As a self-proclaimed amateur meteorologist (a title that many East Coast surfers take on), I've enjoyed tracking and chasing these tropical systems for years now. In the process of getting skunked or scoring, and everywhere in between, I've learned some useful tips for seeking out the best surf. Here's a quick list of five tips to consider when chasing East Coast hurricanes.
Find a spot that can handle long-period energy.
Unlike the typical short-period wind swells to which east coasters are accustomed, hurricanes produce longer-period swells (with periods longer than 13 seconds) that travel greater distances, producing longer wavelengths and increased power. While long-period swells bring in more energy, most beachbreaks along the East Coast will be plagued with mile-long closeouts. So instead of wasting time racing through dumping walls without escape, find a jetty, a pier, a unique sandbar, or any structure to organize the swell. Your boards will thank you. (Surfers in the Northeast typically avoid this problem because of their rugged coastline.)
Come prepared with some rubber.
Slow moving hurricanes are known to churn up the water and dramatically lower sea-surface temperatures. This phenomenon, known as vertical mixing, occurs when strong surface winds create turbulent seas and mix different levels of the ocean. Since vertical mixing can occur over a few hours, the storm sometime loses the warm-water fuel it needs for maintenance and strengthening.
Understand your bathymetry.
The long-period nature of hurricane swells means underwater bathymetry plays a much more important role. Long-period swells possess extensive downward energy that can reach an ocean floor down to 1000ft deep. When these groundswells drag along the East Coast's extensive continental shelf, the friction causes immediate wave depletion. Therefore, when seeking out the best waves, try finding a spot with a shortened shelf (Cape Hatteras, NC) or an underwater canyon (Long Beach, NY).
Note the storm’s movement.
As Surfline forecaster Adam Wright explains, "A stationary hurricane sends out swell equally in all directions. A moving system will always send the most energy along its movement path. So a storm heading at 270 degrees will send most of its swell energy straight west. The other areas will send out some energy, particularly if the system is moving slowly, but it will be a lesser amount than along the main track. If the storm is moving away from you at a good speed there is little chance of getting waves." So, before you become too anxious for that next round of hurricane surf, be sure the swell is actually headed your way.
Due to the unique nature of each tropical storm, swell windows are super unpredictable. Winds will be howling onshore all day and then clean up for a few hours of surfable conditions before dusk. Be prepared. Repair broken boards to fortify your quiver; summertime flatness has given you ample time to fill in those dings and that flapping deck pad. Having a few backup boards is never a bad idea. Change the oil, put air in the tires, and gas the tank. Keep an eye on the flags, buoys, tides, and cams. Some spots will be better than others, and then some spots will be way better than others. If you want the best surf, have a plan of action for when the stars align.
There’s your crash course in amateur meteorology. That doesn’t mean every coming hurricane will bring you waves, but these tips should at least give you a fighting chance to score. Track each storm, educate yourself on the right spots, be patient, and when the time comes, save the claims for after the storm.