Santa Barbara is known for having many near-perfect right hand point breaks that rarely break. The combination of the generally south-facing coastline and the swell blocking of the Channel Islands means that many surf spots on the Santa Barbara South Coast need very specific swell conditions to even have breaking waves.
When the January 2023 bomb cyclone started making its way towards the California coast, the buoy swell readings were in uncharted territory, the biggest readings ever recorded. The surf community was buzzing with rumors that this swell was going to be something special.
As the first day of the swell arrived, the waves were huge but the winds were also very strong, meaning conditions were generally unsurfable. Except at one spot: Sandspit. The sandbar created by the jetty that shields Santa Barbara Harbor is the ultimate novelty wave. Facing almost southeast, the spit needs a very large west/west-southwest swell to break. The result is that it breaks only a handful of days each year on average and only has really good conditions on a handful of days each decade.
The bomb cyclone swell saw the biggest waves ever seen at Sandspit and had the locals in a frenzy. The photos and videos quickly made their rounds on social media and the mass exodus to Santa Barbara was on for day two of the swell.
Day two brought smaller waves than day one. However, the wind was much lighter and had a more favorable direction than the day before, which meant that surfers from Point Conception down into Baja California saw some of the best waves in recent history. Large, long period west swell awakens waves like El Capitan that do not break very often and attract large crowds. Day two was one of the best days seen at El Capitan in years despite the brown water. The weather was sunny, the winds stayed light and offshore, and the waves were nearly perfect.
January 5, 2022 will go down as the biggest day at Sandspit at the mouth of Santa Barbara Harbor in recent history. It was not perfect by any means, as a lot of the waves were simply too big, but every so often a perfect wave would come through, and one lucky surfer would score the wave of their life. (Pablo Van Dyck / Daily Nexus)
The waves were breaking past the breakwater that protects the Santa Barbara Harbor and reverberating off the rocks to create huge backwash flares (pictured here). (Pablo Van Dyck / Daily Nexus)
There were also waves breaking next to Stearns Wharf, sometimes even splashing over the pier. This is a rare occurrence, as normally the water is too deep for waves to break in that spot. (Pablo Van Dyck / Daily Nexus)
With such a large crowd in the water and the visibly strong current, it was very hard to catch waves. However, if you did, you were rewarded. (Pablo Van Dyck / Daily Nexus)
Pictured here is the line to paddle out.Surfing Sandspit when it is big can be complicated, but experienced surfers know the drill. Many spectators watched as surfers would catch a wave, go into the beach, walk back up the spit, wait in line for their turn to paddle back out to the lineup, and repeat. (Pablo Van Dyck / Daily Nexus)
On this day, the icing on the cake was the beautiful sunset that cast golden light into the lineup from over the Santa Barbara mesa. (Pablo Van Dyck / Daily Nexus)
On the second day of the swell, Jan. 6, a different fickle (needing very specific swell and weather conditions to have waves) point break up the Gaviota Coast was buzzing with energy as according to the many surfers and spectators on the beach, it was the best it’s been in years. The energy on the beach at El Capitan was buzzing with activity as the crowd cheered as surfers traded off heavy barrels that churned down the point. (Pablo Van Dyck / Daily Nexus)
This photo is a prime example of what the better waves were looking like at El Capitan: thick, chocolate milk like barrels. (Pablo Van Dyck / Daily Nexus)
The water may have looked gross, but at a spot like El Capitan breaks so rarely that the surfers did not mind! Many of the surfers had made a long trip from north or south to escape less than ideal surf conditions, and they were all scoring some of the best waves seen at this spot in recent history. The hype stayed strong throughout the day! (Pablo Van Dyck / Daily Nexus)