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Why Hurricanes Are So Special to Surfers and Looking Back on Hurricane Bob

Tropics Have Been Quiet But It Can Happen Like the Flip of a Switch
By JON COEN | Aug 21, 2019
Courtesy of: Wunderground Don’t get excited or alarmed. This is the track of Hurricane Bob 28 years ago this week. It was the perfect storm track for New Jersey hurricane swell.

Long Beach Island — Surfers are goofy about hurricanes.

It’s been 35 years since my first true hurricane experience. And even though most of those swells were overhyped, even though our uniform shoreline does terrible on long-period tropical swells, and even though one particular superstorm in 2012 threatened to wipe us off the map, I still get goofy about hurricanes.

My first hurricane experience was when I was 10. Major Hurricane Gloria came barreling up the East Coast. If you research data from Gloria, you learn the U.S. hadn’t been hit by a significant storm since 1972. Hence, I’d never heard talk of a hurricane my whole life, until 1985.

A Cat 4 earlier, she struck the Outer Banks and shaved New Jersey before striking Long Island as a Cat 1. Once she passed by and the wind went offshore, we had a massive swell that’s still talked about today. I had no knowledge of this at the time, but some of New Jersey’s most hardcore legends surfed giant Manasquan Inlet.

I believe school was canceled. After the storm had passed, my parents and grandparents took us to Seaside, where my grandfather was from. I can remember the strange sense of excitement that came with a passing storm, the stark feeling of that late September beach town and people on the boardwalk simply in awe at the fury of the ocean … that, and pizza at the Sawmill. (Note: Name any significant weather event and we folks from New Jersey can always tell you where we had pizza.)

I learned to surf a few summers later and I’m sure that at some point in those formative years we rode some moderate-sized groundswell that traveled from the tropics to Ship Bottom, but that was before we studied where the waves were coming from. We just surfed and then we studied which snacks at 7-Eleven would fill our bellies for the $2 in our backpacks. Chocolate chip bars usually won out at 25 cents each.

As we started to read surf mags, see occasional New Jersey photos and listen to the oral history that was passed down in surf shops, we learned that hurricanes were something special – powerful storms that could bring massive waves during the summer and early fall when the weather patterns generally favored flat to small conditions but the water was still warm. We paddled out during Hurricane Bertha. The fact that the storm had a name made it seem that much more monumental.

It wasn’t until 1991 that hurricane surf truly came crashing into our lives. Now as young teens, we found ourselves fired up at the news that Hurricane Bob was moving up the coast, the first hurricane of the season, which didn’t form until mid-August. Interestingly, it took a very similar track to Gloria. We watched the Weather Channel, making up mythical stories about the swell from this named storm that we wanted to chase … somehow … without a car or license.

It was Aug. 19 and my parents agreed to drive us to the Island to “watch” the waves. My father was adamant that we weren’t going to surf. He had lifeguarded when we were younger. No one, he explained, would be surfing. The ocean would be a violent mess and the beach patrols would be keeping everyone out of the water. So naturally, my brother, our two friends and I snuck our boards into the back of the van, under a makeshift bed of milk crates and plywood that we used for family trips.

My father was wrong.

The wind was offshore. The storm had passed and the surf was absolutely bombing. The sun was out and hundreds of people had returned to the beach.

Surfers were running around in the street with a palpable excitement. Living on the mainland, we didn’t yet know the Island surfers yet, but to this day when I mention it to my current friends, we all have recollection of that electricity that ran through our young brains when we saw those majestic A-frames off Ship Bottom’s 7-Eleven beach. Years later we would learn that Surf City was even better, with heavy barreling waves and a session that goes down in the LBI history books.

Dad couldn’t say much as we yanked our boards from the van, hurriedly waxed them and sprinted past him to the water. This was the biggest thing to happen in our young surfing lives and he was smart enough to not get in the way.

We were smart enough to not say, “We told you so!

Bob nailed somewhat of the perfect storm track for our swell window, brushing the Carolinas and then actually intensifying off the Mid-Atlantic and passing some 100 to 200 miles offshore before going north. So instead of those long-period close-outs, it was medium period, with huge peaking A-frames.

But we learned another lesson. As we would later find out, New England got walloped by the storm. Hurricanes are not to be taken lightly. And sometimes one man’s treasure means another is getting trashed. Surfers are always the first to organize relief when another coast takes a landfall. We saw that after Sandy and we continue to pay it forward.

I distinctly remember being short of breath as I paddled out, nervous at the size of the swell with anticipation building like a rock in my stomach. I know I took some beatings that day. But we all had a handful of huge drops and massive lines. This was no longer a novelty or legend. We were actually part of it, this great mix of local lore, coming of age and a natural high like nothing we’d experienced.

We were surfing a hurricane.

Hurricane season hasn’t been all that exciting this year, either for 15-year-olds or veterans who remember Hurricane Expert John Hope and listening to him talk about dropping pressure and centers of circulation at 50 minutes after the hour.

We’ve had two named storms, neither of which came into our swell window. This year was forecasted to be average at best, with El Niño conditions hampering tropical development. If you think back to past years, we generally don’t talk about hurricanes until mid-summer. I’d say we get tropical swells about half the time in July and those usually form around the Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico. By early August, we’re usually watching something, and by this time of the summer, the Cape Verde season is in full effect with systems marching west off Africa. Each one has the potential to rock us with a memorable swell that will live in some kid’s psyche forever. Or it could mean we’re all going to be cutting sheetrock 48 inches up from the floor.

There are three major factors that can inhibit tropical development: sea surface temps, wind shear and Saharan dust coming off the coast of Africa.

Each week, we’ve been saying “well, this is about the time of year that ” and then nothing happens. This season the water temp has been as high as ever. Because of El Niño, wind shear has been an issue. But with El Niño phasing out, wind shear is no longer a factor. So two of the three are no longer stopping storm formation.

Now scientists are saying the Saharan dust seems to be lessening. All of the meteorological studs who make early season forecasts said we will have an average season, which is 12 named storms (tropical storm or greater) and 6.5 hurricanes. They are actually doubling down on that this month, despite the lack of activity. Since we’ve only had two storms, we could see 10 named storms starting in the last week of August. A few specialists have actually increased their forecast.

Of course, there are countless variables that have to do with how powerful these storms are, how long they last and where they go. If you recall, 2017 was a hyperactive year where we had almost six weeks of nonstop swell with tons of great days. 2018 was also above average, but the conditions gave us a September full of onshore crap. And then there’s the whole issue of land-falling hurricanes, and we really don’t want anyone in the U.S. or beyond to be filling sandbags and hunkering down with a warm bottle of rum.

But science says we’re still going to have a hurricane season. And despite it being about as active as the ice cream man in November, we could be in the thick of it at any moment.

PADDLE-OUT FOR A LEGEND: Island surfers gathered on Friday morning for the send-off of Beach Haven’s Kurt Horensky, who passed last week. Over 100 surfers paddled out to celebrate the life of this true Holyoke Avenue surfing and fishing legend, with far more on the beach.

Mike Carvajal, who came up in Beach Haven respecting Horenesky and crew, said it was the biggest memorial paddle-out he’d ever been to, with Island icons from all generations traveling from near and far.

“It was really nice,” he said, “There were roses on the beach. And then there was this little swell that showed up for Kurt off Iroquois Avenue. We were all in the water and there were no waves and then all the sudden a few sets came in. Everyone was calling it the ‘Sinister Swell.’ Growing up as a Beach Haven kid, he was the man.”

MORE OR LESS MORE THAN LESS: I heard someone say the other day that we haven’t had a swell all summer. That’s false. We did have one-half day of banging waves in July, in which case “no waves” is a slight exaggeration, but it still makes a point.

Or you can look at all the nonstop 1- to 3-foot waves of the last month and say this statement is totally false.

We haven’t had that knockout hurricane swell this summer, much less several of them. But if you have adjusted your expectations and/or ridden longboards and grovelers, there’s been no lack of motion out there. It’s all about lining up the right tides and hoping for good winds. Ironically, the guy who made the statement could cut up those little waves like a sushi chef.

It seems that the next week will see a continuation of that as we will have continued south windswell. I would keep an eye on late week. Mornings and evenings are the time to target this week with low tide early and late.

Traditionally, in addition to at least one hurricane swell, August gives us a little nor’easter. Even if that’s a few days of northeast wind with chest-high waves, it kind of signals the coming of late summer. I’m not seeing that as of yet, but it’s not ruled out. Nor is a hurricane.

GET IT ALL IN: Aug. 20 is the Sunset Standup Paddleboard Family Event at Bayview Park in Brant Beach to benefit Family Promise of Southern Ocean County, the nonprofit dedicated to providing a safe and welcoming environment, temporary shelter, meals and supportive services to empower families with children under the age of 18. It’s hard to imagine that there are homeless teens in our area, but there are an awful lot of rough circumstances that we don’t know about right in our own communities.

The cost is $30 per person and includes a board, provided by South End Surf ’N Paddle. Space is limited and spots must be reserved in advance at or by calling 609-994-3317. Jimmy and the Parrots play the bandstand that night on the bay and since this is a worthy fundraiser, I’m not making any Buffet jokes.

Waves of Strength could still use some volunteers for next Sunday, Aug. 25. This local nonprofit will hold its first-ever Special Needs Surf Experience at the 68th Street beach in Long Beach Township (which is wheelchair accessible). The idea is to give kids in the LBI area with special needs, disability or underprivileged circumstances a chance at a fun and encouraging surf lesson. If you’ve been healthy and financially stable enough to enjoy the ocean all summer, maybe share a little bit of that. Ask Logan McKenzie at Berkshire Hathaway Realtors how good that can make you feel.

Monday, Aug. 26, is the Barnegat Bay Challenge, which is our big distance paddle/row of the summer. Although many athletes are now choosing to do a lot of the longer races in New York and New Jersey, which makes this seem more of a sprint, it’s a great race with a fantastic spirit of camaraderie. This one’s start and finish line is the Ship Bottom bay beach. Registration starts at 5 p.m. the day of the race. It’s $20 per person.

Lastly, the little string of professional events that the East Coast hosts every year just kicked off with the 57th annual East Coast Surfing Championships in Virginia Beach. On Labor Day weekend, the WRV Outer Banks Pro takes place in Nags Head, N.C. The following weekend will be the World Surf League’s new Pro Longboard event in Long Beach, N.Y.

Then the focus shifts to New Jersey for the Belmar Pro presented by Eastern Lines. This one is Sept. 12-15 in Belmar including the Fins Men’s Pro, Playa Bowls Women’s Pro, SRH Legends Pro, Sol Longboard Pro and Custom X Bodyboard Pro should you want to watch some professional surfing within an hour’s drive.

There’s plenty to keep you busy, but keep an eye on the tropics. If we see anything, we’ll let you know.


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