Other than weathermen, surfers are probably the only people who gleefully run to the beach when they hear a hurricane is coming. All through the fall, they watch tropical depressions and hope that one will spin its way far enough north to send swells to the normally wave-starved mid-Atlantic states. Hurricanes like Isaac and Leslie brought some of the best waves of the year, and as recently as a couple days ago surfers hoped that Sandy could be another such storm. Now it’s clear that it’s not.
“Let me say something again and again and again: please, the beaches are dangerous and surfing is extremely dangerous,” an exasperated Mayor Bloomberg warned on Saturday. It was one of several pleas for “the young kids going out and surfing” to get out of the water and go home. If Bloomberg’s surfing bona fides are in doubt, ask Mike Watson, a forecaster for the surf modeling company Surfline: “This is no longer a surf situation, it’s a stay-safe situation.”
Still, there was a small window before the storm hit when experienced surfers went out. Jesse Farmer, a veteran hurricane surfer from North Carolina who is now studying climate science at Columbia University, says he saw about 50 people in the water at Long Beach early Sunday afternoon. “I saw a couple great waves, local guys who had the place dialed and knew it in and out.” But, he said, by the afternoon it was like being in a washing machine; there were waves breaking unexpectedly in different places, powerful gusts, and a strong current sucking everyone sideways down the beach. By late afternoon people were getting out of the water, and by the next morning conditions were worse still. Anyone foolhardy enough to venture into the churning mess on Monday received a summons, as did two surfers at Coney Island (which isn't a beach people normally surf at).
Hurricanes can bring great surf to the East Coast—but not when they collide with a nor'easter, turn west, and come ashore as the largest Atlantic storm ever recorded. “What you want is a storm like Katia last year, that just sits out in the Atlantic,” said Farmer. Katia arrived just in time for last year’s Quicksilver Pro surfing event in Long Beach, disproving the many skeptics who believed New York could never host a world-tour-level surf competition. Hurricanes generate lots of waves of different sizes and speeds; when the storm stays out at sea, the smaller waves dissipate and only the largest make it ashore, sorted into sets of similar size. But when the storm makes landfall, you get the small waves along with the big, all mashed together in a disorganized jumble. Add gusts blowing the tops off waves, and it doesn’t make for good surfing.
What happens when thrill seekers do get caught at sea? Watch a heroic Coast Guard rescue of boaters caught in Sandy.
Down in Florida, far from the storm, it’s a slightly different story. “It took some time to settle down, but it’s been a pretty solid event,” says Watson, who lives in Florida. There were reports of 20-foot waves on Saturday, and big-wave surfers were towing into Pumphouse in Palm Beach. (It’s so hard to paddle out in waves that big that people have to Jet Ski out, catch a wave, and ride it to the channel where it dies in deeper water.) But as the storm moved closer to shore around North Carolina, the situation worsened. The winds got stronger, the waves choppier, the current faster. And it’s not just the water—there are large pieces of wood from broken piers and beach-house decks that waves can fling at you. “This is now a matter of life, property, and staying safe,” says Watson.
The surfing outlook isn’t good for after the storm, either. Irene moved through fast enough that there was some swell left over after the wind died. Watson doesn’t think that will happen with Sandy. The storm is too big and moving too slowly. On the south of the storm, the counterclockwise winds blowing out to sea will likely knock down much of the swell before the storm passes.
Says Mike Watson, a forecaster for the surf-modeling company Surfline: “This is no longer a surf situation, it’s a stay-safe situation.”
Emergency personnel are of course less than pleased to see surfers running into the storm. Even people who know a spot well can be caught off guard by the strange behavior of a hurricane swell and the strong currents that come with it. Last year a Florida surfer was swept out to sea. In 2009 Hurricane Bill killed a novice surfer in New York. When emergency crews are busy evacuating people, the last thing they want to deal with is people determined to swim out to sea.
Bloomberg especially seems to have no patience for hurricane surfers. “I know the surfing looks attractive, and there’s more surfing done around here than ever before, but this is just much too dangerous a storm,” he admonished on Saturday. “For a small amount of pleasure, your life could be in danger, but certainly the emergency workers will be in danger.” He issued the same warning during Irene, saying that “we all know that it’s a lot of fun to catch a big wave. This storm is dangerous, and we just don’t have the resources.” On Monday afternoon, the mayor threatened to issue a summons to anyone still trying to surf the storm-tossed waters. Fortunately for Bloomberg and emergency responders—if not for surfers—Sandy doesn’t look like it’ll be fun at all.