An Almost-Lethal Dose

Like all Americans, surfers on the East Coast watched in horror last week as Hurricane Harvey decimated Texas. Unlike most Americans, however, we also had our eyes on another storm the National Hurricane Center was monitoring.

It was an area of thunderstorms and low pressure over the Florida peninsula, and though it was predicted to become a hurricane after the air mass moved into the Atlantic, the storm never quite got there. It did, however, join with a front moving off the coast and together, the storm blew up into an unnamed extra-tropical storm tracking along the Gulf Stream with hurricane-strength winds. And those winds delivered a couple of days of epic surfer here on the Right Coast.

I spent Wednesday, Aug. 30, tracking the storm and marine reports, and keeping an eye on my local break here in northern New England. Between visits to the beach, I’d tune in webcams from eastern Long Island, N.Y. Seething with envy, I saw surfers enjoying beautiful, overhead waves caressed by light offshore breezes. That evening, a friend from New Jersey said he’d surfed Sandy Hook and that it was “just like J-Bay. Not kidding.”

Friday’s waves were a far cry from Thursday, but I had fun with longboard and a couple of GoPro cameras…

Late in the day, I took my SUP out for a brief paddle in choppy conditions with an underlying swell that was just filtering into the area. It wasn’t much but you could see things were building. And build they did, overnight and into Thursday.

I awoke to solid swell and a deep high tide in the early morning. The tide meant my local break was simply waves crashing on dry sand so I had to wait a bit until the water level dropped a bit and the break moved offshore. It did so around 10 a.m. and I paddled out alone. Yes, alone: not one other person in the water.

A friend and one of the elder statesmen of the local surf scene had a bum shoulder and couldn’t paddle out, but he watched as I timed my paddle out perfectly and reached the lineup with dry hair. After just a few minutes, I turned and caught a nice wave: a good, big drop with a couple of lip moves and I quickly returned to the beach to drop off the sunglasses I’d been wearing to cut the morning glare. When I handed them to Jim and asked him to drop them off at my house, he was giddy. “That wave…it was easy one-and-a-half times overhead!” I’d have called it head high to maybe a little overhead, but hey, I’ll take Jim’s assessment. Regardless of size, it was fun and the sets were still building.

I paddled back out, still alone, and enjoyed several waves that were big and clean. The northwest wind was strong but not too bad, so the surface of the water stayed pretty smooth, making for good riding.

And then, about an hour and a half into my session, came The Wave.

It was a set wave, bigger than any I’d seen or caught earlier. I was in just the right spot — a rare event at this break which is infamous for its fierce currents that drag surfers all over the place — and caught it easily. Up I jumped and off I rode, sliding to the bottom of a wave that was easily twice my height. Nice bottom turn…off the lip…another bottom turn…cutback…

…it was during the cutback that I vividly recall thinking to myself, “This might be the biggest, cleanest wave I’ve ever had here — and I’ve been surfing this break since I was a teenager.” Such thinking in the middle of action is never a good sign — I always say that hockey is the most Zen thing I do precisely because there’s no thought whatsoever once my blades hit the ice — and that omen was fulfilled a few seconds later when the wave closed out on me as I was bottom turning again. As I made the turn, I caught a glimpse of the small groyne on the beach and began to panic a bit as I  realized just how close to the rocks I was.

The wave tumbled me underwater and I covered my head with my arms, scared shitless that the lip was going to suck me over the falls and onto the rocks. I waited for what seemed like a minute (but was really only a few seconds, I’m sure) for the imminent back-breaking, head-crushing blow but it never came, and as soon as I popped up to the surface I began scraping for the horizon, out away from the shore and the rocks, and under two more waves in the set.

Obviously, since I’m writing this, those waves let me go. In the relative calm after the set, I gathered my board and began paddling in. The current, still increasing, pushed me north — farther north than it had ever pushed me in past sessions — and it took several minutes before I reached the sand. A few minutes of breathing on the beach restored my calm, during which a woman who was on the beach with a bunch of friends and a gaggle of kids running around, came up to me and said, “It looks dangerous out here.” I told her it was, and that she should keep an eye on the kids because the currents were so fierce.

I went back out for more in the afternoon but the swell had already dropped a bit and the wind had picked up, raking the waves with a chop that made riding them herky-jerky. Others were out now so there was (presumed) safety in numbers, but the conditions, while bigger than usual, were benign enough that nonchalance was an option.

By the next morning, the swell was pretty much gone. I goofed off with a longboard in the tiny, choppy conditions, playing with a couple of GoPro cameras, but it was pretty silly, to be honest.

But still, lingering in the back of my brain, was the memory of that wave — equal parts exhilaration and the feeling that I’d dodged a bullet. Since then, I’m back to watching the tropics for the next dose of surf. Here comes Irma…

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