Midnight Surfing the Malibu on New Year’s Eve

Rumor has it that worried FAA officials change the flight pattern over LAX on New Year’s Eve. Probably for fear that some celebrant in metropolitan Los Angeles will pop a skyward New Year’s Eve cap into a passenger jet, and accidentally wreak the havoc the Nigerian Undie Bomber failed to accomplish on purpose. Which makes sense. Not too hard to imagine South Central or East LA lighting up like scene from Blackhawk Down.

The New Year’s Eve flight plan deal was a rumor I had always heard, and tracking down that rumor was one of my motivations for how to celebrate the transition from 2009 to 2010.

I was thinking about playing poker at the Hustler Casino for New Year’s – on the cusp of Gardena and Compton – and the plan was to win win win until around midnight, then step outside into the fresh air, take cover under something solid and listen: Would that part of Los Angeles do a New Year’s Eve impersonation of Lebanon or Iraq? Was there really that much gunfire? Could I hear enough to warrant changing a flight pattern into one of the world’s busiest airports?

The other option was to night surf Malibu. The elements were lining up nicely, according to a Fisherman’s Almanac I found online. Night fishing would be great between 23:00 and 1:00 AM on New Year’s Eve, because the full moon would be directly overhead for that span. Those ideal fishing conditions sounded good for surfing too, as did the tides, which would be halfway through a 4.9 high at 21:55 in 2009 and a 1.90 low at 2:40 on the first morning of the new decade. Low going to high would have been better for First, but what do you want for nothing: rubber bisket?
I had told a lot of people about the Blue Moon Surf and there was some interest in emails and around the parking lot. But warm and dry and surrounded by good friends at midnight outranks wet and freezing and surrounded by sharks in the ocean, so I was curious to see who was game.

Turned out Lucy was game. She was in Santa Monica but wanted to surf at midnight on New Years, so she got to my house at 23:00 and the first thing she said when she came in the door was “Cold…”

That set a theme. We drove a mile on PCH to check out the parking lot around 23:35. Were any of the usual suspects rallying for a midnight session?
Pacific Coast Highway was brushfire empty, but there were no roadblocks, no cops, no fire trucks or ambulances. Ghost town. Everyone was partying elsewhere. There were a few more limos than usual, but very few cars. A little eerie.
Where was everyone partying? Beverly Hills? Why weren’t they going surfing!?
We parked in the County lot at First hoping to find Cory or Chris and Anna or Billy Reynolds or Vince and Blueberry or someone else from the daily crew who was nutty enough to do what we were doing.

Instead we found three trucks pulled up to the hole in the Wall, none of them familiar. Two gay men in white suits were listening to music from a white truck. They were sashaying around the parking lot listening to Michael Jackson, Tears for Fears, Pink.

The Michael Jackson sounded right for New Year’s eve – and reminded one of the positives and negatives of the anne passé – but this was not the regular crew. Not in those white suits.

There was a group of about five women neither Lucy nor I had seen before. They had wetsuits and hoods and glow sticks and looked like TeleTubbies. They were ready for a night surf at Malibu on New Years, under a blue moon. Don’t know who they were, but they were game. They took a bunch of photos and were jumping around and wearing funny hats.

So, the trucks and the people were out of place and then I looked up and saw that the sky was whacked. There was a line of lights lined up and aiming at Malibu in a way I had never seen before. Was this the No Fly Zone for New Years?
Plane spotting is part of the regular routine at Malibu – for people who notice such things. Because surfers spend an awful lot of time sitting – or standing – around at Malibu – which is rarely a consistent wave – they spend a lot of time learning the take off and landing patterns of LAX.
On a normal day, passenger jets approach from the north, do a big, graceful, 300-ton, swooping turn to the east over Corral Canyon, line up directly over First Point and then laser beam along PCH and the 10. There is something beautiful about those giant air sharks hanging in that sky, moving that gracefully, and that approach turn is part of the aesthetic of Malibu.
Off in the distance, out of sight from Malibu, those planes do another big, sweeping turn over Skid Row, then line up for LAX. That’s how it works, if you’re paying attention, and if you’re paying attention, you can always use that pattern to know where in Los Angeles you are, or which direction you are headed.

You can’t see that final approach in the daytime, but at night the jets light up like giant insects and another part of the light show at Malibu is all the jets on approach to LAX, lined up six or eight deep, in two rows. Sitting in the lineup at Malibu, at night, if you look east you can see the illuminated Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier dancing around. And above and beyond that, an endless procession of jets sinking to the ground and then disappearing.
And the takeoff is something graceful to watch, between sets. Jets large and small, fast and ponderous lift off out of LAX and then turn north or south or go straight out to sea and head off to everywhere in the world. Most people who surf love to travel, and most have been on one of those planes heading out, craning their necks to see First Point down there. This is the reverse view.

These airplanes in flight are a romantic sight, if you want to get romantic about it, and it’s something Malibu surfers either notice in detail or sublimate. The flight pattern into and out of LAX becomes part of the psyche of a Malibu surfer, like tides, or winds or how the creek is flowing, or what the sandbars are like. Or how the crowd is.

But at around 11:30 on New Year’s Eve 2009/2010, that pattern was different. Planes were approaching Malibu from the east – to the north of LAX, flying parallel to PCH – then doing a big swooping turn directly overhead at First Point, turning to the south, then lining up to approach LAX over the water, from west to east. It looked unusual. The bright, slow-moving passenger jet lights kind of looked like those mystery lights seen over Arizona sometimes – mechanical but mysterious.
While the changed New Year’s Eve plan is a rumor, I know for sure that that the night pattern into LAX changes from east-to-west-over-land to west-to-east-over-water to allow neighbors sleeping under the flight plan sleep. The pattern will also change because of the wind, but I didn’t think there was enough east wind this New Years to make that change.

So planes do approach LAX from the sea, but usually not before midnight. Was this procession of lights coming at Malibu – instead of moving away – the changed pattern, half an hour before New Years?

That’s what it looked like, at around 11:40 on December 31, 2009. The moon was high, the wind was blowing, the Michael Jackson was throbbing, the gay men were dancing and Team TeleTubbie had scattered.

None of the regular crew had shown up yet, but we were still into it. We drove back to the house to grab our gear. I strapped my standup board to the roof of my red car with some trouble, because sometimes I forget how big those boards are. And it was something harder to do at night, in the cold. But I was going out on a standup paddleboard at Malibu because it was the drier, warmer, more secure option and I wanted to see how much the stellar wave-seeing and wave-catching qualities of the standup paddleboard were nullified by darkness.

While Lucy warmed up in the house, I sent an email to my friend Steve, who is a pilot for American Airlines:


I am going to write a thing about surfing Malibu at midnight on New Year’s Eve- which I am about to do, because it’s a blue moon and the moon is perfect for a midnight surf.

I was just there and saw they had changed the flight pattern so all the planes were coming straight at us – north of LAX, from Santa Monica to Malibu then doing a turn to the south directly overhead.
I know they change the flight plan to an over the water approach for noise after midnight, usually, but this was earlier and I think it was earlier because they change the flight pattern over LAX on New Year’s Eve because of gunfire.
Is that correct?
It looks cool to see all the planes lined up and doing that turn overhead, where usually they come in from the northwest higher and do a big swoop over Malibu and then line up along PCH and the 10.

Or does the pattern usually change at 11:00 and I’ve never seen it?
Steve is my go to guy for any information about passenger jets, approach patterns, restrictions and limitations. When something goes screwy in airplane world, I ask Steve, and he always knows the answer.

So we’ll see what he says about the pattern.

Driving back to the parking lot, Pacific Coast Highway was even more empty as the clock was ticking down to New Years and if you weren’t at a party by then, God bless you. We drove up to Cross Creek to see if there was a DUI checkpoint, but all we saw was the corner manger still lit up from Christmas.
Back in the County parking lot, Team Glow Stick were gone and probably in the water, while Team White Suit were dancing around the parking lot, this time to Pink. They were out of place, but they were in the right place. It was a beautiful night on the California Riviera with a big moon. But it was cold. And if you knew where to look, there were dramas happening.
Going to the Wall again to look it over, I looked to the east and looked for the pattern, but the pattern wasn’t there at all. There were no planes. None taking off. None lining up for landing, either from the east, or over the water.
No airplane lights at all. No movement. If you noticed it, it was eerie. The sky was even emptier than Pacific Coast Highway and it was weird if you are dialed into Malibu in weird ways.

Lucy had wisely changed into her wetsuit in the warmth of my apartment and as I scanned the skies she was more interested in sitting by the heater with the windows up than my theories on airplane patterns and gunfire. She couldn’t hear me with the windows rolled up and the heater blasting. Silently, without speaking, I pulled my SUP off the roof and got the paddle out and changed into not enough gear. I was in a rush to get into the water before midnight so didn’t put on my wetsuit and went out in trunks and a rash guard. Not enough protection for most people for the middle of night in the middle of winter, but I consider it a failure if I get wet while riding waves on a SUP at Malibu. The finesse move is to get half a dozen waves while keeping one’s hair dry. Warm and dry outranks cold and wet. So I went out in trunks and rashguard, determined to catch some bombs and ride them to the beach with dry hair all the way.
I would greet the New Year with dry hair, as a success. Or maybe end up wet and cold and miserable. How it all went might portend the year to come.

Lucy was determined to catch one good wave and ride it to the beach. She is a teacher in the Santa Monica School District, working one to one with kids disabled by autism and other natural phenomena. It takes resilience to be a teacher these days, her job takes even a little more. Lucy had a year that was about as rough as you might expect: Almost losing her job entirely but being moved from the job she loved to one she didn’t love as much. Traumatic. A traumatic year, but Lucy wanted to leave 2009 on her feet and say hello to 2010 riding a cold wave at midnight at Malibu.
Tough conditions, but she’d been handling that all year.

By 11:50 as we stood at the Wall then walked carefully down the beach, the women with the glow sticks were on the beach in a pile of light in front of the Adamson House. We walked our boards to the water with our teeth pre-chattering, feeling that cold wind from the northeast that was a bad direction for Malibu. No wind at all would have been sublime, but we were getting some midnight side-offshores and they felt like an ill wind.
It was cold. It was dark. Apparently they had stopped passenger jets because of gunfire. We were the only ones out. Three surfers had been buzzed by Mr. White down at Sunset a few days before. I had seen a 10-foot thresher shark breech and land while SUPping around Malibu during daylight hours, back in October.
There were heaps of reasons to turn around and head for the heater. But Lucy was determined and I wanted to see what happened to the LAX pattern after New Years. We continued marching toward the cold, wet, deep and dark black ocean. The moon was burning bright overhead, the tide was high and dropping. The wind was wrong, and there was a bit of surf. Enough to be fun, not enough to be perilous.

We got to the water’s edge not knowing exactly what time it was. Had we already missed New Years? And then people down the beach in the dark started yelling backward from “TEN!” I pushed the SUP and got on my knees at midnight exactly. The revelers cheered as I got to my feet but it was not for me. I checked to see if Lucy was okay and then we stroked into 2010 and a strange new world – Malibu at night.

The moon was big and like a black light, or a blue light. Moonglow lit up my white rash guard in that unearthly luminescence, like from black lights when we were kids at the haunted house. My standup is a Laird Soft Top so it’s got a blue and white deck and the moonglow was so bright, the blue was blue, at night, under a full moon. Blue under a blue moon!
The moon was shimmering silver across the water and the wind was blowing offshore. But this was still that ill wind. Offshores can be nice at Malibu when they blow soft and warm out of Malibu Canyon, bringing warmth to the body and notes of sage and chaparral to the nose. This wasn’t that warm breeze. The offshore winds were on the borderline between helpful and hindrance, and they were cold which made them not pleasant to paddle into in any way.

But those offshore winds made the waves look nice, lighting up the whitewater in a way that reminded Lucy and I of Avatar – where the plants and everything the Na’vi touch light up under foot and at their fingertips. Malibu was all shimmery and mysterious and otherworldly, and although it was cold, it was cool. We got into it.

Part of my mission was to guide Lucy into waves because I figured I would have better sight than she did. Lucy was spooked and for good reason. Humans are not night predators, nor are we numero uno in the ocean. Lucy looked to shore as she paddled out and saw that clump of glow sticks on the beach: “You think those glow sticks are a good idea?’ Lucy asked. “Aren’t sharks attracted to light?”

Sharks? I can tell you from sharks, because I have interviewed over a dozen white shark attack victims and I know from all their stories that sharks are not attracted to light or sight or smell – they are attracted to vibration. Almost all of the shark attack victims I have interviewed were always the person who moved at the wrong time: turned to paddle for a wave and got hit “like a frog getting hit by a bass” as one guy put it. Or they were paddling out after a wave, stopped and bam!

But I didn’t tell Lucy all that. I didn’t say anything, about sharks or vibration or anything.
I was gliding along smoothly on the SUP, not making a noise like a struggling fish, that I was aware of, but it was still spooky, seeing all I could see. The difference between prone paddling or sitting on a surfboard and paddling a standup is maybe four or five feet of elevation, but oh what those five feet let you see. In the daytime, every day: a lot of leopard sharks swimming around the bottom, and that big, solid 10 foot thresher shark jumping out to sea, landing and whipping that tail around. No one on sufboards saw that, but I saw it and the crowd saw me see it and my reaction freaked out six people around me.

I standup surf First Point every day and am known for having impeccable manners on the SUP. Because I can see waves coming 30 seconds before prone paddlers, I guide people into better positions: inside, outside, toward the beach, toward the point. Where many standup paddlers are hated for taking advantage of their advantages and grabbing every wave they can, I use that power to help others get waves.

But at night, it all looked different. Some of it was mystical, some of it was fricking scary.
Kelp looks bad, at night, from a SUP. Usually kelp is a nemesis, like offshore winds, or any contrary winds. Kelp will stop a board dead and send a dry rider headfirst into the wet and cold, and I was determined to make this a dry-hair sesh. Any moisture above the belly button was wet and cold – a failure. Couldn’t see the kelp to steer around it in front, but along the sides the kelp was black and ghostly, shimmering under the surface, like the dead souls passing under water in Pirates of the Caribbean, or the ghostly, evil shadows that slither up from the cracks and take bad souls into the black, from the movie Ghost.
It was eerie, it was scary, it was cool. Lucy couldn’t see it, and she was glad she couldn’t. She was sitting more inside, determined to catch one respectable wave and ride it for a distance and face 2010 with style. But it’s hard at night. Humans are lousy night predators because all of that evolution has not given us good night vision. We can’t see diddly at night, which is part of the reason we sleep at night, and also most of the reason more people don’t surf at night.

At midnight, the sky lit up with fireworks, but none in Malibu, all off in the distance, at what looked to be Redondo Beach. The fireworks were close enough to hear the percussion and they looked cool, off in the distance. There wasn’t a peep out of Malibu, not even a bottle rocket, nothing. The Adamson House was black, there were no fireworks from the Colony, because the Colonizers were all warm and safe and surrounded by loved ones in Beverly Hills, or Gstaad or Las Vegas or wherever the one per cent goes at New Years.

I paddled up to the top of the point and into the kelp patch while Lucy hung around inside. You feel more like the hunter than hunted when standing homo erectus on a SUP – paddling softly and carrying a big stick. Lucy hung on the inside and I probably would have too if I was paddling a surfboard, because you just feel a lot more vulnerable with your nose almost in the water, then you do with your sense receptors five feet above it.
It’s a huge difference that is not measured in feet and inches.

It was pleasant, paddling around, watching the ongoing fireworks shows off toward Carson, and looking for planes in the pattern. But now there was no pattern. There were no planes. Not in the usual pattern, or the changed pattern at all. The sky was even more empty than Pacific Coast Highway. Apparently around New Year’s Eve the pattern changes from east to west, and then stops entirely, because maybe all of the Los Angeles basin lights up with illegal yahoo AAA at the stroke of midnight, and no jet at any approach elevation is safe from San Bernardino and all the way to the coast. There were no planes, anywhere, and the sky looked blank.
Then there was one plane, a light going from east to west, way up high, like it was lost, like it had flown into the No Fly Zone late, because of some far-off delay, and now it was floating loose like a balloon, nowhere to go, nothing to do but stay far offshore until the New Year’s Eve restriction was lifted – whenever that was.

I hoped the elevation of the SUP would help my terrible night vision, and it did help a little. Beyond the kelp, the other shimmering shadows were approaching waves, dark energy bands that shifted and played trompe l’oleil and that, with the wind, made it hard to catch a wave on the kind of board that makes wave-catching ridiculously easy when you can see what you’re doing.

I flailed. I missed waves. I took off too late, wrong angle. I was overly cautious because I didn’t want to fall and get wet, but that caution made me fall and get my right shoulder wet. It was cold. I wanted to stay out and cruise around and maybe get a two foot bomb and ride it all the way to the beach – because at night, the lights off the pier and PCH bend up the wave face and create a cool light show that also gives an increased sensation of speed.
And I wanted to see what happened to the pattern, after midnight. We stayed out a good half an hour into 2010, and at some point, the planes returned. Taking off over the water, but not landing.

I didn’t want to give up but I didn’t want to freeze and after a couple more mis-timed mistakes, my hair was wet and I was wearing surf trunks and a rash guard at midnight on New Years Eve and I didn’t think I could pay the piper. Lucy and I both washed in gradually, then half sprinted up the beach, got the motor running, got the heater going, then threw everything on and in and headed home for hot showers.

Long hot showers, then a house with the thermostat cranked to 11. Delicious. A fun night. Lucy agreed with the Avatar comparison. She didn’t want to hear about gunfire or sharks.

I woke up the next morning with the house blazing to a thermostat set to stun, at 80°. The first email of the morning was from Captain Steve, who shot down my theory about planes over LAX getting shot down:

“It’s likely that the wind (Santa Ana) was from the east earlier last night (> than 10 knots at the field would be the trigger for turning the airport into the wind ). I landed yesterday at about 13:30 from the east on Runway 25L with calm winds, the sky above LA was brilliantly clear you could see well below Ensenada on the approach.

Not sure if there is any truth to the danger rumor from New Years gunfire over SE LA. As of late there seems to be more danger from Green Lasers on the south side of the airport targeting arrivals and departures.”
So that was that. The mind plays tricks at night.

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