I really dragged my heels regarding the impending cross-country drive. The lack of inaction could be attributed to two or three major reasons, including having had to perform a few last-minute fixes on my old Subaru, wanting to hang out with friends in San Diego, and the fact that the sun had finally come out at the beach (it’s been a weird, cold, foggy summer in Southern California for some reason). Lounging and surfing at the beach all day seemed a bit more enticing than sitting in a loud (unmuffled) car in 110+ degree desert heat.
On what was supposed to be my last day in town (but ended up being the second to last), my friend Jasmine and I had the opportunity to drop in on Dr. Walter Munk at his La Jolla home and grill him about the development of surf forecasting as we know it today. Before Dr. Munk came along, no one had ever considered making weather predictions prior to military amphibious landings. Up until World War II, the accepted method was to cluster men in rickety amphibious landing craft, send them ashore, and hope for the best. Needless to say, many people drowned.
The Scipps Institution of Oceanography, where Dr. Munk had began working in the late 1930s, was working closely with the US Navy to better understand ocean conditions as they related to naval warfare and shipping. Having watched a US Marine Corps training exercise along the North Carolina coast in 1941, Dr. Munk said that he noticed that the landing craft — which are essentially steel boxes without many of the attributes that one normally associates with good hull design — couldn’t really handle surf higher than about five feet. Often they would broach, and people got injured…in training. Imagine those conditions while being fired upon.
Dr. Munk said that a landing being planned in North Africa was to happen at a time of year when seas are regularly six feet and higher, and he remembers suggesting to one or more military planners that they ought to include a weather report into the attack plans to ensure that the landing craft didn’t broach leading to soldiers’ drowning deaths. He was, of course, dismissed with a “who the hell is this young upstart” response from the men in green (and blue and white and tan, depending upon the season and branch of the service), but a supervisor at Scripps found the merit in then young Munk’s train of thought, and used his more advanced position to push it forward. Needless to say, it flew, and changed the way amphibious landings were conducted from then on out, helping to ensure success at Normandy, Tarawa, Okinawa, and other campaigns.
The 1950s and 1960s saw the development of ever improving ocean monitoring and forecasting technology at Scripps, and during his long tenure (which is by no means over), Dr. Munk saw the department’s numbers swell from a couple of dozen people to about 1,500 today. Scripps’ pier, in La Jolla, boasts an impressive array of instrumentation, and the Institute’s website has one of the best surf forecasting models to be found anywhere. That’s where my interest in the department’s activities came in so keenly.
While he was keen to fill me in on all of that history, Dr. Munk also wanted to know about my upcoming trip to New York, and the details of why I’d been late in coming to his house. He laughed as I related my story of having just cobbled together the Subaru — quite literally — with JB Weld, old beer cans, and duct tape — and told me of his cross country drive, in 1937, in an old La Salle he had purchased when he decided to leave New York and go to Cal Tech in Pasadena.
At last, however, I had to depart my beloved California coast, bidding farewell on as bright and sunny a day as one could ask for. The trip started uneventfully enough, but after only a few hours on the road, the air conditioning in my dilapidated ’86 Subaru — which until then had kept me close to shivering despite the intense heat outside — crapped out just after I gassed up in Yuma, Arizona leaving me to face the brutal reality of traveling across the desert in the summertime heat. Luckily, the desert cools down a lot at night, and I enjoyed a delicious cool draft as I sped through Eastern Arizona, New Mexico, and on through El Paso, listening to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice along the way.
There’s not much to tell about driving through the desert all night other than that the sunrise is enjoyable. But I guess that goes for pretty much anywhere. Oh yeah, my friend Melissa, who owns a motel in Yuma (which if you haven’t been there, is a fabulously trashy desert town with a few seedy bars, a muddy trickle of a river, and purportedly the best winter weather to be found anywhere), wanted me to mention that they’re having specials at the Yuma Cabana Motel. I’ve stayed there, and it’s a charming place indeed. A true reprieve from whatever it is that goes on outside on the mean streets of Yuma.