Every year we go through the motions of either getting overly excited about the upcoming Hurricane season, or we get completely jaded by it. It's hard not to take notice when the forecasters come out and say without any hesitation, "This is going to be a VERY ACTIVE Hurricane season." Though those exact words, are usually the kiss of death when it comes to "Active Hurricane Seasons." Still, we have had a few pretty active seasons. Off the top of my head, I can think of three years that produced some consistent Hurricanes and Tropical Storms.
1989, 1995, and 2005. Those were all very good years. But if I had to pick one?
I'd pick 1989. The year that Gabrielle sat off our coast for days, and then got bounced out by Felix. Or as I am fond of saying...Felix mated with Gabrielle and the two of them produced a week or more of surf, that rivaled all Hurricane swells that came before, or after.
That year was special in so many ways for me.
Cory and I were married just under two years that September, when we found out that we were expecting our first child. That was such an amazing time
in our lives. Knowing that we would soon be parents, was a life changing course, that made everything we did, now seem so important and significant. We were nest building, and making mental, and physical preparations, for the arrival of this new child, who was due in early May. We had no idea, if the baby was a girl, or a boy.
We were old school in that manner. Trying to guess if the baby was
a boy or a girl, was part of that unknown ambiance that we had created.
When Hurricane Gabrielle
came up the coast and sat off of New England, it took my mind off of the new baby. In fact, it took my mind off of a lot of things. Work, band, family, and friends. I was after all a Surfer. And Gabrielle looked in a word... impressive. And she was. Spawning magnificent ocean swells for days on end, she sent us overhead glassy barrels, that had us all giddy.
I have many memories of that swell. Two in particular. First a friend (Stan Bocko)
let me borrow his plastic bag, that you can put a movie camera in, and shoot in the water without getting the camera wet. I was all over it. I put my GAF Super 8mm camera in the bag, and swam out to that popular left point, and shot what I thought
at the time was, perfect barrels of my friends getting shacked all morning long.
One wave in particular, was a double barrel, that my friend Kevin Grondin got. I was freaking out because I held on until the last minute getting that shot, even letting the wave launch me up and over the falls and straight down into the bottom. But it was worth it. I shot for two hours. Then I went in and got my board, and paddled out to that popular right point break, that is right across the bay.
I waited for a nice set wave, and then took off, only to have a friend drop in on me, and force me to straighten out right into the rocks!
My leash broke and I got several dings.
I was not happy. That is a long swim in.
I got my board and went looking for another leash. By the time I found another leash the tide was wrong for that spot, so we went to a Higher tide break.
The surf was
still very big. In fact it seemed bigger. I was hitting my mark on every wave and really just having fun. When a big set approached, I went to do a duck dive, and turned my head ever so slightly. The lip hit me with such a full force directly on my left ear, that it instantly blew my eardrum out and ruptured my ear.
My head was spinning. I had 100% complete vertigo. I could not stop the world from spinning. It was the most bizarre thing I've ever had happen to me in the water. I could not stay on my board. The horizon just kept turning on me. And there were more waves coming. I was in trouble. I looked over to where one of my friends had been and called over to him. "I need help...I can't open my eyes without everything spinning out of control." But my friend thought I was joking and paddled away from me. It was Harry. To this day I have to stop myself for wanting to slap him off the top of his head for that day.
He actually said to me later..."You're Ralph, you never need any help!" "You idiot, I was in trouble out there! I could of drowned!" Long story short, I made my way back to the beach by swimming out beyond the impact zone, and found a channel to paddle in. I kept my eyes closed the whole time, so I could stop the vertigo.
I made it back to the shore, where I had to still help myself back to the Grondin's home.
Kim ended up driving me to the hospital. It was not the first time, nor was it the last time, I went to the hospital because of surfing. My ear was toast. I was done.
So I missed the rest of Gabrielle, and the new swell from Felix. Ugh. Oh and the footage I shot in the water? Yea, well none of it came out. The bag was a joke. Condensation ruined every single clip. Oh yea...
I told my wife that night, that if our baby is a girl, we should name her Gabrielle. With her middle name "Marina", which means 'of the sea.' Gabby was born born on May 9th, 1990. My wife and I both thought Gabrielle was going to be a boy. My first child was named after a Hurricane, that almost killed me.
I asked some of my close friends, and notable local players, what their favorite Hurricane was, and why. Here's what they had to say:
ED O'CONNEL Surf Photographer-
"Ralph, to answer your question, for me it has to be last year’s (2010) Hurricane Earl. A rather well behaved hurricane, cruising by us about 90 miles to the East, it was considerate enough to travel rather quietly up the coast so as not to give the hyperactive fear mongers from the Weather Channel and local news any overtime pay. It was an almost perfect hurricane in the eyes of New England surfers and insurance men since it generated a few high winds, but mostly sent some nice, orderly, waves marching toward us, and kept most of the drama well offshore.
The only flaw I can find is it sent its best surf to us on a Saturday and Sunday, rather than a nice quiet mid-week swell free of traffic, parking hassles and Chinese surfboards clogging the lineup.
The reason Earl the Pearl stands out for me is that it came as I was finally, at last, comfortable with digital shooting. I had been shooting hurricane surf since 1965, but to be free of Kodak, the 36 exposure roll of film, the week long wait to see the images, and the annoying shutter lag of my early digital equipment, was like, well, a day at the beach. My new Nikon was the perfect tool to capture a few clean, sunny, morning waves. Hopefully this was the start of a trend and I will be ready for as many well light, photogenic, monster waves the future hurricanes can send our way."
KEVIN "DOC" GRONDIN Longtime Hurricane Chaser 39 years (since 1972)
"I've been chased from behind with trees snappin while driving away from a storm, straight out scared shitless dropping over ledges of waves. Beat to a pulp by rogue sets from hell , me and my board! None of the above stand out like Hurricane Felix 1989 because it was the largest, long lasting, surf til you can't, then do the same thing over the next day. Hurricane Felix meandered around, did circles, stalls, then finished off right here at home in New Hammy. The swell lasted somewhere between 7-10 days of near perfect, windless and over head, the entire swell. Hard to beat when you can get in shape on our coast and still have a few days to play."
STEVE O'HARA Surfer- Owner PIONEERS in North Hampton, NH-
"Hurricane Belle, 1976, is my most memorable hurricane surf mainly because it's a child hood memory. Hurricane Belle was the third tropical storm and first hurricane of the 1976 Atlantic hurricane season. The system formed as a tropical depression northeast of the Bahamas and strengthened as it moved northward towards New York and New England. Belle became a major hurricane that threatened much of the East Coast of the United States. However, the storm weakened prior to landfall and struck Long Island, New York, as a Category-1 hurricane, spreading moderate to heavy rainfall from eastern North Carolina through New England. The system evolved into an extratropical cyclone as it passed through New England. Belle caused $100 million (1976 US dollars) in damage.
I went to bed on the eve of Belle knowing that a hurricane would pass over while I slept. I didn't really know what a hurricane was and what it could do, but that made this special. I woke up early and ran out the front door. The sky was still dark, the wind was blowing 35mph, and the surf was double overhead storm surf. There was no way I was surfing today....so I thought.
My next door neighbor and best friend, Peter Harter, and I did everything together including checking the surf that morning. Peter's older brother Bill was going to take a drive up the coast that morning so we jumped in the car with him. As we rounded the corner at Foxhill there were surfers out at Rye Rocks, we stopped and watched a couple rides before proceeding north to Ogunquit, Maine were I walked into the first surf shop of my life, Wheels and Waves. I remember buying a bar of grape Sex Wax. So rad!!!!!
By the time we got back home the wind had died down and the surf had glassed off. It was solid head plus beach break and all the local Seabrook boys were out. Larry Randall, Peter Essigmann, Paul Hamlet, etc.. There was no way my mom was letting me or Peter surf. We just sat and watched knowing that the only chance of surfing Hurricane Belle was begging our dads to take us when they got home from work.
After dinner we talked our dad's into taking us down to the beach so we could surf. We grabbed our 5'2" Surf System twin fins and headed over the dunes it was low tide, well overhead sets, and breaking on the outer sand bar. Our father's thought there was no way we would make it out and let us try our luck. So off we went paddling through the inner deep water trench and heading to the outer sand bar, the wind was offshore west 10+mph and the lines were groomed. It was all about timing since we didn't know how to duck dive. The object was to gain ground then, as a set came we would turn our backs to the waves trying not to loose any ground while waiting for that window of opportunity to paddle our asses off hoping to beat the next set. Much to our fathers' surprise we made it out to the line-up!!
So there we are sitting out in what seemed like the middle of the ocean, nobody out but us, just two eleven year old kids and Belle. When the first real set came we quickly realized how big it really was. We'd moved in, we'd scramble out,we were looking for a wave that would give us a ride and not a beating. We could only see our fathers when we went over the sets and our concern turned from surfing to making it back to the beach. After a half hour we decided we would both go for the same wave so one of us wouldn't have to sit out there alone. The plan sounded great and as the next set approached we started paddling for our lives, I felt the wave pick me up and as I drop down the face, I realized Peter wasn't with me, he missed it. There was nothing I could do at this point, I remember carving the open face all the way to the beach. Peter ended up getting hit by the white water of the next set wave and death gripped his board all the way to the beach. Standing on the beach it felt good to be back on solid ground and our parents felt very lucky they didn't have to call the coast guard!
I have surfed hundreds of hurricanes since Hurricane Belle and just like our winter storms, you have to experience the storm before getting to surf it. Hurricane belle offered the full hurricane experience and for that reason it has remained ingrained in my memory.
One thing I learned the hard way that day that I still share with beginner surfers is to KNOW YOUR LIMITS."
DAVE "CROP" CROPPER Surfer- Owner CINNAMON RAINBOWS in Hampton, NH-
"Looking back I think The 1989 Hurricane season really stands out in my mind. That was a really good year. Gabrielle and Felix were really good. I remember Peter Randall had some incredible data saying how we had so many chest high to overhead days. Just incredible record keeping. It was like 66% from May 1st to October 31st of good waist high or better. And 33% of those days were big. Chest to Overhead. Plus the water was tropical warm.
The other great year was 1995 where we would surf almost every day in the summer. We would go to the beach sunburned and rashed all over, and almost wish that the surf was gone. You know, like if there was no surf, that would of been OK. But the surf was so consistent that year it was crazy.
Hurricane Edouard in 1996 was another storm. I had my 7' 3" big wave board and the wind had switched in the afternoon to offshore, and it was really big. It felt like we were on a surf trip. There's nothing like surfing big waves here in New Hampshire with really warm water. It's just so good!"
MIKE "ZAPPY" PAUGH Surfer- Owner ZAPSTIX in Seabrook, NH-
"Definitely Hurricane Felix in 1989. That thing just hung around for days. What was it? Like 10 days or something? I have a large photo in my glassing room that Dean Savastano gave me of Felix. Just so many days of waves...it was unreal."
BRIAN NEVINS Surf Photographer-GET IN THE VAN
"It's all relative really. You love the satisfaction, the disappointment, the wasted gas money, the high hopes, the anticipation, the let downs and the more than expected. Hurricanes are surfing's version of perpetually dating. Maybe you do meet the right storm; the one that is everything you ever wanted in a swell, and you simply put it in your past immediately, because the next one might be better.
Later you look back on your past hurricanes and only remember the good times and call them up in a drunken state through fish tales and exaggerations because now it's November and you're lonely again.
Let me speak as a born New Englander though, the forced abstinence of summer has always made that first time back in the saddle seem way better than it really is. I do hold some of my past storms close to heart don't get me wrong. I miss them sometimes during flat spells. Danielle and her perfectly delayed lines that everybody left prematurely before she ever started her show. Jeanne stayed around the OBX so long I forgot I was on the east coast; and who can forget the threesome Frances, Ivan and Juan gave us. I even miss the wenches who brought me nothing but pain and suffering. I'm talking about you Bill… you over hyped Surfline joke, Irene you take everything give nothing gold digger, Gloria you bi-polar destructive psycho…
I've come to an emotional maturity in my life now however, the hurricanes of what a joke past mean nothing to me now. I've settled on looking forward to my one true love… the Nor'Easter. You never have a name, there's no hype and the inland empire surely isn't interested in trying to hit on you in front of me. I patiently await for the cold, the snow and the whiny locals to loathe your presence. If I had to pick a favorite storm I guess you could call it "any given November to May".
There you have it folks. Hurricanes and Tropical Storms. They are an integral part of our whole make up as surfers and documenters of New England surfing. Some people love them, while others could care less. It's all a simple matter of personal preference. One thing is for sure though, when they do set up just right and sit out in our window, and shoot line, after long line of perfectly groomed ground swell waves...well, we are all enamored with it's gifts.
Male or Female. A warm water tropical storm is a nice way to end anyone's summer and to get ready for our winter storms.
Surfing Heals ALL Wounds...