Hurricane Season Surfing Report: How to Chase Swells (Part II)

By Tetsuhiko Endo

As the majority of East Coasters scurried for shelter this week from Hurricane Earl, a select few headed in the opposite direction, trying to find the best spots to ride the swells being generated by this category 2/3 tropical cyclone. The storm has generated waves for surfers from the Caribbean to the Outer Banks. Today, the best lines of the season rolled into New York, and the wave riders of Nova Scotia are keeping their fingers crossed that Earl won’t head inland before he can give them a bit of juice.

But due to the unpredictable and violent nature of these storms, surfing hurricane waves often involves a lot more than just heading to your nearest beach.

“In general and simple terms, tropical cyclones are steered by the large-scale, overall flow at the mid and upper levels of the atmosphere,” said Timothy Schott, the Tropical Cyclone Program Leader at the National Weather Service. “At the lower latitudes (below 25 degrees North), this general movement is from east to west. However, in the mid and higher latitudes, this movement is generally from west to east.”

If, when, and where they make landfall is dictated by an area of high pressure that sits over the Atlantic called a Subtropical Ridge. If the ridge is strong, Westerly winds will spare the coast and blow the storm eastward. If it is week, the storm will rampage in and do what hurricanes do best. Trying to guess the strength of that ridge is especially important for people like Alex Dick-Read, the Editor and Chief of the magazine The Surfer’s Path, who lives on the British Virgin Island of Tortola. When Adventure caught up with him on Wednesday, he had just been through a particularly savage couple of days from Hurricane Earl. The trees were down, but the internet was thankfully still functioning.

“We get no swell in the summer at all, so we do look forward to hurricane season as a chance for a respite, maybe even some heavy waves,” he said. “But the excitement is tempered because the threat is large enough that surf quickly disappears as a priority.”

When a hurricane like Earl approaches, Dick-Read and his neighbors typically only get two days notice and then they are more concerned with battening down the hatches than looking for surf. “You need to be preparing your house, securing your boats, and once all that's done, there's always an old neighbor or friend who needs some help,” he said, “Earl gave us three days of non-stop work/and sheltering. Of course afterwards it's clean-up time and another few days, at least, of clearing roads, assessing damage and repairing where necessary.”

After the storm passed, the surf was great, but Dick-Read only got about a half hour to enjoy it between cleanup sessions.

Ex-World Tour surfer and hurricane chaser extraordinaire Floridian Shea Lopez knows a thing or to about the destructive power of these storms. The first one he remembers actually destroyed his favorite break. “It was Hurricane Elena in '85,” he remembered. “During it's time spent just off the coast of Indian Rocks Beach, the powerful surf destroyed the fishing pier at the end of the street I grew up on. Thus putting an end to the best break around and my local fishing hangout during the countless flat days on the Gulf of Mexico.”

Talking to him, one gets the feeling that the danger of these storms also holds some of the attraction. “I've sat in my house on the beach waiting out gusts of 100 miles per hour so I wouldn’t get stuck on the mainland when they closed the bridge,” He said. “I’ve also driven into 60 mile per hour wind and rain to get to the South side of a hurricane and better surf. Neither of which were very wise decisions on my part, but ultimately resulted in surfing two of the best days of surf I've ever seen in Florida.”

For all of the good surfs that come from hurricanes, there are also a lot of bad ones when the conditions don’t quite line up. As Lopez mentioned, when trying to meet a hurricane, you need to choose the right region, as well as the right spot which depends on numerous variables like bottom contours, swell direction, prevailing wind, and accessibility.

Another Floridian professional surfer and avowed hurricane fanatic, Zander Morton, called hurricane chasing a “crap shoot.” When I spoke to him on Wednesday, he was traveling back to Florida from the Northeast. He had originally headed North to catch Hurricane Danielle, and had planned to stay for Earl. Then Earl changed his course and Morton was on the next plane South. Despite the effort he had already invested for scarce results, he was stoic about the notion that he might roll snake eyes again.

“Two years ago I drove all around Florida in the rain with the best intentions to score great surf, but ended up back home without ever surfing after eight hours on the highway,” he said. “The next day I saw footage of a couple good friends who lucked into amazing waves only forty five minutes south of me in Daytona Beach, which happened to be the only place in Florida with favorable winds for a two hour period. I was staring at a weather map all day and still couldn't predict that would happen.”

Like all gambling, the uncertainty of it feeds the obsession.

“The hassle pays off tenfold when you end up somewhere during a Hurricane swell getting amazing surf, as more often than not it just doesn't happen,” said Morton.

Lopez agreed, calling it the attraction of “the unknown”. “Every Hurricane swell is different from the last, and you never know when next weeks Hurricane just might send the best swell you've ever seen to your local beach!”

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The fun doesn’t end there though. Two other places can get swell from the same storms that East Coast surfers canonize. If the storm swings back East after buzzing the coast, it can send waves to the North of Spain and the South of France. If it goes into the Gulf of Mexico, it can cross the continent, re-emerge in the Pacific and send waves to Southern California.

In Spain, these swells represent the end of the summer doldrums, explained, Felip Verger, editor and chief of the Spanish surfing magazine 3Sesenta, from his house in San Sebastián Spain. “Those first swells are always very welcome: the water is still warm, the tourists have left, the days are still long and the kids have gone back to school. It’s paradise.”

But, he added, those first September swells often come from the West or Southwest, and the Spaniards have to go to France to catch them.

Because the Pacific doesn’t suffer the same summer wave drought as the Atlantic, hurricane swells are seen more as a nice surprise, than a long awaited treat, explained surfboard shaper Josh Hall from San Diego. “One of the best sessions I’ve ever had was at my favorite La Jolla reef break on a hurricane swell last year. We knew there was a hurricane, but we didn’t think it was going to produce any waves until we got to the water and saw that the place was maxing out.”

As for why anyone would spend so much time chasing these fickle monsters, Lopez summed it up the best as he prepared to meet Earl Head on on Wednesday: “I've flown all over the world chasing more reliable surf. However, the excitement and unpredictability of a Hurricane swell is a rush that’s very hard to beat. I have my eye on Hurricane Earl at this very moment. I most likely wont be able to sleep tonight in anticipation of what dawn's first light will bring.”

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