day at the Beach
If everybody had an ocean,
then we'd all be diving like
Californ-i-a. Here's how West Coast divers handle the surf.
By John Francis
IN CALIFORNIA, divers hit the surf about as
often as surfers do. Diving from the beach has been an integral
part of the California scuba experience since the '50s when America
first saw Mike Nelson run down the Santa Monica beach, throw a
balsa-wood "tank" over his head and dive in to rescue a maiden in
peril. Even today, most California divers complete their
certification on beach dives, so handling the surf is just part of
the learning curve.
Ask Cory and Jeremy Reddell. I ran into the
boys (aged 14 and 15) at Biltmore Beach, Santa Barbara, where they
were finishing their certification class. Bob Reddell, a proud
father if ever there was one, watched and looked forward to the
beach dives he'll soon be making with his sons.
They live within driving distance of several
great diving beaches, and because it costs little more than the
price of air fills (a dive boat would cost about $100 each), the
three can afford to dive often. Other beach divers like the freedom.
"You can pick your own site, as uncrowded as you want it to be,"
says Michael Adams, 32, of Thousand Oaks. And for multi-tasking
divers, you can't beat the convenience of shore diving on your
schedule, not a dive boat's. "I can dive in the morning and then
make it to work," says Monica Hamblin, 25, of Camarillo.
Of course, there's that tricky surf problem.
By far the most intimidating part of beach diving is getting through
the surf zone. That's the area between where the wave first breaks
and where the roller degenerates into confused white water rushing
up the beach. Before you get out to the rollers, you can generally
stand easily in the white water. Once you're outside the break, you
can float comfortably because the water is moving only vertically,
not horizontally, toward the beach. But in between those two areas,
a breaking, rolling wave can overpower the strongest diver.
How do you get through the surf zone? Timing is
everything. You probably know about sets and lulls: Sets are groups
of bigger waves and are always followed by lulls, groups of smaller
ones. You know you're supposed to wait for the lull before going
out, but you may not know the secret to timing it.
Here's a common rookie mistake: You watch one
big wave after another pound the beach until the next wave seems to
be a smaller one. "Is this the lull?" you ask. A couple more small
waves follow. "Sure looks like it," you think. Then comes another
wave, still small, but a little bigger than the last. "It's the
lull, but I'm losing it! I have to go now!" So you stumble out, just
in time to meet the returning set of big waves.
Decide at the outset, "I will not go out on the
first lull I see no matter how easy it looks. I'll wait for the
second or third." Or fifth or 10th if you have to. By standing and
watching for a few minutes, you'll get a better idea of what the
lull looks like that day. You'll also have a chance to relax a
That's when to go into the surf. What about
FINS ON? FINS OFF?
There are two ways of getting through the
surf. One method, the one usually stressed in certification courses,
is to put your fins on at the edge of the water and shuffle
backwards or sideways as far out as you can, then swim under the
breaker. The other is to carry your fins in your hand, walk on your
feet past the surf zone; and then put on fins. Both methods have
advantages and disadvantages, and neither is best for every diver,
every beach and every day. Experienced beach divers use both methods
The "fins on" method has a lot to recommend it.
When you fall down with fins on, you have propulsion. With any luck,
you can swim through or under the waves and power past the surf
zone. The problem with it is that walking through the water in fins
is slow and unsteady. You can most likely forget about waiting for
the lull because it will be over before - you've gone far. You'll
probably fall down and won't be able to get up again. You're also
more apt to trip or slip on rocks just past the shoreline where it
may be too shallow to swim.
On the other hand, if you walk out carrying
your fins, you can go much faster, so you spend less time in the
surf zone and, with luck, get past it before the lull is over. On
your feet, you're much better able to sidestep rocks and retain your
balance, to advance or retreat quickly if you need to. If you fall,
you probably can get up again. Bill Kendig, 41, of Ventura; puts it
succinctly: "Walking works best with feet."
Kendig, a California beach diver since 1975, is
also a NAUI and PADI instructor and can appreciate both methods.
"Which is best depends a lot on the kind of beach. If it's a
gradually sloping beach and slow surf, it's easier to walk until
you're waist deep and put your fins on there. If it's steep and the
surf is big, you're better off having all your gear in place first."
As Kendig implies, a steep beach usually means
a "shore break," where the wave breaks almost directly onto the
sand. The surf zone is shorter on a steep beach, so your chance of
getting through it on a lull is better, but the waves are probably
bigger and more violent, too.
Bodysurfing or board-surfing experience helps
you decide how best to approach the surf: "I learned a lot about
beach diving from being a boogie boarder and bodysurfer," says diver
Michael Adams. "I don't mind being in the surf. I feel comfortable
If you're not comfortable going into the surf,
Kendig has a suggestion: Go out first with no dive gear, just your
wet-suit, to learn where the surf zone is and what the wave action
is like. Next, add mask, fins and snorkel only, and try to go out
through the surf. "If you can go out easily with mask, fins, snorkel
and wetsuit, you can do it with your scuba gear," says Kendig. “And
if you're having difficulty, that's a good time to say, `Hey, forget
it,' and not do the beach dive.”
One last tip: When a big wave bears down on
you, try to go under it, not through it. That means going out with
little or no air in your BC.
THAT TWO-LETTER WORD
It can be hard to say "no" to the dive when
you're standing at the water's edge, your buddy is flexing his pecs
and you've already hauled all that gear to the beach. But, as Kendig
says, "People get hurt because they try to force what they want to
do on the conditions." In fact, among the divers I've talked to,
it's those with the most beach dive experience who are quickest to
call off a dive if surf conditions look doubtful.
"If everyone in the group feels comfortable, we
go; but if anyone is hesitant, we call if off and grab breakfast,"
says DeeLee Bersbach, 26, of Thousand Oaks.
Monica Hamblin remembers one dive she and a
buddy attempted even though conditions were less than ideal. After
being beaten up by the surf, getting tangled in the kelp and
discovering zero vis, they had to abort. "And then we had to wash
our gear," she recalls.
Two tricks make it easier to say no. First,
leave your heavy gear in the car when you make the pre-dive recon in
wetsuit only. If conditions look good; return to the car, put on the
rest of your gear and go. If they don't, you haven't wasted so much
effort. And second, have a backup plan so you don't feel you have to
dive because your alternative is a wasted day. Have in mind another
site. West-facing beaches are often calm when south-facing ones
catch the swell, for example. And if all else fails remember you're
going to the beach. Can that be so bad? “So many times we've had
more fun just bodysurfing on those days it's too big to dive," says
Returning to the beach can be more, uh,
exciting than going out. The surf may have gotten bigger while you
were on the bottom, and even if it hasn't, waves are always harder
to judge from the ocean side. Once again, timing is key, and that
requires the patience to wait for the right moment. Approach the
beach until you're just outside the surf zone, put some air in your
BC and rest there while you wait.
While you're regrouping, watch where the waves
break. You want to get as close to the break as you can without
being carried over the top, but be careful: Bigger waves break
farther out. Watch where the waves go up the beach and move sideways
to the best starting position. You want to be carried onto sand, not
onto rocks or kids with inner tubes. Spend some time watching the
sets and lulls, and find their rhythm. You're looking for the moment
at the beginning of a lull when a wave is just passing under you.
At this point, there are several methods for
getting onto dry sand. If the waves aren't too big, you can, as
Kendig puts it, "kick like hell until you're in chest-deep water,
then rip off your fins and run like hell.” But be careful: Waves are
almost always bigger than they look from the outside. If they look
too big to outrun, another method is to deflate your BC and swim in
on the bottom. You'll find very little turbulence only a foot or so
below the rollers. When you get into water too shallow to swim,
don't try to stand up in your fins; instead, crawl out on your hands
and knees like a toddler.
And if the surf has become really big, try
this: Outside the break, take off your tank and BC and inflate the
BC. Take off your weight belt and strap it around the tank, through
the BC's armholes. Tuck the hoses under the belt. Push the whole
thing ahead of you toward the beach, using it like a boogie board.
If you're separated from your tank and BC in the surf, push them
ahead and away from you. You'll both end up on the beach, but the
heavy scuba equipment won't be on top of you. Wearing only your
mask, fins and wetsuit, you'll be able to ride the wave easily.
ON THE BEACH
Of course, huge surf days are the exception,
not the rule, at California's popular beach dive sites. More often,
its one of those gentle, sunny days that provide perhaps the best
reason for beach diving: It’s easily a social or family event. Maybe
grandma watches the kids make sand castles while mom and dad dive,
then everybody picnics on the beach. Maybe your surface interval
means digging your toes in the sand and reading a fat novel or
listening to a Dodgers game. Or maybe it’s a long, quiet walk on the
beach. Choose a site with a campground and complete the postcard
picture by grilling the day’s catch over the campfire, watching the
sunset, then crawling into your tent or camper to avoid the drive
home. Or better still: Suit up for a night dive.