This weekend, a pretty heavy storm hit the California coast. One city hit particularly hard was Santa Barbara, where two restaurants at different beaches several miles apart were flooded by waves. Luckily, there were only minor injuries. The event caught me by surprise because of the coastal layout of that region.  You see, the Santa Barbara coast in general faces south.  So you don’t get a whole lot of big waves hitting the region.  That makes an event like this especially rare.  Even during the El Nino year of 1997-98, when strong storms battered the coast all winter, we never saw anything quite like this.

The most surprising incident of the two was the Moby Dick restaurant at Sterns Wharf. Here’s a frame from a YouTube video taken by someone in the restaurant as it hit.  Click the image to see the full video on YouTube.

And a news article talking about what happened at (KEYT.com).

The interesting thing about this destruction is where it happened. Sterns Wharf is actually on a beach facing southeast, so for swells coming in from the Pacific along the west to be strong enough to wrap around the coast and strike a beach facing southeast this hard is quite astounding.

Let’s take a look at the swell map from that morning to see what was actually happening. CDIP has a nice view of the swell state that morning:

Swell Map from CDIP

I’ve marked Sterns Wharf on that map. As you can see, the swell was coming from directly west, which is just about the worse possible case. Any northwestern component to a swell would force it to not only wrap around the peninsula in Santa Barbara but also around Point Conception. Any southwestern component to the swell would result in the Channel Islands blocking Santa Barbara from getting hit. A swell coming from exactly west can slot right through to the Santa Barbara area, perhaps even resulting in a higher tide because of the channeling of the water between the coast and the islands off shore.

You may think a westerly swell direction would be normal, but usually the swell in this area of California comes from the northwest.  This is due to the strongest winds of storms like these typically being further north, off the coast of Oregon and Washington.

From the video, it sounds like this event happened at an abnormally high tide of 6 feet (high tides are usually between 3-5 feet), and a 12 foot swell was actually reaching the coast in downtown Santa Barbara. Whenever you have a combined effect of high tide and high swells like this, disaster is sure to follow.

Hopefully Moby Dick can get things cleaned up there before too long. There are definitely a few restaurant patrons who will have a story to tell for quite some time.