Endless fall: Island surfers extend the season
"What would be great is if a hurricane came up off North Carolina and just hung out here all year."
- Island surfer Patrick Ruel
Cars filled Squibnocket parking lot this past week as surfers enjoyed the head-high waves, a gift from Hurricane Kyle.
There is sporadic surf on Martha's Vineyard year round but, as with the rest of the East Coast, surfing season is hurricane season. Perhaps surfers are the only ones who actually look forward to these violent storms.
August through November is hurricane season, and for surfers it is the most wonderful time of the year, a long-awaited release from the flat summer doldrums and a time when storms ascend from the south and push big swells up to New England.
"I first came here during Hurricane Bertha," recalled a Squibnocket surfer last Sunday. "I found an old board in the garage and got into it. Later a friend lent me a 10-foot-long board, and I've been putting in the time and getting out there whenever there's surf."
Photos by Ezra Newick
These days, more and more people are learning to surf, a sport accessible to anyone.
Surfing is a year-round sport, but in the depths of winter it is only the most diehard surfers who are willing to put on a damp wetsuit and feel the flush of just above freezing sea water pour into their suits. Even with the warmest suit, boots, gloves, and hood, faces are always unprotected. Some surfers coat their faces with Vaseline to protect against the icy water and chill of the wind.
It is a strange and beautiful experience to surf while it is snowing. "I can remember getting out of the water with icicles on my beard," said Alex Karalekas of West Tisbury.
There are unwritten rules of conduct for surfing and a beginner would do well to simply ask rather than unwittingly offend the other surfers.
Perhaps the biggest breach of etiquette a beginner can make is to "drop in on somebody," which is to take off in front of another surfer after they have already stood up on a wave. This act has caused fights both verbal and physical, and is potentially dangerous.
As surfboards are made of fiberglass and have sharp fins and edges, collisions should be avoided. A surfboard fin can cut right through a surfboard, wetsuit or flesh when propelled by the power of a wave.
"You just got to treat other people like you would want to be treated," said Chilmark surfer Sam Eddy.
The "lineup" - the line of surfers waiting to catch waves - can turn into a bit of a mind game on some days when it's overcrowded. Things get tense when some surfers start edging around others, jockeying for better positions. It is one of the worst parts of surfing when the mood goes from chilled-out to aggressive.
The best places to surf on Martha's Vineyard are on the south shore, though Vineyard surfers, much like Vineyard fishermen, are unlikely to reveal their favorite spots. Its best just to start at the well-known places like South Beach and ask around.
To get started this hurricane season you will need a wetsuit, which is sold in different thicknesses to accommodate water temperatures. A good suit to start with is a 4/3 (indicates torso thickness over limb thickness in millimeters), which will keep you warm well into December when combined with boots, gloves and a hood. A 6/3 might be necessary in February and March when the water is at its coldest.
Opinions vary on what size and style board is best for beginners. Many recommend a "longboard" at least eight feet long, its high buoyancy making it easier to paddle, and to stand up and balance on. A longboard also allows a novice to catch small, less powerful waves, so for those who find themselves unconfident in higher surf conditions, a longboard may be the way to go. A drawback of the larger board is that it can be harder to handle in higher surf, as its buoyancy makes it impossible to duck dive (the act of pushing a board under and through an oncoming wave). This technique is useful when paddling out to the peak, the area where surfers wait for the incoming waves.
Photo by Tim Johnson
Said Mr. Eddy, "The board to learn on is a fish shape 6 feet to 7 feet 6 inches. You need to be able to duck dive to get out into the swell." Developed in the 1960s, fish-shaped surfboards are light buoyant boards with fish-like tails that provide a surfer with a lot of control.
Surfing is a profoundly spiritual sport that forces participants to attune themselves with nature in order to progress. "You need to be observant and get a feel for how the waves are rolling in. You start to be able to anticipate where to be in the water," explained Patrick Ruel.
The greatest obstacle someone new to the sport can face is a fear of the sea's power. You need to get beat up by the surf, smashed about, and held under before you can advance. If you stick it out, you'll start catching waves and standing up consistently, and you'll have passed the test the ocean presents.
West Tisbury resident Colin Ruel is an avid surfer and freelance writer for The Martha's Vineyard Times.