For what seemed like ages, Delmarva’s coastline had been absent of surf-worthy waves — until Tropical Storm Ernesto wrangled her way up the coast over the Labor Day weekend, bringing swells ranging anywhere from 8 to 12 feet in height and possibly bigger, depending on the location, sets and who you ask.
Ernesto’s long arm began ratcheting the waves up Friday, but by Saturday morning the waves were definitely surfable — big, but surfable. Ocean City’s waters were closed during lifeguard hours, due to debris, according to Ocean City Beach Patrol lifeguard Edward Kovacs. So area surfers descended on the Indian River Inlet for a first taste of the 2006 hurricane season.
There’s no sure way to tell how many surfers paddled out to surf the inlet but estimates range from 50 to 200, and many of them may have not had enough experience to handle the conditions. Broken boards littered the shoreline like a cigarette butts at a Phillip Morris convention and were a direct result of either little to no experience surfing in crowded conditions.
Novice surfer Darin Felix of Salisbury paddled out on a borrowed 7.5-foot fun-shape board and didn’t last long. His board, like dozens of others, snapped like a toothpick.
Bayard resident Dave Rodriguez paddled out through the sizeable surf and seeming minefield of surfers but erred on the side of caution. Between other surfers riding waves in and those paddling out, the surfers had to be selective.
“It was probably the biggest waves I’ve ever seen,” Rodriguez said, “so I was really, really careful. I didn’t drop in on too many [waves]. Either someone else was in better position or was in the way.”
Bethany Surf Shop employee Len Janssen didn’t surf the Inlet due to his work schedule, though he did surf Bethany Beach a few hours here and there, between shifts, and heard all about the difficulties at the Inlet.
“I heard it was a circus over there,” Janssen recalled. “They said it was speed bumps every where.”
In addition to the packed lineups, tons of interested spectators nestled themselves along the beach, bridge (despite a police officer’s best efforts) and anywhere else they could get a good vantage point of surfers riding the moving giants.
Usually, surfers receive attention from their buddies in the lineup or maybe an interested couple walking along the beach, but Tropical Storm Ernesto drew the crowds to the Inlet in something that resembled the Pipeline Classic in Hawaii.
“The beach was packed,” Rodriguez said. “It was a huge scene. There were cameras all over the place. It felt like something else.”
Salisbury resident and body boarder Joe Swann didn’t wade into the ocean’s bounty until Sunday morning. But he did venture his way to the Inlet for a first-hand look at fruits of Tropical Storm Ernesto on Saturday morning and was amazed.
“It was awesome,” Swann said. “I was in awe. Those were the biggest waves I’ve ever seen.”
On May 22, the National Hurricane Center announced its forecast that the upcoming North Atlantic hurricane season would be more active than usual. An average season has 11 named storms, including six hurricanes, of which two are major hurricanes. The initial forecast for 2006 was for 13 to 16 named storms, including eight to 10 hurricanes, of which four to six might be major hurricanes. That forecast has since been reduced. Regardless, they did not expect a repeat of last year’s record-breaking 28 named storms, which included 15 hurricanes, seven of them major.
Hurricane season officially begins June 1 and runs to Nov. 30 each year, and though Tropical Storm Ernesto was the first and had a relatively late arrival (Sept. 1), more will continue crank out of the tropical Caribbean and Equatorial Atlantic waters.
“We’re only halfway through [hurricane season],” Rodriguez said. “This could be a late year, but we’re definitely due for more.”
As of 11 a.m. on Sept. 6, Tropical Storm Florence is heading west-north-west at 12 miles per hour and was projected to slide up the East Coast, though more out to sea.
Hurricane swells are tons of fun for surfers, though it is important to respect the ocean. Large waves move faster and obviously have much more power behind them, so it is important for your safety and that of others to know your limitations.
Surfing or riding big waves isn’t for everyone. One should be mindful of where you paddle out; don’t drop in on surfers (a good rule of thumb anyway); take a friend, if possible; and if you can’t paddle out or duck-dive a wave, then you probably shouldn’t be out there.