WORDS BY ARI MARSH
PHOTO BY KENNY ONUFROCK and BRAD STYRON
“Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls…. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were.” — Hehaka Sapa (Black Elk) Medicine man and warrior of the Oglala band, Lakota Sioux
As Hurricane Ophelia threatened landfall on the North Carolina coast in mid-September, four surfers boated out to a deserted, offshore island in hopes of squeezing in one final session before she arrived. There had been eight days of strong swell, mornings with offshore winds, and afternoons with low tide A-frame peaks. Surfers up and down the coast were fueled and happy. But the closer Ophelia got, the stronger her winds grew, blowing the waves at some beaches into a dangerous madness with life-threatening currents. Rumors circulated of two body boarders drowning in Carolina Beach. Surfers were forced to be creative and find south-facing spots that could handle the intense northeast winds, or surf the south sides of jetties on particular islands that provide shelter from intense wind and current.
For the past week, I had been paddling across a deep water inlet near Wrightsville Beach to surf one of North Carolina’s many barrier islands. This particular island is a pristine, uninhabited nature preserve teeming with wildlife, and on the right swell, juicy, hollow waves. With the encroaching presence of Ophelia, however, the currents running through the inlet had become really intense. Even on an average day, with the threat of sharks and heavy boat traffic, the paddle across can be a challenge. After several surfers were swept away and had to be rescued in the dangerous currents while attempting to cross the inlet, I promised my girlfriend I would hitch a boat ride over to the island instead, until Ophelia passed and things returned to normal.
So there we were, four surfers racing in a speedboat through the late afternoon wind-chopped waters, to grab one more session before she blew ashore. There was the boat owner, Dale Pigford, a stout, tattooed local surfer willing to charge most anything anytime; his son, Derrick, a 15-year-old surf rat; Keith Sharp, an adventurous 25-year-old Jersey-boy; and myself, a lifelong California surfer, now a “temporary” East Coast resident.
The odds were against us. The wind had strengthened considerably, the tide was too low, and a spot that had offered a solid week of insane surf was providing dredging, barely make-able, wicked eight-foot suck-outs.
As we struggled into the sunset to make steep drops and find our way through wind-feathered, liquid speed runs, the outer bands of Ophelia lashed at us. Dark purple rain bands encircled the twilight sky. They stretched from north to south and wrapped eastward where they merged with the complete blackness of the approaching storm. Sideways rain pelted our faces as we scratched for our final waves, conscious of the incoming darkness. I stroked into a heaving, windblown mass, rose to my feet, and skidded down a murky, dark wave face riddled with gusty, sideshore, forty-five mph winds.
“So there we were, four surfers racing in a speedboat through the late afternoon wind-chopped waters, to grab one more session before she blew ashore.”
Hurricane season is the most frightening time of year for most coastal residents of the Southeastern U.S. These powerful, whirling tropical storms brew up in the mid-Atlantic and spin across hundreds of miles of blue ocean, often wreaking havoc on coastal communities, leveling homes and businesses, flooding streets, destroying piers, ripping apart trees and downing electrical lines, sometimes causing the deaths of countless terrified and seemingly helpless people. Hurricane Katrina and the destruction unleashed upon New Orleans and its environs was a brutal reminder that forces far more powerful than man govern this planet. Regardless of how much we try to control Mama Nature with endless developing and the damming of her rivers and waterways, her force and power is beyond our scope and comprehension. Clearly, such storms are indeed humbling and remind us of our smallness.
While local residents flee from approaching storms and mariners bring their boats into sheltered waters, East Coast surfers move closer to the whirling edge, eager to ride waves that on the right conditions may possibly rival some of the best surf in the world. For the NC surfer, hurricane season means consistent tropical swell and eighty-degree ocean water. Sleepy home beach breaks become intense wave riding zones.
When I first moved to NC three years ago from Encinitas, California, my assumption was that East Coast surf left much to be desired. Even the seagulls looked smaller. Born and raised in West L.A. and bred on the beach breaks of Santa Monica and the points of Malibu, I figured nothing could measure up to the classic, year-round surf and dramatic shorelines that California offers. Buddies on the West Coast who had surfed the Carolinas in the ’70s told me that NC surfers were hodads who surfed in cut-off jeans with big ol’ belt buckles.
In truth, there is a lot of soul in NC, and surfers here are in many ways more dedicated than the average California surfer. They’ve got to work harder for waves and they will often charge even the shittiest, most blown-out conditions just to feel the stoke. Many NC surfers have never surfed a reef or point break in their lives, yet they rip. Long flat spells seem to make most NC surfers much hungrier than the average Californian, yet more often than not, they are polite and friendly in the water. Aggressiveness and tension, so common at key SoCal spots, are hard to find out here. I’ve surfed really crowded conditions in beach breaks that were going off and have rarely seen the absurd “I’ll kick your ass!” scowl so prevalent in SoCal waters. And I’ve never seen anyone get out of the water in NC to find his or her tires slashed or windows broken. Don’t get me wrong; NC surfers are not pushovers in any sense. They are very protective of their spots. Many are talented, hardcore surfers with a lot of soul. The difference is they haven’t bought into the commercialization of the bad boy image so common on the West Coast. NC surfers, in general, still possess a spirit of kindness and respect that has regretfully been lost in many heavily-populated surfing areas.
On the other hand, most of the year, the surf in NC can’t even be compared to the surf on the West Coast. Long flat spells have driven me to the verge of insanity at least a dozen times in the past three years. Surf reports describe waves as “shin to knee high” on a regular basis, and announce, “We’ve got waves!” when the swell builds beyond thigh-high. My time in NC has taught me to judge wave size not by my head, as in head-high, double overhead, etc., but by my balls. “Dude, the surf’s cranking, it’s ball high out there.”
Beyond that, it’s almost always windy on the NC coast. Most surf is from locally generated wind swell and you are constantly at the mercy of shifting sandbars. There are no points, no reefs, no Rincon, no Malibu, no Trestles, no Swami’s, no Cardiff Reef, no Sunset Cliffs. Nothing even comparable. To top it off, the sun comes up on the flip side of the horizon according to my stubborn, West-centric mind, and it sets not below the ocean where sunset is a dazzling spectacle, but it fades away beyond the muted silhouettes of the cities and towns to the west. And finally, by So Cal standards, a NC winter is freezing, ocean water temps commonly drop into the mid-upper forties.
Hurricane season is the East Coast’s wild card. It’s the one time of year where Queen Atlantic consistently rises up and unleashes her power. It’s a period of excitement and challenge, which for surfers, can be measured up against some of Cali’s best winter surf.
This September, she was delivering on schedule, and after a week of surfing, I was completely surfed-out. My shoulders were sore, my ears were filled with sand, and I had been slammed into the bottom on many low tide grinders. And although saltwater was infused into every orifice of my body and I carried around my “Swimmer’s Ear” water drying drops everywhere I went, I wanted more. I was soaking up every bit of warm water and tropical swell I could. I was stashing it all away in my body and soul like a squirrel storing ripe acorns for the winter. And that final afternoon, as Ophelia threatened us, hardcore Dale, his surf-rat son, Derrick, Jersey-boy Keith, and I surfed until the light was pulled from the sky. As officials met to decide whether or not to issue evacuation orders for local beaches, we moved closer to the hurricane. Assorted surfers came and went. Several snapped their boards in half in the hollow surf.
When the four of us rendezvoused back on the beach at the end of the session, we realized we were the last ones on the island. The sun had set. We walked towards the jetty on the north end against blustering storm winds, holding our boards with two hands. We were completely in awe at the spectacle of raging weather. “This is Ophelia!” we howled amidst the purple-black sky and swirling rain bands.
Some five hundred seabirds, primarily gulls and skimmers had congregated at the jetty to seek shelter in front of the rocks. They cried and shrieked as we approached. Hundreds more flew above us, soaring in the ripping northeast wind. There was not a soul around besides us, not a surfer, nor boater, nor mariner. And though we knew we were being treated to some rare glimpses of nature’s untamable wildness, we also knew we needed to get off the island as soon as possible. The sky grew darker with each breath and gust of wind, and we realized we’d be boating back to Wrightsville Beach in virtual darkness.
The waterway was deserted, too. Boats had already been brought into sheltered waters. Nobody in their right mind would be here now amidst this storm, except for surfers seeking the thrill, pushing the limits, flirting with the danger.
As Dale gunned up the boat, Derrick lifted the anchor, and we were off, speeding through the storm in total darkness. The sideways rain felt like sand pellets on our bodies and faces. When the sky lit up with lightning that seemed to dart into the sea some hundred yards behind us, we all howled in nervous exhilaration. We were close to the pulse, to natural power that could truly destroy us, and we felt it. When a second bolt of lightning flashed across the sky and lit up the storm, Keith and I pulled our hands from metal rails and stuffed our feet into rubber sandals – just in case.
The effect of being so close to the power of nature was indeed humbling. We felt our fragility at the hands of forces so much greater than ourselves. Forces that we knew, from the destruction unleashed by Hurricane Katrina, could level entire cities. Forces that could consume our little lives in a flash.
As Ophelia struck, we knew our week of fabulous surf had come to an end. But there was still hope, it was only mid-September. And as Hurricane Ophelia blew ashore along the NC coast, a mere category one hurricane, we lost electrical power almost immediately. And though she didn’t do near the damage that Katrina did, she still reminded us human folks of our smallness. And as she raged, most surfers thought not about their belongings at risk, but reflected back on the waves they scored while she sat off the coast funneling out her surf. Her surf was her gift, but like all things, the surf had a price. Hurricane Ophelia flooded some coastal neighborhoods, downed trees, and left countless thousands of NC residents without power for several days. Schools were closed, some served as shelters for the homeless.
Throughout a lifetime of surfing, nature has treated me to some rare, life-altering glimpses of her wildness. I’ve surfed red-colored waves in sunset skies thick with smoke from some of SoCal’s worst coastal fires. On deserted winter days, I’ve shared Cali point breaks reeling to perfection with my closest friends. I’ve danced that unique liquid ocean glide during solar eclipses, and during the middle of the night beneath the full moon. I’ve had the good fortune to taste saltwater on shores all over the world, and I have lived and breathed breaking waves with dolphins, seals, otters, and even whales. But never, until this past September, had I surfed the outer edge of a hurricane. To be that close to nature as she rages with such ferocity was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. And for this, I bow in humility before the Atlantic, and offer my respects to my brother and sister surfers the world over. Whether we be East or West Coasters, children of the Pacific, the Atlantic, or the Indian, we are all ocean folks – one tribe – with our bodies, souls, and even our fiberglass sticks locked into the whirling, rhythmic pulse of Mama Nature.
[Ari Marsh is a California native and author of “The Soul Rider” surfing books.]