Article

Sifting the Wreckage

In our December issue, a group of surfers discover the true cost of chasing hurricanes

| posted on November 23, 2011

Perfect surf and tragic loss culminate in the peak of hurricane season. Photo: Lusk

There’s something about Long Beach that makes the rain feel like it’s a permanent part of this place. Maybe it’s the dark, splintered wood of the boardwalks or the brick weight of the block buildings. The way they seem to fit the mood of the weather. It’s hard to say. But for some reason the town is suited to the rain, even in September, which is typically the nicest time of year.

Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker once described Se7en as his love letter to New York City—and even more than the blood, and the head in the box, and Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, and Spacey, what comes to mind when I first think of that movie is its relentless, driving downpour. The thing is, Long Beach isn’t NYC. At least not by cultural or jurisdictional standards. It sits outside of the city limits in Nassau County, so it’s described by New Yorkers as being “out the Island,” even though two of the five boroughs are on Long Island as well. Technicalities apparently.

But even separate, this town does seem to be caught in the city’s gravitational pull. It’s right there—the mass of it—a train ride away. And if you spend too much time in the bars, and enough time in the tubes of the subway, coming back and forth from Brooklyn or Manhattan, back to the beach, it starts to feel like the days are shorter than they should be, that the nights are never-ending.

The rain only compounds this. And the weather affects the handful of surfers I’ve come here to meet—Maui’s Clay Marzo, Peruvian Cristobal del Col, and North Carolinian Fisher Heverly—in different ways. The Quik Pro is on and they’ve all been knocked out of the trials, stopped short of reaching the main event. Now our plan is to chase the swell from Hurricane Katia up into Maine.

Except the crew is falling apart even faster than the forecast, which is changing by the minute, plagued by the remnants of another tropical storm that broke apart in the Gulf, the last pieces of it supplying the shitty weather.

It doesn’t help that Clay and Cristos have both been traveling for months. They’re exhausted, and they’re just not used to this shit—the buildings, the small, brown, wind-ragged waves, the cramped and bleak New Yorkness of it. It also doesn’t help that, for the moment, while we sort out what exactly the swell is going to do, there’s nothing to do, really, but sit and wait, watch a few heats, eat another bagel, skirt the deep puddles lining the sidewalks, and surf the murky shorebreak at Point Lookout.

Fisher seems to be fine with this—as we suit up he keeps saying every session is going to be epic, which it never is—but after a few days Clay and Cristos both book tickets home. There’s talk down at the contest site that Katia is pushing out to sea faster than expected, that the swell isn’t going to show in force, that the winds might be weird for New York and New England so, from their point of view, the decision makes sense.

Maine is out, based on the forecast. And even though the natural tendency when chasing hurricanes is to move out ahead of the storm, to track it up the coast, we consider doing the opposite.

We’re in the car, after driving farther out onto Long Island to check the waves, and literally within minutes, we decide that rather than going to New England, or hanging in New York, we’ll drive for 12 hours against the projected path of the storm. By the time we’re down at the contest site to link up with Fisher, a flurry of phone calls has gone back and forth and we’re heading to the Outer Banks. Clay and Cristos are still around, but it’s clear they’re already gone in mind if not in body; their flights are scheduled to leave later that day.

The good news is that Fisher and our photographer Matt Lusk have managed to talk Mike Dunphy and Asher Nolan into the trip, despite the fact that both of them are still wobbly after a late mission into Brooklyn, another long night in the rain. So we head out with a group of all-native East Coasters, driving toward the Verrazano Bridge and the Goethals, just as the sun starts to break through over Long Island.

It’s the first time any of us have seen blue sky in days, but shit, that right off the jetty at Laurelton looks pretty fun, and we almost change course again and head back to Long Beach. But then Fisher, who has been relentlessly upbeat about every session—about Lusk asking him to punt in the rain, to paddle out even though we’re clearly not going to get any photos that will run, repeating it’s going to epic, and really sounding like he means it—looks around at the shifting weather, the crush of cars on the Southern State Parkway, and shakes his head.

“There’s nothing about this place right now that makes me not okay with leaving,” he says.

We decipher his double negatives. We keep driving. Behind us, Josh Kerr and Kelly Slater’s Round Four heat goes nuts, the webcast playing on Lusk’s phone, the waves onscreen changing, cleaning up, the swell filling in, getting better.

Asher Nolan, escaping the chaos on land by slicing through a glassy face. Photo: Lusk

They say you’re never supposed to leave good waves to find good waves. As we pass the metal piping—oddly clean, like polished silver—of a factory in New Jersey, I remember this. Grant Ellis is on the phone, SURFER’s Photo Editor, and he’s on the sand at Long Beach and he’s suggesting that maybe we should just come back to New York.

It would certainly be easier. We’ve still got about 11 hours to go before we can even think about stopping, and the waves, apparently, have just been getting better all afternoon. The contest officials are also calling for more sun and offshore winds the following day—the day when we know the swell is supposed to peak in New York, but begin to drop in North Carolina.

As I listen to Grant on the phone, I also remember that chasing hurricanes, or any swell on the East Coast for that matter, inevitably leaves you in a delicate mental space. The forecasts change so fast, the conditions going from awful to epic to awful, the swell appearing then dropping off, sometimes in hours, that there’s always a constant fear you’ve made the wrong call—that not only will you get shitty waves but that maybe, if you’ve really f–ked up, by the time you get to where you’re going, there won’t be anything left to ride at all.

In these cases, all you have to show for your effort is a lot of burned gas, and that sickening feeling that you’re the only guy who was stupid enough to get skunked while a 50-shot web gallery of dudes standing in green pits reminds you, over and over and over again, what you missed.

The anxiety this causes can drive you insane. It can also make you second-guess even the best calls. This one has felt like a wild goose chase from the beginning. But there’s also a finality in making up your mind about these things—of going from not having a plan to having one—and if that isn’t enough to keep us driving, the bloodcurdling tolls we’ve already paid for the bridges and the Jersey Turnpike do the trick.

Besides, Lusk (who’s from Kill Devil Hills), Dunphy, Asher, and Fisher, of course, are all kind of frothing on the OBX forecast. We’re not going back.

The scenery improves dramatically as we continue south. We pass from New Jersey into Delaware, and the factories beside the road disappear, and then suburbia gives way to an odd mix of barns and strip malls, cornfields, gas stations, Wawas. The Wawa sandwiches—with their spongy bread and processed meats—keep us running. The Wawa gas keeps the cars fueled.

It’s getting late in the day and a fog hangs over the road in patches, thick in places, full sunlight in others. We head toward the coast on the Delmarva Peninsula to check a spot that might be wrapping the swell. The setup is a jetty in an old naval base surrounded by dunes and pine trees, crumbling cement bunkers and deer. There’s a right coming off it, pointbreak-style, just overhead—so much potential—but the wind is howling onshore and the sets are torn and lumpy.

“We paddling out?” Fisher asks.

“I guess,” someone answers.

“This session is going to be a sick.”

We’re back on the sand in 30 minutes.

There’s a girl on the jetty with a metal cocktail shaker and she comes over to talk as we’re leaving. She’s got a margarita on ice and she passes it around for a few sips and then tells us we should head back into town to eat at some Mexican restaurant. She works there, she says, this is how they mix their drinks.

She has a pretty convincing sales pitch. But it’s also kind of weird because the whole abandoned military base, and the fog and the wind, give the place one of those haunted, isolated vibes—what’s she doing out here anyway?—so we decline the offer and get back in the car. We stay focused.

It’s midnight when we finally pull into the driveway at Lusk’s house in Kill Devil Hills. The wind is dead, the stars showing through a thin skin of clouds. Philip Goold, one of Dunphy’s buddies from Virginia Beach, is waiting for us, half asleep in the living room. Lusk has been on the phone all day and word is that we’re going over to Hatteras Island in the morning, which was devastated by the last storm, Irene, and has been more or less cut off from the rest of the Outer Banks for days.

The bridge is out, or nearly out (because of the damage, the National Guard is only allowing a handful of residents to cross it) so we’re going by boat. The storm and the floodtides have also carved new inlets into the island, connecting the sound and the ocean. Whole chunks of roadway have been washed out, the place now a series of smaller islands, beachfront houses falling into the Atlantic. A curfew, running from 9 at night to 5 in the morning has just been lifted (there were isolated reports of looting) but the mosquitoes are still apparently the size of pterodactyls and breeding in huge pools of stagnant water.

On top of that—and most importantly—the locals, who depend heavily on tourism to make a living, have lost their source of income. No one can say when access to the island will be fully restored and for people who have already lost property and even homes in the storm, the lack of visitors means things are only going to get harder. In short, it’s a legitimate disaster zone.

Our plan is to be awake by 4 a.m. Asher, who has been nursing his Brooklyn hangover all day, looks at his watch and crawls onto the couch, mumbling something about finding time to sleep when he’s old.

There's an unsettling guilt that comes over you while doing what you love in the face of destruction. Photo: Lusk

Mike Meredith puts the bow of his Carolina skiff up on the shoreline and we literally step off the rail onto dry sand. The first spot we considered landing would have forced us to wade through a marsh—someone mentioned venomous water moccasins when we looked at it—so everyone seems thankful for the easy access.

We unload the boards and gear in the backyard of a house that sits waterfront on the Pamlico Sound. The place seems to be in pretty good shape. This is surprising because when Irene came ashore, the properties on this side of the island were the hardest hit, the most intense part of the storm passing just to their west between the Outer Banks and the mainland.

Even in the middle of the island, some houses were flooded with as much as four feet of water and at first we wonder if these people have somehow just been lucky. Then we realize that they’re actually still cleaning up, banging nails, painting, putting their lives back together—even now, just after sunup, nine days later. They’ve just managed to accomplish more than everyone else in the last week and a half.

The island is thrashed. Boats sit in the reeds, pushed inland by the storm surge. Houses are broken apart, blown completely off their foundations. Others are gutted and boarded up. The wave formerly known as S-Turns is all but gone, a new inlet where a row of beachfront real estate used to be. Rumor has it the sandbar up there is sick, but we can’t check it because we don’t have a car, and even if we did the road is out.

We walk up the main drag to the beach, passing walls of debris that seem to line the pavement as far as the eye can see: toilets, rocking horses, mattress springs, huge piles of twisted and broken wood. We register the damage—we start to wonder if being here is even right, much less legal—but the wind is light offshore, the sky cloudless, and we’re in a rush to get over the dunes to check the surf.

When we finally turn off the main road, the mosquitoes find us and they must be, no shit, the biggest and meanest insects on the planet. They’re ravenous. They descend in clouds. They’re prehistoric in proportion. Somehow they manage to bite us through T-shirts, hats, and jackets. They’re in our hair. Nothing can stop them. We apply maximum strength Deep Woods Off! They eat the DEET for breakfast. The only defense we’re left with is to run.

The good news is they’re not out in the water and what’s going on in the water is—finally—epic. It’s a few feet overhead on the sets, crystal-clear, organized, and barreling. Fisher doesn’t say a thing this time. He just paddles out.

Because most of the island is still off limits, the lineup is empty, except for a handful of locals. I watch as Karl Detter and Joey Crum lock into tubes up the beach. A ski team is also buzzing around—Noah Snyder, Drew Meredith, and their crew (who are offering step-offs for any Hatteras resident who wants them)—but there’s plenty of room for everyone, especially considering that under normal circumstances the headcount here would be 300 and rising.

Asher, Fisher, Mike, and Philip find a grinding left up the beach and work it all day. The water is warm, the sun is out, and the swell from Katia shows no sign of fading. We surf for eight hours, and during that time none of the choices we’ve made to get here are questioned. Good waves can make all indecision fade away. You don’t think about the money or effort you’ve expended to arrive on a beach to meet a swell, or the life choices you’ve made—good or bad—that put you there. Instead you focus on the present, on surf that might disappear after the next set.

But if you’re also a human—in addition to being a surfer—and when that moment passes, at some point you’re eventually forced to stop and consider the larger picture.

This happens as we head back to the boat. Eaten alive again by the mosquitoes but now too tired to run, we all realize that our empty, blue-water, feeding-frenzy had its roots in those who were affected by the storm. Katia, which provided the swell, never made landfall; but if Irene hadn’t come through ahead of us, tearing Hatteras Island apart—restricting access, washing out roads, damaging bridges, destroying people’s homes, jobs, and lives—it’s likely most of the waves we rode would have gone to someone else. And it’s hard to feel good about feeling good about that.

A dump truck passes us loaded with wreckage on the road as we haul our gear back through the yard. I can’t bring myself to look up at the driver. We drink a few beers when we get back after the boat ride and, like the waves, those make us feel good too—but the night ends with bickering, the guys sniping at each other.

The next day we surf the piers back in town and it’s crowded. The people in Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills, and Wrightsville have also been affected by the storm—the west side of the island has houses that took nearly 4 feet of water as well—but for the most part it’s business as usual. There are cars on the roads, the pizza places are open, and old dudes are casting for fish. For some reason, these sessions feel better, even though the waves are not as good. I leave the following day.

About a week later, news filters through that Noah Snyder, the Atlantic Surfing Federation Relief Fund, some other non-profits, and a handful of surf brands have set up fundraisers to benefit the families on Hatteras Island. I click a mouse and mail a donation, hoping it will make me feel better. I think about the destruction, the waves, and the decisions we made to get them. I keep second-guessing.

Click here for more from our December issue, available on newsstands now.

Click here to learn how to help the victims of Hurricane Irene.

  • yuppp

    Funny, these guys talk about how “bad” they felt and all that but they didn’t seem to feel so bad when they paddled out next to all of us. Don’t get me wrong i don’t have a problem with people coming down and surfing but when you do it illegally, after the people who live here have lost everything and dont even lift a finger to help there’s a problem. Guess all these guys truly care about is scoring waves.

  • Archy

    My house had a good amount of damage. It will only help me to not forget how good the waves were this summer!

  • longshore current

    whats with the guilt?
    these people built homes on barrier islands …. moving sand.
    stop feeling sorry for them.

  • Choney

    Something tells me that building houses that close to the ocean is not a good idea. But my best wishes go out to the people whose homes were destroyed.
    Maybe there is a good lesson in all of this.

  • Yuppp

    longshore current get your head out of your A$$, my guess by your statement is that you have never been here and hopefully never will come. This truly is a wonderful place, unlike any other around. So yeah people built houses on a barrier island but you wouldn’t understand why, so stay in Cali “bro”, people like yourself aren’t welcome

  • goons on hatteras

    “uh, its gonna be big bro, there’s a hurricane”
    the quoted comment is what happens when surfers think.
    they don’t think ” there’s a hurricane, let’s help some people”

    until after-the-fact, surfers have sympathy for anyone.
    look at the surfer in the picture above displaying total arrogance.
    the guy is like,” well, its my time to do my air reverse, and maybe you can watch me out of your slanted broken down home. forget about cleaning up this beach, my photo spread in your broken backyard is what i am entitled to. check me out in your newly angled home, i surf, i surf really good”

  • longshore current

    Fact: I live in NC, not California.
    Fact: I surf near the light house every few months and you probably know me.
    Fact: You are not acknowledging the reality of living on a barrier island.

    Your “wonderful place” is disappearing slowly each day, so get over your self.
    Now what? Get back to being wonderful.

  • Lusk

    Is it winter yet

  • Kevin lynch

    I have said for a long time that it is morally irresponsible to cheer for hurricanes.
    Surfers are the some of the most selfish people in the world.
    The picture above sums up why I hate 95 percent of you.

  • Brett Barley

    I’m just throwing this out there, because I keep hearing that it is our own fault for getting flooded, since we live on an island. And we shouldn’t be stupid and live where we know our homes are going to get torn apart.

    Us being a Barrier island, and living on sand, had NOTHING to do with what happened during Irene. The ocean had nothing to do with the damage… The surf didn’t even get that big at the peak of the storm. I saw it…

    We were flooded by the Pamlico Sound as the storm winds switched when Irene passed. Flooded just like the people on the mainland side of the sound. An incredible flooding that reached heights never seen here before. Ruining peoples lives who have been here forever and never seen anything like this. But apparently that is our own fault for living here…

    Here is where I get bummed out…

    Vermont was flooded and devastated by rainfall… and everyone called it tragic, but it was OK because you can’t prepare for what happened. Cape Hatteras was flooded by the sound… and everyone called it tragic, but for some reason it was NOT OK because it is somehow our own fault for living here??

    …I’m sorry.

  • josh

    The reality is that the flooding on Hatteras was tragic and help is needed. At some point in the future the occupation of these sand banks will have to stop. The waves will always be there, therefor, it is not selfish to chase the waves from the hurricanes. The waves were there before the people, and will be there after the people are forced off by the ocean. Enjoy your occupation of a paradise while it lasts because at some point the ocean will force you out.

  • billy g

    whats with all the hate??

  • Rip Current

    this is a well written article and sums up the east coast pretty well. I stayed in ocmd for irene and surfed katia also. I love hurricane season and look forward to them coming each year. yep I’m selfish I don’t care I love surfing hurricanes. I live on the beach too so I know I can be affected just as much as any other place on the east coast.