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How Do San Diegans Tell It’s Winter?

With no snow or freezing temperatures, some look to the ocean

Reported by Nicholas Mcvicker

With no snow or freezing temperatures to mark the season, it can be hard to tell when winter has arrived in San Diego — though it surely did on Sunday.

KPBS reached out to sources online through the Public Insight Network to ask San Diegans: "How do you decide it's officially winter in San Diego, where snow is rare and seasons are mild?"

The most common responses: holiday celebrations abound, warm socks and sweaters come out of their drawers, and the tourists change — more Minnesotans visiting than Arizonans.

Surfers, of course, had their own perspective — the largest waves are in the winter.

Beth Slevcove has been surfing at Tourmaline beach in La Jolla for more than 20 years. The ocean tells her when it's winter.

“There’s often bigger storm waves. The wind’s bigger in the winter. You know, stronger winds, stronger storms off sea gets bigger waves. You tend to have changes in the topography of the beach because of the wave size,” said Slevcove, owner and operator of Surf Monkey Fellowship, an online business that sells Tijuana-made plaster-of-Paris surfing monkeys.

Those “big waves” Slevcove sees come from the northwest during winter months. Here's how OC Lifeguards, Orange County's Marine Safety Agency, describes it:

During the months of October through April, swells generally approach California from the west and northwesterly directions. These swells are generated by storms that blow off Siberia and travel across the North Pacific Ocean on a west to east path. These storms reach their peak in the winter months and because of their closer proximity to the California coast, produce intense, and powerful waves up to fifteen feet at west and northwest facing beaches.

But how big are the big swells in the winter at Tourmaline, where Slevcove paddles out?

“Eight to 10 (feet), 10 to 12 (feet). I won’t go out if it’s 10 to 12,” Slevcove said. Twelve feet is what surfer's call "double overhead."

Tourmaline beach isn't known for huge waves, but winter swells can bring them. Many San Diego beaches get the best surf in winter months because of the direction they face.

Another sign that alerts Slevcove it's winter — the ocean gets colder.

“So, like, I’m wearing a thick suit," she said as she prepared to go into the water. "This is a four-three, which is quite a thick suit."

A "four-three" suit is 4 millimeters and 3 millimeters. Four is the thickness of the torso; three is the thickness for the arms and legs. It's good for when the water temperatures are in the 50s. (See a wetsuit temperature guide here.)

And for surfers, winter also means changing your surfboard wax. "I need a softer wax when it’s colder," Slevcove said.

The softer wax will stay sticky even when it meets the winter waves, so it helps you stay on the board, she said.

So for some San Diegans, it's high waves, thick wetsuits and soft surfboard wax that signal it's officially winter. For others, it's Santa at the shopping mall.

Do you want to share your thoughts on San Diego's winter? Go to our Public Insight Network survey here. If you want to be included on future surveys on all sorts of topics — from the serious to the not-so-serious — sign up to be a KPBS source here.

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