By December, the hurricane season is over or maybe not. Officially, the Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 through November 30. Most surfers write it off by late October, and start watching for mean, Atlantic lows; the best-known of which was the Perfect Storm of Halloween weekend, 1991. I caught that one in the water at States Avenue in Atlantic City, where, after I got out of the water, my dog and I got on the evening news when she was retrieving a ball in the massive shorebreak. I’d throw, she would disappear entirely into the churn, emerge with the ball, and a line of gamblers, surfers, stormchasers would throw up a cheer. A teevee crew heard the clamor, put us on the teevee that night.
But tropical storm Odette, the 15th named storm of the season, was christened on December 6, a day after NOAA and Bill “Hurricane” Gray officially issued the 2003 hurricane season postmortem.
Odette is getting no love; she shows up not on NOAA’s chart of storms for 2003.
According to NOAA’s screaming assessment (which, as mentioned, ignores Odette):
THERE WERE 14 NAMED TROPICAL CYCLONES IN THE ATLANTIC BASIN IN 2003...OF WHICH SEVEN BECAME HURRICANES. THESE TOTALS COMPARE TO LONG-TERM AVERAGES OF 10 NAMED TROPICAL CYCLONES AND SIX HURRICANES. THERE HAVE BEEN TWELVE SEASONS WITH 14 OR MORE NAMED TROPICAL CYCLONES IN THE 118 SEASONS SINCE 1886...SO THIS SEASON RANKS IN THE UPPER TENTH PERCENTILE OF SEASONAL NUMBER OF NAMED TROPICAL CYCLONES. SEVEN HURRICANES IS CLOSE TO THE LONG-TERM AVERAGE VALUE OF SIX...BUT BOTH FABIAN AND ISABEL WERE EXCEPTIONALLY LONG-LIVED AND INTENSE HURRICANES. FABIAN... ISABEL... AND KATE WERE MAJOR HURRICANES...WITH WIND SPEEDS OF 111 MPH OR HIGHER...OR CATEGORY THREE OR HIGHER ON THE SAFFIR-SIMPSON HURRICANE SCALE. IN ADDITION THERE WERE FIVE TROPICAL DEPRESSIONS THAT DID NOT REACH STORM STRENGTH.
So yes, it was a good fall for surf; everyone I know from Florida to Maine got big, clean days, and was completely surfed out at least a couple times. In my neck of the woods, a good hurricane or offshore storm translates into maxxed out, almost unmakeable beachbreak surf, as long-period open ocean swells slamming into shallow treacherous sandbars and pitch head over falls a weightless bottom turn and a prayer throaty barrels for all.
Are these the best of times? I have my own theory that we owe our thanks to Bill “Hurricane” Gray, who went down to the crossroads and tried to hitch a ride across the Styx with Poseidon.
First off, (I want to say “First off, shop hours,” as about 90% of south Jersey telephone surf reports begin; is there really just one surf report they all regurgitate?), There’s no question “Hurricane” is a bit of a ghoul, just read the predictions for 2004, which include a 15% increase in “hurricane destruction potential,” and a 68% chance of a major hurricane hitting the US coast, 30% higher than usual. How is this for apocalyptic diction: Gray predicts “hurricane-spawned destruction in coming decades on a scale many times greater” than previously.
Given that hurricanes get their engine and fury from warm water, you’d think "Hurricane" would have a view of the coast. Nope - Hurricane Gray isn’t hunkered down in a Buxton bunker; not staring out into the Atlantic hurricane basin from Cape Canaveral; not even taking walks on the Million Dollar Pier in AC. He doesn’t breathe in the smell of salt marsh or spindrift during storms, and Hurricane Gray definitely don’t surf.
He sits atop a bank of computers in about as landlocked a place as we have here - the dude lives and works in Colorado Springs.
Hurricane Gray may well be our Dorian Gray, a patron saint of computer models and dry-as-a-bone probability analysis about extremely wet disasters, who withers in a lab in the Rocky Mountain attic of America so that we may surf. (If you’ve seen his picture, this is no stretch.) Gray says we’re at the start of a 15-year cycle of increased hurricane activity that will put me firmly into middle age before the surf goes flat, and will put Gray in his grave. The man has clearly cut a deal to turn his 15 minutes into 15 years; his trip to the crossroads will keep freight-train rights marching up the East Coast until he meets the great swell-generator in the sky.
Ed Hewitt writes a weekly travel column and surfs mostly weekdays; visit his surf conditions page at row2k.com/surf