Liquid Lines

A Hurricane Season That Feels a Lot Like 1996

21 Years Ago the Swell Was Nonstop
By JON COEN | Sep 20, 2017
Courtesy of: NOAA Active tropical season is an understatement. This feels a lot like 1996.

“Baby you’re a big blue whale ... Grab the reef when all duck diving fails. I swim, but wish I’d never learned. The water’s too polluted with the germs ....” Are you a Badfish, too? Come on. Sing it with me.

I know I’m dating myself here, but this is sure starting to feel a lot like September 1996.

For those who were too young to remember, or some of my friends who – cough – weren’t born yet, let me tell you about them good ol’ days. Man, I’m already feeling old.

Following years where surfboards were thin and narrow with extreme rocker, Tom Curren started riding a ’70s fish, which inspired a return to thicker boards with the wide point forward. In July, Sublime came out with its famed self-titled album after the passing of frontman Bradley Nowell. And whether you were from the camp of classic rock, ’80s new wave or had Face to Face in constant rotation, most of LBI was rocking that record. That was the year of the second Warped Tour up at the Stone Pony that half the Island went to. The older crowd got to see Bruce later that fall in A.P. You would actually buy records, tapes and CDs at Red Rocker Records on Bay Avenue in Manahawkin. Imagine that!

Clearly, this was before smartphones, Surfline cams, and Facebook brags that could make a day of closeouts sound like the most epic session ever. In fact, most of my friends didn’t have a home computer. There were two surf photographers on the Island, and they shot film.

You’d go look at the surf. If you wanted a surf update, you’d call Surf Unlimited for John Gross’ recorded report from a landline, hoping not to get a busy signal. And then you’d watch the Weather Channel. Rest in peace, John Hope.

We wore shin-length shorts that hung halfway off our asses and wrap-around sunglasses. Surfboards were adorned with tribal art. And you had either long, flowing hair or a shaved head.

Back in those days, the coffee shop (the now-vacant Cinnamon Bay Caribbean Grill) in Harvey Cedars was hopping, both the break and the brekkie. The whole Island was littered with jetties that set up sandbars. I would argue the overall surf quality was better because of it.

That year also saw a non-stop flow of hurricane swell to the tune of 13 named storms, six of which were major hurricanes. Now, any ’cane can send waves, but if it spends more time as a powerful storm, it can send from farther away, hence bigger waves and longer swells. Hurricane Bertha, Edouard, Hortense, Lilli … they all came into our swell window. We couldn’t keep track of which swell was from which storm. It literally felt like being on a surf trip.

And that’s what this August and September are starting to feel like – a non-stop, damn tropical surf trip (only difference is it’s more comfortable sleeping at night). And it’s a lot like 1996.

BREAK DOWN THE WALLS: Despite the amount of swell, the past couple days were not the best for surf. It’s been walled out. Admittedly, I wasn’t checking every beach at all times of the day, but in general the previous weeks were, and the weeks ahead are, looking better than what we just had. A few locals have been simply heading to New England, where the craggy coast and points handle long period swells better.

Don’t get me wrong, there were certainly some great windows here. There are those spots that work on the north and south end, but for the most part the swell coming from Hurricane Jose, upward of 11 seconds, is not what LBI does best. If you’re a fan of closeouts, it’s a festival out there. But peeling waves have been hard to come by. Plus, this week had some funky winds to contend with.

As I mentioned, plenty of swell in the water. And I have heard a lot of “there were some corners,” or “it was all right,” at some spots mid-Island. But all in all, we didn’t have those stellar sessions like we’ve had in the last month.

Early this week, Jose came north, just a few hundred miles off the East Coast. The SandPaper comes out on Wednesday, and I expect we will have had a window of unreal surf by the time you read this.

Hurricane Jose continues to make this September even more remarkable with this strange loop he’s supposed to do well off our coast. It’s still tough to believe that this was supposed to be a pretty average hurricane season. Clearly, it feels more active than it is because of all the landfalls and landfall threats, but there’s no arguing that we are living through something historic. With that has come a whole lot of waves, but also the continuing uneasiness that any one of these storms could come right up our alley and deliver that big punch. Coming on the heels of Harvey and Irma, this week it was Dominica that took the haymaker, and there’s a very good chance that our friends in Puerto Rico are going get something brutal again.

While we have Hurricane Jose in our swell window, Maria is the latest threat to humanity. She followed this season’s trend of very rapid intensification going from barely a hurricane to a Cat 5 with 160 mph winds. With Irma, Maria is now the second Cat 5 of the season, something that has happened only a handful of times in the past. We’re already at 13 storms, four of them being major. As the folks at Colorado State pointed out, at this point in the season there have been only eight years this active since we started keeping records. And there’s nothing pointing to a slow-down.

It certainly doesn’t get any easier to watch these storms plow toward the islands (not to mention our Island). The models are in pretty good agreement that Maria will follow a similar track to Jose, running up the East Coast without a Lower 48 landfall. Let’s hope that forecast holds. If it does, we’re in for an even longer stretch of surf, and it’s already been a solid month.

HERE COMES SAND: During that big northeast swell (Tropical Depression 10) in August, I was atop the dunes, checking the surf with a few other surfers. At high tide, there was barely any beach. The surf was too big for swimming, and there was only a thin stretch of dry sand for a towel space. The sunbathers were literally sitting with their backs up against the dune fence. One big set washed right through the blankets to the foot of the dune.

A year earlier, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had pumped a huge beach and dune here, and now the beach was gone. My fellow surfers made the usual comments about the eroded sand and the usual jokes about a waste of money. (The last round on LBI was $128 million.) I’ve made plenty of those cracks. But what we fail to recognize is that we were standing on a tall dune, now fortified with dune grass. Yes, the beach was narrow, but there was this massive dune between the raging ocean and the homes behind us. And while they were right about the quick loss of beach, those houses represent our livelihood. They seemed to forget the Army Corps had built the very dune we were standing on. And it was doing exactly what it was built to do. Moreover, that sand wasn’t exactly “gone.” Some of it will likely pop up on another beach.

It’s easy to write off these projects when the initial sand moves around. But that’s part of the design. Believe me, I am no fan of what beach replenishment does to the waves here. This summer, our sandbars were phenomenal, partly due to the fact that we haven’t had any dredging projects for almost a year.

As mentioned above, our surf was far better before all the jetties started to get buried in 2006. Myself and others rallied for years to get better beachfill projects. We understand that the fortification of the coast is necessary to buy us time, and we worked to get gradual slopes that wouldn’t ruin the sandbars. There were mixed results, but the big victory was that the US ACE looked at its own methods and was open to the idea that there could be alternative ways to rebuild beaches.

Now, the Philadelphia District is planning on firing up the dredges again this fall. It will pump more sand in Harvey Cedars, Surf City and Brant Beach. The exact timeline has yet to be released; when it is, it will change again. They will likely expand our beaches. A few spots could benefit. Most will not. The good news is that our sandbars rebound much faster than they used to when these projects started. They also come back much faster in the off season than the summer.

Much of that sand will wash away. But for the most part, LBI won’t.

CEDARS SITCH: With Surf City opening all beaches to surfing outside the flags back in July for the summer, it left Harvey Cedars as the only town on LBI that hasn’t adopted this policy. The HCBP has long allowed surfers on days of large surf, but that does little good for folks who simply want to go up their street and surf at the same beach that their family is sitting on from June through August. Hence, Cedars homeowners got the ball rolling for the mayor and commissioners to reconsider. An online petition gained nearly 3,000 signatures.

Residents are tired of going to other municipalities to surf or sending their children on bikes to the Hudson Avenue surf beach in summer traffic. It’s not clear why Cedars has shown such resistance to the new policy, but from what I understand, there is at least dialogue now.

The town was reaching out for info to the Ship Bottom Beach Patrol, which has had the swim inside/surf outside the flags policy for well over a decade. Ship Bottom’s overall beach traffic is considerably more than Cedars’, and they handle it just fine.

If you are interested in seeing this policy implemented, the time to speak your mind is Friday afternoon, Oct. 6. This was going to be discussed at the commissioners meeting in August, but that meeting was canceled and the conversation tabled until well after the season. (I have no comment on that.)

As with most towns, it is especially important for taxpayers to speak up, as that’s who the towns generally listen to. I’ve seen quite a few of these town meetings at this point. I recommend being polite, calm, staying on topic and knowing your facts.

BIG BEACH HAPS: This Saturday, New Jersey’s Clean Ocean Action and Lighthouse International Film Festival will screen “A Plastic Ocean” at the Ship Bottom Firehouse. The doors open at 5:30 p.m., and you can check out an exhibit and some information. An international team of adventurers, researchers and ocean ambassadors go on a mission around the globe discovering how bad the plastics situation is in our seas. The film screens at 6:30, followed by a panel discussion. The event is $5 but free to LIFF members, first responders, students and educators.

Also this Saturday, there’s a pretty interesting surf contest up in Long Branch called Surfing for Their Sacrifice. I mention it because I think it’s a cool event not only for competitive surfers, but also for those with family and friends in the military. All the proceeds go to benefit Legacies Alive, a nonprofit that supports Gold Star military families. There are 10 different divisions, and it’s at Brighton Avenue beach in Long Branch. Saturday could be pretty good up in Monmouth County, too. For more info, email

Last week, we discussed the whole dichotomy of reaping the benefits of hurricanes while others suffer. Truth is, there’s not much we can do about where hurricanes go, but we can certainly do our best to help out those who take the wallop. On Sept. 27, our community will get together to raise funds for the victims of Harvey and Irma at the Rum-Raiser. This is being organized by the Jetty Rock Foundation, Sink R’ Swim Men’s Shop and START and will be hosted by Parker’s Garage and Oyster House in Beach Haven. If you notice, it’s most of the same folks who were pretty critical in the Sandy Unite-Rebuild movement here.

The event is to direct funds to Texas, Florida and the Caribbean through Waves for Water, the surfer-led relief group that helped set us on our path to recovery five years ago. This Key West-themed celebration will feature food (and you know with these guys, it’s always damned good food) beer, wine and rum punch. There will be street performers and live music. The door is $20, and that gets you one food ticket. The rest is cash that will go directly to those who are just starting to get their lives back together. If you can’t make it, you can donate by texting “Unite-Rebuild” to 41444.

This worthy fundraiser has forced the Jetty Clam Jam to change the date of the team selection party. This is where everyone gathers and the clam shells are picked from a hat to determine who will be paired with whom. It’s always a good time and comes off like a cross between a Chinese auction and fantasy draft where all the players are your friends. And you keep your fingers crossed that you’re going to be paired with some hot surfer of the other age group.

Team Selection Night has been moved to Friday, Oct. 6, starting at 10 pm.

The change of date is unique because the Clam Jam window opens up on Saturday. The teams could literally be picked on Friday night and be in the water the next morning. There’s plenty happening on our little sandbar. Get some waves and think about those who haven’t been as lucky this hurricane season.

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