Massive California waves injure onlookers, bring flooding and treacherous beach conditions to West Coast

Dec 29, 2023, 6:14 AM | Updated: 11:38 am

A helicopter patrols the coastline over heavy surf south of Ventura Pier on December 28. (Brian van...

A helicopter patrols the coastline over heavy surf south of Ventura Pier on December 28. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES (CNN) — A powerful offshore storm is driving towering waves into the California coastline, triggering flooding and warnings of dangerous and damaging swells after several people were injured by a wave along Ventura Beach on Thursday.

The wave crashed over a barrier along the southern California beach, tossing a wall of fast-moving water at a group of onlookers who rushed to escape the deluge, witness video shows. Seawater quickly knocked some people off their feet and pummeled cars as drivers tried to speed away.

Nearly 20 people were briefly swept away in the incident and eight people were taken to the hospital, Ventura officials said.

High water and dangerous rip currents will churn along some of California’s beaches through the weekend as much of the West coast – spanning from the U.S.-Mexico border to southern Oregon – is under coastal flood and high-surf alerts, the National Weather Service said.

Waves as high as telephone poles – about 40 feet – could slam into San Francisco through Friday morning. Fifteen to 20-foot waves are expected along the central coast.

The dangerous conditions pose an “exceptional risk” of ocean drowning and damage to structures like piers and jetties, the National Weather Service said.

The spectacular waters have enthralled some surfers and onlookers, but weather officials are cautioning that the waves and strong rip tides can be perilous for those nearby.

“Large breaking waves can cause injury, wash people off beaches and rocks, and capsize small boats near shore,” the National Weather Service warned.

At least one fisherman fell overboard in a harbor off Oxnard and later came ashore uninjured, the Ventura County Fire Department said.

The conditions have already caused some road closures and evacuations in coastal California communities and prompted the rescue of five campers along the San Luis Obispo coast.

Crews in Ventura worked through the night to reinforce a mile-long sand barrier that was damaged by powerful waters on Thursday, the local fire department said. Standing about seven feet tall, the raised wall helps protect beachside communities.

Hoping to discourage spectators, local officials closed a main access point to Ventura Pier, which saw a swell of about 20 feet on Thursday. Some coastal streets in the area have also been closed as a precaution.

In central California’s Santa Cruz, the sheriff’s office issued an evacuation warning for some areas on Thursday, which included areas of Rio Del Mar, where seawater filled beachside roadways and pushed against some homes, CNN affiliate KION reported. The warnings were lifted later in the day.

The most extreme impacts were expected along the central and Ventura County coasts, along with Hermosa, Manhattan and Palos Verdes beaches, the weather service in Los Angeles said Thursday.

Tempestuous waters are also battering Northern California, where the Bay Area could see waves of 28 to 33 feet, the weather service advised.

A high wind alert is also in effect for the Bay Area on Friday as wind gusts of up to 50 mph are expected.

Rainfall is likely to stretch northward from the Bay Area throughout the day Friday before shifting south into the weekend.

Massive waves attract surfers to Mavericks

Despite safety warnings, the massive waves are a welcome sight to surfers hungry to tackle the legendary swells at Mavericks Beach, about 25 miles south of San Francisco.

Pro surfers and spectators flocked to the beach on Thursday for a competition at the site known for having some of the biggest waves in the world, CNN affiliate KGO reported.

Local resident Ion Banner told the affiliate that surfers from Brazil, Tahiti and Hawaii were out in the water. “It’s pretty gnarly, it’s super big,” he said.

“The waves looked absolutely massive and it was everything that we expected,” said Miguel Blanco, who told KGO he flew in from Portugal to surf the waves. “It was really big, I’d say 40-60 foot waves.”

Mavericks’ jaw-dropping waves – caused by unique underwater rock formations – reach their biggest heights in the winter, when big wave surfers from all over the world make pilgrimages to face the swells.

The legendary waves and the surfers who brave them have been the subject of several films and documentaries, including the 2012 biopic “Chasing Mavericks” about American surfer Jay Moriarity’s journey to surf Mavericks as a teen.

On Thursday, the conditions were prime for surfers like Blanco.

“If it’s your turn, you just gotta go,” Blanco said. “When you see a big wave, you’re kinda scared but at the same time you’re feeling like you should go and you just go and enjoy the ride.”

CNN’s David Williams contributed to this report.

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Massive California waves injure onlookers, bring flooding and treacherous beach conditions to West Coast