Liquid Lines

Was Last Week’s Storm the Best Swell Ever?

Swell of Historic Proportions, Mo Water Warm-Ups, and Possible Cuts to Ocean Water Testing
By JON COEN | Mar 22, 2017
Photo by: Ryan Johnson Last Tuesday’s swell was about as good as it gets on Long Beach Island.

Every once in a while Ma Nature comes together to create something truly awe-inspiring in New Jersey. By now, everyone is talking about it. Everyone has seen the video and the photos, the constant flow of epicness streaming across social media and websites. Folks are delving back into the unofficial record books, searching through the annals and examining oral history to compare events.

I mean, have you ever seen a blowout tide like that on the bay?!

Oh wait, what did you think I was talking about?

Ohhhhh yeah, the waves. Yeah, the surf got pretty damn good last Tuesday.

And for this one, LBI was ground zero for the action. New Jersey received the focus of the swell, and the session that went down at Harvey Cedars brought the best in the state.

Of course, we’ll get into the mechanics of the swell, but by all accounts, LBI may have had the best waves in the country that day. And I’m pretty sure that everyone, surfer or non, has seen the edit by Dark Fall Productions that ran on Surfline. The number of cameras on the beach and amount of footage to come out of one spot was staggering, and when that sun came out at the golden hour, it was nothing short of magical.

I didn’t even see anyone bitching about anything online afterward. That’s a minor miracle in 2017.

But while the pros, both our Island boys and the visiting crew, went to work, there were dozens and dozens of local boys, just everyday workin’ Joe waveriders who mustered up the courage and got waves. For some it was the barrel of their lives, the ultimate score for those who didn’t have the money for a March jaunt to the tropics (not to mention some frosty beatings). I literally saw double overhead waves that peaked up and broke both left and right. Tuesday, March 14, was just magical.

THE SWELL OF THE YEAR: Maybe a few years. The winter of 2015-16 was really good, just because all the little details worked in our favor. This year, we’ve had so many badly timed fronts, offshore winds that overpowered the waves, funky tides and that stretch of February that went flat.

But last Tuesday, everything really came together. Surfline does a very good job breaking down the meteorology behind it all.

The low set up off the southeast coast and moved offshore of us. At its peak, we had 20-foot seas at 10 seconds. If you looked at the surf at any point on Tuesday morning, it looked like another planet. The wind clocked around from the west and then west/northwest as the low passed us, which is ideal for LBI. And even with ideal winds, it took some time to clean up.

I can’t stress how important the daylight factor was here. Although Daylight Saving Time is just humans playing with our clocks, we have a full 12 hours of light this time of year. And those last three hours, from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m., were crucial in getting those waves. That same swell in December could have meant a complete bust for all but a few surfers. It’s also nice for folks who don’t have the flexibility to surf all day, every day.

We had the size, the wind direction, and most importantly for LBI, it was a combo swell. I think it’s only the last few years that local surfers have started to understand the importance in having a combination element.

At the outset, this looked like a nor’easter, but while the wind was definitely north at the start of the storm, we had southeast and east/southeast swells in the water. That’s how you get those magical a-frames. The way each wave focused will be talked about for years to come.

Case in point, a lot of guys surfed, or at least tried to surf, the leftovers on Wednesday morning. There were still head-high sets and the wind was straight offshore. But the swell was a completely different nature, moving away from us with a much higher wave period than Tuesday’s 10 seconds, rendering it almost unrideable except for the best surfers on a select few waves at one or two spots. I was literally standing on the sand, suited up with my board in hand, watching head-high waves in offshore winds and didn’t surf. Nothing but closeouts. I may have gone out for a few walled-out waves, but after Tuesday’s amazing conditions, it wasn’t worth it.

NOT TO BE OUTDONE: First off, while my cheeky little intro up there was a joke, we really did have a significant blow-out tide last week. OK, so maybe some low water and exposed bay mud isn’t quite as dramatic as Nick Rossi fearlessly dropping into a deep, dark pit of glory in Harvey Cedars, but it was kind of cool.

Going back a week before winter storm Stella, we had a pretty routine little south windswell with northwest winds. This will be eclipsed, and rightfully so, by those death-defying bombs last Tuesday, but for a few hours, it was as good as it’s been to that point all winter.

This didn’t look to be much, and in reality, it was 2- to 3-foot first thing. But somehow with the tide dropping, everything came together for some really long rights up to head high. Again, no one’s going to remember that swell with the heroics that went on last week, but not a bad March.

I also have to imagine that some folks are wondering about the state of our beaches after Stella, and the good news is that things are pretty good up there. Fortunately, Stella was a quick mover. Even though the buoys offshore read 20 feet, it wasn’t for a prolonged amount of time. Occasionally, we have less-intense storms that get caught off our coast by a blocking high. We see the real erosion events when we have north or northeast winds for two days or more. Stella was in and out. Great waves, no beach damage: It was a win/win. Maybe if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could figure out a way to move blocking high-pressure systems, it would be more effective in fighting erosion than beach replenishment.

We also had another swell this past weekend, again, pretty overshadowed. How can you get excited about a head-high swell when a few days earlier was 10 feet and throwing? (Ask me that in the summer when the line-up gets packed on the first 3-foot day in weeks.) Sunday’s north winds produced some sizeable waves, but the wind never went offshore. It died Sunday night, and Monday morning had shoulder- to head-high waves. There were a few clean ones, but unfortunately, the wind came back northeast and finished things off.

OF IDES AND THE TIDES: Every year, I mean every year, I write about the crazy dynamic of mid-March weather. I hesitate to even try to give it a name. On one hand, you could say it’s the start of spring (Monday was the first official day of spring), which would invoke all those sunshiny images. But every single year, late March comes back to bite us in our collective frosty asses. April isn’t much better. You want spring? Go back to February. The last few weeks have been winter, and frankly, we’d be as confused as the frozen crocuses if it didn’t happen every year.

We’ll have lows possibly in the teens when The SandPaper hits the yellow boxes this week, but could possibly creep up to 60 for the first time this month by Saturday. Spring on LBI, in particular, is marked by cold winds coming off the ocean. The weather will start to get perfect for outdoor activities on the mainland, while the Island sits in either a fog or wind of misery.

A few weeks back, I wrote about how the ocean hadn’t dropped much below 40 this year. On the coldest of winters, it can actually dip to 32. It got even lower in 2015. So back in the balmy month of February, I was projecting the possibilities of the water leveling off and not getting much colder. That would mean a quicker downgrade to fewer wetsuits and quicker return to boating, paddling and other water-based activities. The recent Arctic blasts have our water just below 40 right now, so while it’s not the worst-case scenario, don’t expect any miracles. You can probably expect that regular “late winter” period for the next five weeks.

OCEAN WATER TESTING CUTS: I turned 13 in 1987. I remember days that summer when the water was so littered with garbage you could barely swim. I recall throwing my arms out to block a crashing wave and getting my hand filled with plastic debris. It was the height of the AIDS epidemic, and hypodermic needles and other medical waste kept washing up on our beaches, much to the delight of the regional media. They were coming off “garbage barges” that were simply dumping New York’s trash into the ocean.

That was a rough summer for local businesses. Out of that grew the local organization Alliance for a Living Ocean. But it took some work at the national level to clean up our oceans. Part of that involved testing the water. Even when you can’t see waves of crap in the sea, swimming and surfing may be harmful to humans, not to mention the effect on other species. And for the millions of folks who claim some kind of connection to LBI, going in the ocean is pretty important.

And that brings us to the latest news. I tried to think of a way to phrase this next part without trying to politicize it. How do we have meaningful debate in 2017 without its spiraling into polarized name calling? Maybe I could position this in a way that didn’t mention the hot button issue of climate change? I don’t want to lose reasonable people who were perhaps swayed by the cult of personality.

But alas, I couldn’t think of any way to do that, so here’s what the Cheeto-in-Chief did this week: He proposed a budget that would essentially cut pretty much anything that has to do with the environment and science. And among those programs is EPA beach water quality testing.

Perhaps if you remember the summer of sludge, you can’t qualify it as “fake news.” The actions taken to keep that from happening again were called “regulations,” which the red hats have been convinced are the antithesis of a healthy economy.

Well, the new proposed budget (proposed, not passed, mind you) would defund the very programs that determine if our water is safe to swim in. Those tests are how we curbed ocean dumping. But pollution isn’t always as easy to see as syringes, nor source points so easy to identify as garbage barges. So if swimming in a sea of trash or harmful bacteria isn’t enough to convince you that programs and common-sense regulations might be there for a reason, New Jersey tourism officials estimated that the state lost $1 billion that summer.

One billion dollars, 30 years ago. Do the inflation math. Let’s say you’re good with tampon tides and bacteria beaches – hope you stand up for the economy on this one.

HAPS: A couple favorite haunts like the Black Whale Bar & Fish House and Woody’s in Ship Bottom opened last weekend, bringing the first signs of life to the Island despite the weather, which is always a welcomed sign.

Here are some things to keep on your radar, too: Science Saturdays at the Long Beach Island Foundation of the Arts and Sciences continue into next month. This week is “Fossils: Natures Time Machine with Scientific Social.”  In this family-friendly hands-on discussion, Matt Bokey and Steven Booty of Scientific Social will explore what fossils are, how they form, and what they mean. You will have a chance to see and touch real-life examples of fossils, and sedimentary rocks. This will also be a chance to discover how you can find fossils right here in the tri-state area.

Sunday, March 26, is the The Shack Boardshop’s March Radness Game of SKATE Tournament presented by Jetty, where 32 talented skaters will go at it in a game of skate to determine who can beat all others in their bracket and take this year’s crown.

There’s a possible swell on the way for early to the middle of next week. Right now, forecasts are all over the map, but you know you can count on some cold onshore winds and rain.

Happy spring.

joncoen@thesandpaper.net

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