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How to surf El Niño: Tips from pro big wave surfer Alex Gray

Surfers wait for the right wave to catch at Huntington Beach in California on September 10, 2015, amid a heat wave where temperatures have reached triple digits in parts of southern California. The current El Niño phenomenon, a global weather pattern known to wreak havoc every few years, should last until spring and likely become one of the strongest on record, forecasters said.
Surfers wait for the right wave to catch at Huntington Beach in California on September 10, 2015, amid a heat wave where temperatures have reached triple digits in parts of southern California. The current El Niño phenomenon, a global weather pattern known to wreak havoc every few years, should last until spring and likely become one of the strongest on record, forecasters said.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

While most people are cleaning out rain gutters and stocking up on umbrellas to prepare for El Niño, others are looking forward to riding out storm season — literally.

Alex Gray, 29, is a big wave surfer, the kind who makes his living catching waves that are 15 feet or higher.

"For the most part, I'm a free surfer who chases storms and tries to end up in very unique and strange locations with a surfboard," Gray tells KPCC.

It's not an occupation for the faint of heart.

"Surfers — their arena, their surface is constantly changing," he says. "It's not a football field, it's not a tennis court. Really, in the end you can't predict everything about the ocean."

For the first time in more than a decade, Gray is at home in Palos Verdes during Thanksgiving this year. That's because he's nursing a shoulder injury.

If Gray were at 100 percent, he might be looking to surf the big swells spawned by this week's King Tides. And he'd probably be prepping for the gnarly waves El Niño is likely to bring.

"It's really good for the Pacific Ocean for Hawaii and California and northern Oregon," Gray says. "It's awesome for surfing. I hope it happens."

That doesn't mean Gray is foolhardy. Even for a seasoned professional, surfing big waves can be dangerous. Gray has a few tips.

1. Work on your mental conditioning

Big wave riding can be intimidating under any circumstances, but in an El Niño year, it can also be unpredictable. Gray advises heading out with equal parts confidence and caution.

"I think big wave surfing is a lot of mindset versus ability. So much of it is a mental game of overcoming preconceived thoughts or fears. But you always have to know the risks involved and have the utmost respect for the ocean because it's bigger than us, it's badder than us. It always will be."

2. Check the forecast

Gray suggests Surfline, which offers daily info on tides, local and regional forecasts, weather reports, photos and more.

3. Get the right gear

It'll be a bit rougher out there. Gray recommends a bigger surfboard and stronger leashes you can be sure won't break.

4. Use flotation

"It used to be people just went out in their board shorts or wetsuit," Gray says. But he now wears a customized wetsuit with foam in it, which is neutrally buoyant. "In case a blackout happens, you'll rise to the surface and hopefully be found. There are some companies out there making flotation devices. You add CO2 cartridges. There's a bladder. It pierces the CO2 and now you have two or three life vests blowing up in your wetsuit. It's a way for people to come home safe at the end of the day."

5. Know your limits

Technology is great but it can give you a false sense of confidence. "My advice to anybody is make sure you're capable of doing that on your own. Make sure that when you pull the cord and the CO2 doesn't go off, you're okay with that. There's lots of preventative safety measures, which I will always encourage, but at the end of the day you should be able to look out for yourself."

Are you gearing up to surf this El Niño season? Let us know your advice on Facebook or in the comments below!