El Capitan Point spurs memories of endless tubes



by Tim Ryan

The sun is beaming along the Gaviota coastline, north of Santa Barbara. We’re close to the Hollister and Bixby ranches, a nirvana for quality waves and isolation.

Steve has just finished cooking breakfast at a Highway 101 Rest Stop. Steve, my surfing partner on this trip, has cooked some concoction of French toast as well as steaming coffee, well, instant.

I’ll wash the dishes then we’ll head south. This coastline is pretty wave starved this time of year. (After his second cup of “Joe” Steve comes up with the idea of driving up to the Hollister Ranch gate to talk story with the surfer guard and just maybe convincing him to let us enter and surf.)

Sounds at least like an anecdote. What are they going to do put him in Ranch jail for asking?

(You may remember all this from an earlier blog post. His idea is rejected.)

Just down the road from the Hollister Ranch gate is Refugio State Beach with its truly lovely setting of palm trees and sandy beach, protected by a small headland. What surfers are interested in here is the easy right breaking wave on west or southwest swells, and consistent offshore winds. It’s hard to see the point any more with the large number of mega RVs parking along the beach. It’s flat anyway.

Refugio Beach overview
Refugio Beach overview
Refugio State Beach pretty much at its best
Refugio State Beach pretty much at its best

Perhaps the finest wave on this stretch of coastline is El Capitan, one of California’s most hollow point breaks and most inconsistent.

El Capitan Point

Steve and I have had many classic sessions here so we have to stop at the Highway 100 overlook to reflect. The point is flat as we expected. It would have been great if there had been some waves but our memories of El Cap sessions fill a void.

The rocky, stream-fed point faces south so it requires a massive west or northwest swell and always a low tide to be able to wrap around and produce any rideable waves.


The waves are thick and difficult to paddle into early, but you’re guaranteed a tube if you make the drop. The good news is the inside’s bottom is primarily sand but barely two-feet deep. There’s a lot of pearling here followed by hitting the silty bottom then being swept down the point by strong, shoreline currents.


Once an isolated surf break rarely visited because of its iffy-ness of waves, El Capitan’s reputation for tubes now draw surfers from hundred of miles away

California morning glass at El Capitan
California morning glass at El Capitan

Steve remembers one day in the late 1960s when a big west swell was running. Low tide was at 10 a.m. We left L.A.  at 4 a.m. arriving at the point at 8. We sat watching shoulder high, medium tide waves fumbling and muffling with little shape. But an hour later more rocks and sand became exposed and El Cap started to work its magic. No other surfers were in sight.

We both rode Yaters then. The paddle out between sets was easy.

Steve snagged a thick stubborn wave barely making the drop with the wave’s lip immediately pitching over his right shoulder. He tried to make it to the nose – his style those days – but stopped to  disappear in an insistent tube. I could see him through the back of the wave when I paddled over.

The next wave of the set I made the mistake of fading into the curl, like I would do at Malibu. The wave sucked out and when I tried a desperate savior turn I promptly pearled into the sand, hit the bottom, then got rolled.

Lesson learned.

“I can’t believe there’s no one out,” Steve said when I got back outside.

“I can’t believe you can get barreled on a two-foot waves” I said.

This morning was like a surf film, perfect blue-green tubes, sunny,   glassy conditions, and just two buddies. Music floated through my head – Herb Alpert comes to mind. Sorry, but it was the period when his music accompanied many surfing films.  I tried to ride every wave to the music’s rhythm.

Cut backs had to be  quick and surgical or the wave would steamroll pass you. Nose riding was easy but when the wave got too hollow spin outs were inevitable and unforgiving . Stiff single fins were the design of the period.

By session’s end as the tide rose, we were able to control spin slides and  reconnect with the wave face. Two feet to five feet the wave’s shape remained the same. It never got boring because over confidence always led to a wipeout.

The El Cap learning curve that morning made later sessions here successful.

On the three-hour drive back to L.A., we replayed our best and worse waves, foolishly comparing moves to those of classical stylists Dora, Yater, Cooper, Carson, and Phil Edwards.

Then we would yell “Yeah right” and laugh at our fantasies.

After our memory moments at El Cap and later a playful session at Rincon (see previous blog), we cruise by where Stanley’s Diner used to be. The surf here was one of the most fun, consistent and glassy surf breaks on this coast.


The diner was founded in the mid 1940’s by the Barber brothers Mervil and Stanley. “Stanley” was the bartender while his brother cooked the Steaks. Mervil was surfer friendly often letting surf contest organizers use electricity for PA systems.

Then in 1971, the state expanded Highway 101 literally into the sea, constructing the roadway on the reef completely destroying this magic little wave. A bulldozer demolished the modest wood frame diner.

Stanley’s was situated between two creeks that emptied sediment onto a system of cobble stones and oil pier remnants. The resulting sand bars produced excellent summer time surf. Protected by an extensive offshore kelp bed, afternoon wind swells coming down the Santa Barbara Channel were groomed into perfect peaks that spun into walls of glass. On any summer afternoon you could find yourself having fun alongside many of the great surfers of the era.

Malibu's Jamie Budge surfing Stanley's morning glass
Malibu’s Jamie Budge surfing Stanley’s morning glass

Ironically, there was plenty of room to build the new freeway but unfortunately oilfields caused Caltrans’ engineers to swing the freeway over the beach. So Stanley’s was demolished making way for the Seacliff 101 freeway off ramp. (An artificial replacement is now being proposed by Stanley’s Reef Foundation.)

Surfing innovator, shaper, stylist Tom Morey trims at Stanley's
Surfing innovator, shaper, stylist Tom Morey trims at Stanley’s

“How did we let them get away with that?” I say to Steve. “Why didn’t we or anyone protest?”

“I don’t think we thought they would actually build over it,” he said. “It seemed just stupid.”

A typically sweet Stanley's tube
A typically sweet Stanley’s tube

“Big oil wins over a surf break because the thinking was that a surf break has no monetary value,” I said. “It still makes me sad even after some 40 years.”

Surfers were allowed to park their vehicles in the dirt lot next to Stanley’s Diner to sleep and surf later. Hassle free.




We would get that same “Why didn’t we do anything” feeling a few days later when we visit Dana Point Harbor that was constructed over the famous Killer Dana right-hand surf break. (See below)

Before the harbor
Before the harbor (above)


Lovely isn't it
Lovely isn’t it