California rides high on the swell from El Nino

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EL NINO finally delivered its payload on California last week, after waiting so long that locals had begun to wonder if the mighty weather phenomenon was a washout.

A succession of storm frontstested preparations under way since early autumn, when forecasters raised the alarm about the spreading pool of warm water in the Pacific. Heavy rains closed the Pacific Coast Highway, put Napa Valley vineyards under water and saw 1,000 people evacuated from homes at risk of flooding. A state of emergency was declared in 20 counties. Five deaths included that of a suspected car thief who jumped into the Los Angeles River to escape police.

There is one group, however, for whom El Nino has been a blessing: California's big wave surfers, and the photographers who strive to catch them on the face. Early last week, 30- to 40-foot waves were reported on the shores south of San Francisco. "It's been an epic year," says Vern Fisher, a staff photographer of the Monterey County Herald, and a veteran of surf shoots. "It's been probably the best in 20 years, all attributed to El Nino. Each week surpasses the week before. Once you think you've experienced an epic swell, here comes another one. It's just been huge."

There are two routes for professional surfers, explains Josh Loya, 28. One is to compete on the pro tour, moving from event to event. The problem, he says, is that you're famous for about a week, until someone wins the next one. The other way is to court "media exposure", by going out and performing. "Get on the cover of a surfing magazine, and you are famous for about a month," he says. "Your chances of getting a cover are a lot better if you're surfing huge waves."

This winter, the swells fed by El Nino are said to have brought the best waves to California, rather than Hawaii. But the excitement has been fed by a $50,000 (pounds 31,250) prize offered by an equipment manufacturer for whoever is judged to have ridden the biggest wave in the Northern Pacific by 15 March - and a $5,000 bonus for the photographer who turns in the proof.

It has drawn surfers to spots such as Maverick's, on a headland 20 miles south of San Francisco with treacherous reefs that have trapped surfers in the past. Monster 50ft waves have been reported. "We haven't seen these conditions since the 1980s," says Frank Quirarti, who runs a local surfers' website . "This will be a year to be remembered."

Every day surfed at Maverick's, says Loya, is a physical and mental ordeal, equal to two days surfed anywhere else. "It's too dangerous," he says. "Sooner or later bad things happen. These are the biggest waves in California, if not the world." Riding Maverick's is like seeing the power of Niagara Falls close up, he says. Conditions have to be perfect, because any type of trough or chop makes surfing impossible. So when bad weather hits, Maverick's is out.

Loya and others run 10ft boards on the big waves - compared to the everyday six-footer. He does not think the professional surfers will be falling over themselves for the prize, but some complain it will draw the relative novices out. "I don't have a problem with dropping into a giant wave, but I'm not going to throw myself into a bad situation to do it," he says. "But there's been so much hype and attention, I don't see it stopping until someone wins or dies."