The bad weather comes out of nowhere.
In the blink of a salt-rubbed eye, a perfect day at the beach -- the smell of sunscreen, the squeals of sandy toddlers and the gaggles of bikini-girls, the scorch of sunny skies and the squawk of seagulls— turns into a raging, torrential, wrath-of-god tempest. The wind picks up, the temperature drops ten degrees in as many minutes, the barometric pressure plummets, and the sky takes on dark chiaroscuro tones, ominous against the traces of warm light disappearing on the horizon. Beach lovers, rudely awakened from their seaside reveries, gather their things and scatter like crows. The wind whips the ocean into a froth of whitewater and salt spray, and the sand rises up in a burning mist. The rain, when it comes, comes horizontal and heavy. The Outer Banks, a place depicted in postcards and pamphlets as a land of blue skies and blazing sunsets — now, suddenly, a dark brooding netherworld of cloud, wind, and shifting sand. The storm will last a day, possibly three, maybe seven. Black clouds will hang heavy in the sky, the fierce ocean wind out of the northeast will permeate everything with its damp chill. Most folks will be driven indoors, to hibernate until the next patch of good weather.
But here and there, up and down the shore, there are signs of life.
In front of Avalon pier, a rag-tag procession of pickup trucks, SUV’s, and beat-up sedans with racks on top rolls through the parking lot, each vehicle pulling up to a different spot along the bulkhead, and parking to face the sea. They will stay a minute or two, maybe ten or twenty, maybe an hour — engines running, tailpipe smoke wisping in the damp wind — their drivers warm inside, watching, waiting. A few intrepid fishermen brave it out on the pier, the platform trembling with each wave crashing through the rickety pilings, the spray shooting up through the planks and drenching their trousers. Clouds of seafoam roll along the sand, breakers lash against houses laid bare to the ocean’s fury from years of shoreline erosion.
Somewhere down the beach, a pack of young gremlins is out surfing the slop, bobbing up and down in the chunky soup, whooping and hollering as the sea tosses them around and whitewater sprays their faces. There’s little hope of getting a decent ride in conditions like this, but the kids don’t care; it’s better than staying inside playing video games. Red flags on the beach flutter furiously, reading “NO SWIMMING”…but no one said anything about surfing.
A woman in a raincoat walks past, her hand clasping tightly to the hood, body slanted sideways into the wind, a dog on a leash. A few gulls are swarming around something that has washed up in the storm.
Other than that, the beach is empty.
But inside houses all up and down the Outer Banks, surfers are listening to the mechanical voice coming from the NOAA weather radio, its uninflected drone creating a soundtrack for their anticipation: ”Waves. ten to fifteen feet. Winds. east-northeast. at. thirty-five to forty knots. becoming southwest. at. five to ten. by. Sunday.” Conversations in bars, surf shops, 7-11’s and post offices revolve around speculations, predictions, high hopes and jaded doubts. Buoy readings, tide charts,Surfline, Magic Seaweed, the Weather Channel…the dedicated are piecing the conflicting reports together like so many ingredients in a witches’ brew, poring over the information like mad scientists, knowing that however hard they try, they will never know what tomorrow holds. Days of anticipation over an approaching swell often end in total disappointment. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, beautiful clean lines of peaky A-frames or spitting barrels appear -- rippable, shacking walls of pure energy -- despite all predictions to the contrary. You just never know. The only thing to do is to wake at dawn with coffee in your cup and a prayer in your heart, and go get wet.
Without storms, there would be no surf. The winds generated by cyclones, hurricanes, nor’easters and low pressure systems churn up the surface of the ocean; and the nastier the storm, the bigger the surf that is ultimately generated by it. As the waves on the open ocean crash into each other, their energy focuses into swells, directional pulses of energy moving across the ocean’s surface, which close ranks, fan out, and commence a centrifugal march through the unobstructed sea. The further the swells travel away from their tempestuous origins, the more organized and regular they become. But as a swell travels across the open ocean, it eventually begins to lose some of the fierce energy that created it; and if it travels too far, it will gradually fade back into the sea. If, however, it finds itself confronted with a solid obstruction–-a rocky point, a sandy beach, a barely submerged reef–-it will crash and burn violently in an explosion of whitewater and curl, an endlessly-repeating expression of the life force that animates the universe.
It is this violent but beautiful death of the swell that makes possible the art of surf. The shape of the ocean floor as it rises to meet the coast pushes and sculpts the toppling swell into an infinite variety of “breaks”; from fat, hollow, beachbreak barrels to long, sloping pointbreaks. As the wave breaks along the shore, it jacks up into a cylindrical wall before crashing over top of itself. Along the fast-moving vertical edge of this wall, surfers explore a magical interplay of gravity and kinetic energy, fusing their movements with the changing shape and speed of the wave in a performance that is part dance, part communion, and part martial art -- with no small amount of showmanship and bluster from those who can do it well.
The surf on the Outer Banks is of a variety generally termed beach break, as opposed to more exotic formations such a reef break or point break. The shoreline is one long, straight stretch of sand, with no bays, promontories, or hard stone of any kind to buffer the wind, or to hold the sand in place. What makes surfing possible here are small hill-sized bumps of submerged sand that collect around piers or form in random spots along the beach from the shifting ocean currents. These underwater dunes -- known commonly as sandbars -- lie just offshore, and as the tide shifts they rise closer to the ocean’s surface, forcing the incoming swells to break over top of them. The shape and position of the sandbars affects the shape and quality of the waves that break there. Some sandbars are steep and evenly-shaped, like cones, forming A-frame waves that break on both sides -- or as they say, rights to the right and lefts to the left. Others are shaped like long wrinkles parallel to the shore, and throw up fast, hollow, tubular waves which are extremely difficult but exhilarating to ride. Some sandbars have low rises and soft edges, and create long, slow, easy waves -- until the giant swells come and they become big-wave magnets.
As a result of these different qualities, different breaks attract different kinds of surfers. Some sandbars have little bumps closer to shore perfect for executing aerial maneuvers, and are sometimes nicknamed “showoff sandbars”. Some hold only steep, critical waves, and anybody out on a crowded day who doesn’t know how to handle them will get the stink-eye from the local crew. Somewhere up the beach there is usually a soft, gently breaking sandbar, which almost always holds friendly, fun waves and a friendly, fun crowd of locals in the water. The hard-core shortboard crew tends to mock the crowd that hangs here, donning the break with such titles as “Old Man’s Beach” or “Rogaine Reef” due toits preponderance of older longboarders and stand-up paddleboarders. But stay and watch the local talent there and you’ll catch some fancy old-school maneuvers by young longboarders crosswalking and nose-riding, and the growing pack of SUP enthusiasts popping 360’s on their 8-foot paddleboards. Or head south to the sucking sandbars of Hatteras Island and watch the pros pulling into spitting barrels with an ease and skill that takes a lifetime to master. Something for everyone, provided you know your limits. Some days it’s pros and freaks only, when the waves get double-overhead and the residue of the storm is still churning up the water, and the current can suck you a mile down the beach in a matter of minutes. Other days it’s waist high and kook-friendly, so long as you mind your manners.
After a particularly violent storm, the sandbars shift, requiring an exhaustive reconnaissance and re-mapping of the shoreline to find the spots where the wave is breaking the best. Once the surf begins to clean up after a storm, the cell-phones start lighting up, as the crew fill each other in on where they’ve checked and how it looks. On the morning of a clean-up, the dedicated set out at dawn and may drive hours up and down the beach before suiting up, trying to find the spot where the wave is breaking the best.
A good sandbar can last a year, sometimes longer; often a spot will die for a year or two and then re-emerge with a slightly different size and shape to it. Some die slow deaths, some die quickly in big storms. There are certain spots that consistently attract good sandbars, and other spots that just magically appear one summer or fall in unexpected places.
The window of opportunity for good surf on the Outer Banks is small. The surf starts off sloppy and confused, too big, too much whitewater….and slowly it becomes cleaner and cleaner…for an hour or two, maybe three, it’s perfect. Peaky A-frames coming in one after the other, enough for everybody, smooth as silk…Then, as soon as it comes together, it begins to die. The tide comes in, the swells diminish in size and power, maybe the wind shifts once again and blows everything out. “You missed it this morning” is a common gloat the hardcore like to throw out to their I-got-wasted-last-night-and-slept-til-noon brethren, who still manage to get out and have a good time surfing the tail end of it. The next day, the ocean will be flat, or choppy, or just not quite good enough to bother; and the crew will disappear until after the next storm.
The ocean takes all comers, from burnt-out punks to born-again Christians; from pre-teen gremlins to guys in their sixties and seventies, even eighties. Girls, too, lots of them -- charging big waves, walking longboards with effortless style, or just floating on their boards with the backs of their bikini bottoms rising out of the water, driving the boys to distraction. There are summer surfers, Sunday surfers; guys who won’t surf if it’s too cold to trunk it; guys who will ALWAYS paddle out, even on the iciest days….there are brat packs and lone wolves, world-famous globetrotting professionals, and mellow stoners who just want to get wet and catch a ride. In the summer, there are tourists –- loads of them –- trying to figure it out on rented styrofoam boards, or clogging some spot with a surf school. And whenever the surf is really good, the Virginia Beach crew rolls in like a band of Turks, charging it at the best spots, pulling crazy aerial maneuvers, and generally acting like they own the place.
The level of talent is high; and at certain spots, if a heavy crew is out, it can feel downright intimidating if you don’t know what you’re doing. Generally, however, the vibe is friendly, or at the very least polite, and everybody is just stoked to be surfing. But if it’s too aggro you can just head on down to the next break, or the next town. There are miles and miles of beach, and the large majority of waves, even on a good day, go unridden. Many locals prefer to keep to their own little spot, the one closest to their house or their job, regardless of whether it’s better elsewhere. The home break might not be the best break, but it saves time from running up and down the beach doing all that searching. And besides, that’s where your buddies will be, and being out in the water with your mates is half the fun.
Surfers the world over know that it’s not just about the ride. Ask anybody who has logged untold hours paddling against the current, taken it on the head more times than they can count, and sat forever shivering, waiting for the next wave. All for a twenty-second thrill? Not exactly. We celebrate the peak action, but it’s the in-between moments that really make surfing a life. Getting a new board shaped. Running into an old friend out in the water and catching up between sets. Sharing forecast info with the guy at the bank. Throwing on a warm flannel shirt after peeling off a cold wetsuit. The smell of Sticky Bumps, resin, and sunblock. And the visuals. The god-light, the green room, the white sparkles of midday, the orange glory of late-afternoon. There are few more sublime moments to experience in life than that of sitting out in the lineup on a perfect Outer Banks day with three or four friends, sometime around sunset, watching the world turn into a blazing canvas of reds, oranges, yellows, magentas, blues–sometimes even greens–and catching wave after wave as the day begins to fade. On a glassy evening, with just a touch of humidity in the air to obscure the horizon, the ocean reflects the colors in the sky so perfectly it feels as if you are swimming in a sea of light.
A life of surf is not conducive to the rhythms of the workaday world. Surf has no schedule. It comes on a Monday morning as often as it comes on a Sunday afternoon–which is why very little ever gets done on time around here. If the surf is up, or the fish are running, responsibilities will get put on hold. Kids will play hookie, construction workers will walk off the job site, even realtors will sneak in a midday session. The work will get done, eventually; but the swell won’t wait for quitting time. You have to strike when it’s hot, even if it means pissing a few people off. Surf-consciousness breeds a certain nonchalance about the rest of the world that can drive outsiders crazy.
Sometimes it tests families and relationships, the surf life; but more often than not it builds them and solidifies them. Grandfathers go surfing with their grandkids, husbands and wives paddle out together, church groups and restaurants represent out in the water. It is a language that ties people together– talking about the last swell, the next swell, what the wind is doing, where you last had it good, where you’re thinking of going for your winter surf trip…
We are blessed to live here on the Outer Banks, we all know it. But like the surf itself, the very ground on which we live and build our homes is fickle. Every big storm takes a house or two with it. Inlets have been cut and closed, entire towns have been covered in sand, the ocean is rising, and the sand is slowly migrating southwest, leaving the oceanfront infrastructures in constant peril. We have blatantly ignored the warnings about houses built on sand, and some of us have paid dearly for it. Arguments flare about what to do when a big storm rips up the beach road or a beach gets eroded to nothing. “You can’t fight mother nature” some say. To which others reply, “without our beach, we are nothing”. The debate will continue to rage until we are all washed away.
Life here is precarious; and temporary, we all know: one of these days, one of these storms will sweep through and blow this little strip of sand to smithereens. We all know it is coming. We joke about it, resign ourselves to it, construct possible scenarios for other lives in other places, should we ever lose our home here. Given sufficient warning, many of us will pack whatever we can into our trucks and head for the mainland; some of us, like the old sea-captains of yore, will just let the storm wash over us and take us out to sea; for all it has given to us, it seems only fitting that it would one day take our lives in return.
Until that day, however, there are fish to catch, waves to ride, and many perfect days left to sit on the beach and stare off into the horizon, watching the weather change.