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After The Storm
…A life of Surf on the Outer Banks
The bad weather comes out of nowhere. Within hours, sometimes minutes, a perfect day at the beach–kids playing in the surf, girls in bikinis parading up and down the shoreline, middle-aged men tending fishing rods, beer in hand–turns into a raging 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. In no time at all, the wind whips the ocean up into a froth of whitewater and salt spray. The picture-postcard shoreline of North Carolina’s Outer Banks has donned its alter ego: a raging, dark, but strangely beautiful land of cloud, wind,and blowing sand.
The storm will last a day, possibly three, maybe seven. Black clouds will hover ominously, the brisk 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, 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 down the beach, 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.” Buoy reports, tide charts, surf forecast sites, the Weather Channel…the dedicated are poring over every last piece of information they can get, crossing their fingers that the swells will increase in size and duration and the wind will switch offshore, grooming the ocean’s surface into clean parallel lines. They live for the morning they will wake to find that the storm has passed on, and the raging sea has begun to clean up into beautiful, rippable, shackable walls of pure energy.
Without storms, there would be no surf. The winds generated by cyclones, hurricanes, 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 just under the ocean’s surface, which close ranks and fall in to a single-file march to some distant shore. The further the shore, the more organized the swell becomes. But the longer the swell travels across the sea, the more it loses of the fierce energy that created it; and if it travels too far, it will eventually 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, a never-ending 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 breaking swell into an infinite variety of surf; 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 combat–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 “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, or sandbars, lie just offshore, and as the tide goes out they get nearer to the ocean’s surface, forcing the incoming swells to jack up and break over top of them. 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, an extensive cell-phone network fires into action, as friends fill each other in on where they’ve checked and how it looks. On the morning of the clean-up, the hardcore may have driven as much as an hour or two on dawn patrol, anywhere from Corolla Light to Hatteras Light–and sometimes further south to Frisco if the conditions are favorable–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 surfers will disappear until after the next storm.
The local crew on the Outer Banks is a diverse lot, from burnt-out punks to born-again Christians; from pre-teen gremlins to guys in their sixties and seventies. A number of strong women surfers represent the fairer sex, but the crew is predominantly male. 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 Va 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. Many of us who live here have our own little spots that we keep going back to, just to have a wave to ourselves. They are not always the best spots, but they feel like home, and it saves time from running up and down the beach looking for a better wave. And besides, that’s where our friends will be. There are few more sublime moments to experience in life than that of sitting out in the lineup on a soft 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.
It was over the course of many such evenings that the idea for this photo essay took shape; after one too many perfect sessions, sitting out in the water, saying out loud to my friends, “God, I wish I had a camera right now,” I finally broke down and bought myself a waterproof housing. Of course, the sad reality is that you can’t just bring along your camera while you’re out surfing; it’s hard to paddle a surfboard when your hands are clutching a big heavy piece of glass, metal, and plastic. You have to make a decision: surf, or take pictures. So I haven’t done much surfing since I started this project. But I don’t mind really; truth be told I’m a much better photographer than I am a surfer, and for me the magic of surfing has always been about the feeling. I get just as much satisfaction from knowing, when I swim back to shore clutching my camera and sputtering water, that I’ve captured something special, some small shred of the essence of this waterlogged life out on the edge of the ocean. Bit by bit, session by session, the picture is coming together.
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. Up near the border with Virginia, an entire town called Seagull was overtaken by a moving dune almost a hundred years ago. We have blatantly ignored the warnings about houses built on sand, and some of us have paid dearly for it.
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.
A note on the music: The song “Don’t Change” was written and performed by Justin Rudolph, a senior at First Flight High School. Justin will be touring Australia after graduation, so you Aussies be on the lookout, make him feel at home…