I almost shudder the moment I hear someone say “It’s pumping out there!” or “It’s firing today!” All I can think of is how crowded my favorite break will be, but even worse than that – how different the vibe will be. I like to surf a forgiving reef a few miles from my house. It’s a smooth rock reef that makes for tapered waves that offer up easy takeoffs and long, slow rides. It attracts a pretty chilled-out crowd, a mix of longboarders and shortboarders that aren’t under the delusion that they’re surfing in the Hurley Pro.
However, when a swell five feet or bigger hits, things tend to change radically at this spot. The waves become more hollow, sure, but it’s the new sect of surfers that roll in that really alters the place. Suddenly everyone in the lineup thinks they’re Mick Fanning, and if any issues innocuously arise, lo and behold, you just fucked up their 10-point ride. Gone are the 50-something longboarders and with them the smiles, replaced with the scowls of young men upset about how they didn’t nail their finish on the last wave. Everything suddenly feels tense in the lineup, and I find myself drifting down the coastline looking for empty peaks even if they’re closing out. Just to get away.
That’s why I love three-foot days. Weekday crowds are way down thanks to a mediocre report on Surfline, some thinking it’s not worth paddling out.  Those who do show up usually have an amicable way about them. The smiles return to the lineup. A young girl learning to surf drops in on an older guy and she’s not chastised for her “sin,” but encouraged to keep improving. Lulls between sets are no longer marked by silence but broken by upbeat chatter, friendly assessments of the conditions and the rehashing of recent rides. Familiar faces dot the outside while new friends present themselves.
As far as I’m concerned, three feet is the perfect size for a wave. It’s big enough that you can ride a shortboard and still have some decent faces to work with, but it’s small enough to bust out the longboard and work on your nose-riding without worrying about bouncing your head off the reef. Paddling through a set doesn’t sap you of all your energy, and taking a few waves on the head isn’t anything more than a minor inconvenience.
A smooth, easy takeoff into a gradual drop. Drawing out a bottom turn, you see someone down the line in position to drop in. Instead of shouting a warning at them, you wave them in. Together you enjoy this slow and steady wave until you reach the fast inside section and they kick out to allow you the denouement to yourself. A little kickout and you’re paddling back out with ease, your wave companion throwing you a little shaka in thanks. You won’t find that on a six-foot day. You just won’t.
Back in the lineup, you’re asked about how that last wave held up and you give your best recount. It’s mid-morning and the fog has lifted, the sun dancing on the surface of the sea. Contentment has been attained, and what more can you really ask for? Nothing, and it’s because of this that I’ll take three-footers over pumping waves any day.