Hurricane Season Surfing Report: How to Chase Swells
By Tetsuhiko Endo; Photograph by Ron Dahlquist, My Shot
Contrary to popular belief, the summer is not a great time to be an American surfer. The sun is out and the water is warm(er), but the beaches are crowded, testy lifeguards limit access during certain hours, and most important, the waves simply aren’t that good. Atlantic surfers especially know that their beloved ocean can look more like a lake for weeks at a time during June, July, and August.
Given all of this, any wave rider who takes his or her craft seriously has only two words on the mind as the summer doldrums creep by in a sticky haze of sunblock-tinged frustration: hurricane season. In June, the NOAA predicted an 85 percent chance that the Atlantic would see an “active to extremely active” hurricane season. In August, they upped their prediction to 90 percent but the storms have yet to materialize in force. California saw some waves from Hurricane Celia way back in June, and last weekend brought the East Coast’s first swell from Hurricane Danielle. However, with Hurricane Earl hot on the heals of Danielle in the Atlantic, and tropical storm Fiona right behind him, things may yet get interesting.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), hurricane season actually begins on May 15 on the West Coast and June 1 on the East Coast, and runs until November 30 on both. However, it is the mythical stretch during late summer and early autumn (August to October) that has historically accounted for the majority of hurricane activity says, the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Library.
American surfers have been riding, or attempting to ride the waves from each and every one of these storms since the sport first came to the mainland United States. Even, or especially, depending on how you look at it, large storms like Katrina and Andrew send surfers scrambling to East and Gulf Coast beaches to catch waves before the storm surges become too dangerous.
The surfers in each area of the country have their own optimal trajectories for ‘canes. Texans and Alabamans hope each one veers into the Gulf. North and South Easterners keep their fingers crossed for ones that buzz the length of the East Coast, then veer away around Nova Scotia, and head eastward again to send waves to Spain. Floridians first just hope the storms don’t hit them, then they scramble between the East and Gulf Coasts in order to try to take full advantage of the swell.
On the West Coast, the danger of actually being hit by a hurricane is slim to none due to the normal trajectories that either take them into Mexico or out to sea. However, Southern Californians can look forward to summer hurricane swells at their south facing breaks as well as tactical strikes down to the endless right-hand point breaks of Baja. Their one main preoccupation is to not get stuck in Baja if and when hurricanes make landfall and wash out the sometimes spotty roads that cris-cross the peninsula.
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“Hurricane” is actually a colloquial term for what meteorologists call “tropical cyclones.” It refers to storms that originate in the North Atlantic, the North and South Pacifics, and the Indian Ocean, between 5 and 20 degrees latitude. The latitude is important because tropical water (80 degrees or warmer) is the fuel that feeds these violent weather systems. Generally, smaller storms suck warm air off the surfaces of tropical oceans and create areas of low pressure where more air moves in, heats up, and repeats the process. As the storm feeds itself in this manner, the Coriolis effect spins the entire system into the distinctive formation that we have all seen on weather forecasts and sets it moving. The term “hurricane” comes from the Spanish “huracán” which in turn, probably comes from the Taíno Indians’ Hurakán (or God of Storms). In Australia, Japan, China, India, and Africa, where tropical cyclones also hit, they are called typhoons.
Waves are the bi-product of a hurricane’s winds which must reach a minimum of 75-miles-per-hour in order for the storm be officially considered a tropical cyclone. Wind speed, and therefore intensity, are measured on the Saffir-Simpson Simpson scale of 1 to 5 which has been used since 1975. A category 1 storm is little more than a bad thunderstorm, a category 3 storm is Hurricane Katrina, a category 5 storm is Hurricane Andrew, which made landfall in Florida in 1992 and was the costliest in American history until Katrina.