unlike their Pacific counterparts, actually travel towards the desired target.

By the same token, there’s lesser known meteorological surf-associated patterns on the West Coast too. In the spring, for example, while Central and Northern California surfers curse an all-day, howling North-West wind, San Diego surfers wake up to consistent, peaky, clean surf the following day. And not everyone knows that there’s so much swell north of Point Conception in the winter time that there’s several spots up there that need the swell to go down to break properly. When Southern California is dead flat, Central and Northern California can be overhead and reeling.

And speaking of West Coast swell, with Mavericks and long period/underwater canyon spots like Black’s, the West Coast of the United States holds some of the biggest rideable surf on the planet.

In addition, some of the best spots on both coasts are unknown to many because of privacy and/or localism. Most surfers will never see photos or know what a good day at the Ranch or Palos Verdes or Martha’s Vineyard or islands off Maine look like, so you’ll have to trust me when I say that they can go off big time.

We could go on and on, but the bottom line is that there’s great surf on both coasts of the United States, and we should probably just shut up, surf, be glad that surf exists at all, and stop disparaging our transcontinental brothers.

Except for Florida, that place sucks.

West Coast representative, Blacks Beach. Photo: Gilley
The Outer Banks, holding it down for the East. Photo: Lusk