The waves crashing on the shore felt like the footsteps of giants walking across the Pacific on March 1, 1983. People in Avila Beach felt their homes shake with each set of gigantic waves that crashed on their beach with a fearsome amount of power. Normally during winter, large waves generated by storms in the Gulf of Alaska arrive along the Central Coast from a northwesterly direction. As these waves approach Point San Luis from the northwest, the waves bend around the point and greatly diminish in height by the time they turn into Port San Luis. Our southwesterly facing beaches are usually sheltered from the northwesterly swell.
This wasn’t the case in 1983, when one of the strongest El Niño events in California history was in full swing. In March 1983, the average temperature of seawater in the area was 58 degrees, producing a greater amount of evaporation and convection, which allowed the jet stream to take a more southerly route. This condition caused winter storms to come in from a west-southwesterly direction.
Consequently, the ocean waves that these storms generated approached our rugged coastline directly from the southwest, so there was no loss of wave energy due to refraction. In fact, the topography of the ocean floor near Avila Beach amplified the wave heights.
It was estimated that on March 1, 1983, a significant swell height (the average height of the waves in the top third of the wave record) reached 27 feet with a 19-second period at Diablo Canyon, a few miles north of Avila Beach.
That swell produced the wave that destroyed the 2,700-foot-long wooden Unocal Pier in Port San Luis. The pier was built in 1914 to carry oil from the world’s biggest oil pipeline at the time.
Three brave souls were on the pier when it collapsed. One of them was Jack Spaulding, an area supervisor for Union Oil Company of California. Spaulding received a call that the wharf had lost electrical power. The other people on the pier were his co-workers, Dutch Van Harreveld and Loren Woods.
The trio walked out toward the end of the pier looking for the cause of the power outage.
“High tide had occurred about an hour earlier, so we felt surf was on the ebb.” Spaulding said. “We should have had our heads examined for going out there.”
They found the cause of the power outage about three quarters of the way out along the old wooden pier and stopped briefly to discuss what they would do after the storm subsided. They began the long walk back to shore when Spaulding heard his co-worker Van Harreveld yell, “Here comes a big one!”
At almost the same time, Spaulding said, “I felt the pier dropped from out under me. I was afraid of falling off into the water, so I dropped to my knees and grabbed onto the rail.”
A set of very large waves lifted the planks of the pier with the men on top of them and then dropped them into the ocean. The planks formed a crude raft held together by the broken steel rails of a narrow-gauge railroad that ran the length of the pier.
They spotted a boat called the Paul Revere piloted by Keith Kelsey. In extraordinarily rough seas, Kelsey was able to rescue the three men.
“I cannot say enough about the seamanship demonstrated by Keith Kelsey, particularly the manner in which he maneuvered the Paul Revere to pick us up,“ Spaulding said.
The pier was replaced with a steel and concrete structure in 1984 and became the Cal Poly Pier in 2001. Spaulding is a board member of the Cal Poly Alumni Association and was thrilled when the pier was donated to the college of science and mathematics as the Cal Poly Marine Science Education and Research Pier.
This week’s forecast
A 1,010-millibar low pressure system will move into Northern California today.
This system will produce moderate to heavy rain as far south as the San Jose/ South Lake Tahoe line.
The associated cold front will weaken considerably as it moves down the California coastline, passing the Central Coast late this morning into this afternoon with a few scattered rain showers and gusty southwesterly winds.
Many locations in the interior of San Luis Obispo County probably won’t have measurable precipitation. If you do receive rain, rainfall totals should remain below a quarter of an inch, except the coastal mountains, which should receive a greater amount of rain due to southwesterly winds.
This afternoon’s temperatures will reach the low 60s with overnight lows in the mid-40s in the coastal valleys and high 30s in the North County.
The main effect of this system will be to set up a steep pressure along the California coastline. This pressure gradient will produce strong to gale force (25 and 38 mph) northwesterly winds and mostly clear skies along our coastline Monday through Tuesday afternoon. Gentle to moderate (8- to 18-mph) north to northeasterly (offshore) winds will develop Tuesday night into Wednesday.
This offshore wind event will give dry and mild weather with cool mornings and day time highs near 70 degrees.
Increasing northwesterly winds along with areas of marine low clouds will develop Thursday, with northwesterly winds reaching strong to gale force (25 and 38 mph) levels Friday.
The longer range models are indicating the possibility of another low pressure system crossing the Central Coast next Sunday into Monday with rain.
Surf and sea report
This morning’s 3- to 5-foot northwesterly (300-degree deep-water) swell (with an 11- to 14-second period) will increase to 4 to 6 feet (with an 11- to 13-second period) by tonight.
Combined with this northwesterly swell will be 3- to 4-foot southwesterly (220-degree shallow-water) seas today.
Increasing northwesterly winds along the California coastline will generate 7- to 9-foot northwesterly (310-degree deep-water) sea and swell (with a 7- to 11-second period) Monday, decreasing to 5 to 7 feet Tuesday. This northwesterly sea and swell will further lower to 3 to 5 feet Wednesday.
A tightly wound upper-level 974-millibar low pressure system in the Gulf of Alaska will produce a 4- to 6-foot west-northwesterly (285-degree deep-water) swell (with a 15- to 17-second period) Thursday, increasing to 7 to 9 feet (with a 13- to 15-second period) by Friday.
Combined with this west-northwesterly swell will be increasing northwesterly seas Friday.
Today’s seawater temperatures will range between 52 and 54 degrees through today, decreasing to 51 and 53 degrees Monday and remaining at this level through Wednesday.
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John Lindsey is a media relations representative for PG&E. He is also a local weather expert and has lived along the Central Coast for nearly 25 years. To subscribe to his daily weather forecast or ask him a question, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
And A big thank you to Phyllis Madonna’s Musical Revue and 24th Annual fundraiser for the Women’s Shelter Program of San Luis Obispo County.