The summer months bring plenty of sun, tourists and revenue to the shores of Delaware. What they don’t bring plenty of, however, is surfable waves. After a long and flat three months of summer, local surfers trade in their fun shapes, dust off their wetsuits and start tracking tropical storms in preparation for another long-awaited East Coast hurricane season.
Professional surfer and Sussex County native Colin Herlihy is ready for the fall. The crowds start dwindling, the weather is perfect and the waves are firing.
In fact, when Hurricane Sandy was threatening the entire East Coast last October, Herlihy was out in the water, charging it.
While Ocean City, Md., was being evacuated and the Ocean City Fishing Pier being dismantled board by board, he was ducking the National Guard, trying to get his personal watercraft into the water and pulling into some of the biggest waves the East Coast has ever seen.
Using a method called “step-offs,” where two people are on the watercraft and the driver puts the surfer into the most critical part of the wave before he jumps off onto the wave, Herlihy and fellow pro-surfer Raven Lundy of Virginia Beach took turns driving the watercraft and launching each other into massive walls of water.
“I just remained calm and had faith that [Raven] would put me on a wave that wouldn’t kill me,” he recalled. “There was no second-guessing it.”
Fighting 60 mph winds and risking imminent death, the two East Coast pros made history that day.
“[Raven] is one of my best friends, and I trust him with my life. He has taught me so much on how to drive a ’ski in a safe manner in hurricane surf. We keep each other out of bad situations.”
Aside from customizing his 2007 Yamaha with a few safety items, experience, communication and trusted friends are the only things Herlihy depends on to keep himself out of trouble during risky endeavors.
Herlihy attributed his knack for big-wave surfing to his father, who pioneered and named a number of premiere breaks in Puerto Rico for East Coast surfers, including one of Rincon’s biggest breaks, Tres Palms.
“When I first surfed Tres Palms with my dad, I was 14. That’s where my passion began,” he explained.
Staying busy during the summer by making appearances at Bethany Surf Shop’s weekly “Skim Jam,” where he lets local kids test out skimboards and bodyboards — including his own signature standup body board — Herlihy has already ordered his hurricane boards in preparation for this year’s tropical storms.
“My plan of attack when tropical storms start forming in the fall is to stay calm, try not to feed into the hype of the Weather Channel, relax and make the call about where I’m going the night before the swell hits. These storms can change their direction in a heartbeat. I could end up driving all night, anywhere from Maine to North Carolina or anywhere in between.”
Even though he caught some of the best rides of his life during Sandy, the destruction the storm caused hit close to home.
“A lot of my friends from New York and New Jersey lost everything,” Herlihy said, putting the impact in perspective. “We are so lucky. I’ve said the same thing before the Sandy tragedy and after: I just want huge waves, no damage and, of course, what every Delaware surfer wants — to see the jetties in Bethany return!”
After hurricane season, it’s traveling and hunting season for the Bethany-based pro. While he’s usually jetting for Oahu to take on the North Shore, this year he’ll be introducing some Southern Delaware charm to Europe, when he heads for France and Spain toward the end of the fall.
When the weather gets cold, he’ll be headed somewhere tropical, returning home to the farmlands of backwoods Delaware to chase whitetail and waterfowl and break out the heavy-duty wetsuits in between.
Herlihy records most of his Delmarva adventures and posts them on his website at BackwoodsCrew.com, which is dedicated to surfing, hunting, fishing and the outdoor life in the local area, as well as in his travels.
It isn’t likely that the East Coast will see a hurricane of historical proportions like Sandy this fall, but on the off chance that it does, Herlihy will be ready for it.
“There’s no doubt in my mind we’ll be out there. We live for days like that. When it’s mid-July, tourists everywhere, lifeguards on duty, we’re daydreaming about a chance to surf waves like Sandy produced.”