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Riders on the Storm: Surfers Take to Weather-Churned Waters

By Samantha-Rae Tuthill, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
January 09, 2014; 6:17 PM

Every year, hurricanes cause billions of dollars in damages, take numerous lives and destroy towns. For residents who live along the Atlantic Seaboard or the Gulf of Mexico, an approaching storm can be a nightmare. For surfers, kite surfers and other water-sport enthusiasts, however, that same storm can be seen as an opportunity.

A surfer in Newport, R.I., catches a wave during Hurricane Earl. Photo courtesy of G.E. Long

"On the East Coast especially, it can be hard to find large, powerful, consistent waves. But sometimes, a hurricane can create a swell that will give surfers just that, which is why some chase the storms," said Lisa Hoehn, Assistant Editor at The Active Times.

For this reason, websites will monitor swells and provide surf reports for those looking for the best time to get out on the water. Some provide storm tracking information for riders looking for a bigger ride.

Hoehn warns, however, that as the waves become more powerful the risks increase.

"Your body, your strength and your abilities haven't changed, just the ocean has. So, risks include underestimating the power of the water, and getting in over your head, ability-wise," she said.

An approaching hurricane can create much higher surf as water piles up ahead of the storm. While the idea of riding ahead of a storm can seem thrilling to some, AccuWeather.com Expert Senior Meteorologist Dan Kottlowski stresses the very real danger these conditions present.

"It's dangerous because ahead of a storm, the surf is growing," he said. "You could start out with waves 4 to 5 feet high, and in just two hours they could have grown much higher."

While some professionals and seasoned surfers who are aware of the changes in the ocean ahead of a storm may be able to navigate the waves, Kottloski urges casual and novice surfers to never attempt riding ahead of a storm.

Along with the sudden changes in height, waves can also change direction rapidly. For those who aren't used to navigating the waves this can quickly catch them off guard. There are also problems with deadly rip currents as a storm moves in, so those unaware of the wave changes could be quickly pulled out much further from shore.

"Ahead of a storm there is just chaotic wave action," Kottloski explained. "These conditions should never be attempted by the general public, and even seasoned surfers should be careful going out in such conditions."

Better times to use storm waves to your advantage are in the wake of a well-removed storm, or when there is a storm several hundred miles away. Distant storms can still cause large swells up and down the East Coast that are easier to navigate. But even these should not be attempted by inexperienced surfers, as large swells can also create dangerous conditions.

Kitesurfing over Redington Long Pier by YouTube user Jay Gartner. A kitesurfer takes advantage of Tropical Storm Debby's winds.

Similar risks are present during winter nor'easter surfing. For surf enthusiasts in the Northeast and New England, the winter months offer some of the most ideal conditions, as waves climb to better heights during snow storms. However, during nor'easters, the changes of the waves and the rip currents are comparable to those caused by hurricanes.

"It's like when expert skiers take helicopters to the top of mountains in the Rockies to ski down," Kottloski said. "It's not for the average skier, it's an extreme sport. That's what it's like for surfers trying to ride nor'easters or hurricanes."

Winter surfing also adds the risk of hypothermia. Average February and March water temperatures for York Beach, Maine, sit at a chilly 35-37 degrees.

"In the winter, we wear wetsuits that are 6 millimeters thick to keep us warm," said Matt Colby, an avid surfer and surf instructor at Cinnamon Rainbows surf shop on New Hampshire's Hampton Beach. "They have hoods, and we also wear boots and gloves 7 millimeters thick to keep our hands and feet warm."

Snow-covered boardwalk shops and houses provide the backdrop for a winter surfer at The Wall at Hampton Beach, regarded as the best surfing spot in New Hampshire. The rocks provide point breaks, but can be dangerous for surfers who don't know how to navigate them. Photo courtesy of JPeebles

Ideal conditions for a New England winter surfer include north-northeast to southeast swells, westerly winds and an incoming tide. This offers the opportunity for overhead waves at point breaks. Point breaks, where waves hit rocks or land and break or collapse, offer preferable waves, because they are more consistent, longer lasting and only go in one direction.

When waves get too high, Colby advises that beginners stay away. Unless you know how to read your surroundings and how to calmly navigate your way out of a rip tide, tumultuous waters are no place for a novice surfer.

Regardless of the season, passionate surfers will find where the waves are. It's important, however, to never overestimate your abilities in bad weather, and to never go out into rough waters alone.

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