Liquid Lines

Three Great Swells In a Row Make It Worth All the Struggle of Being a New Jersey Surfer

By JON COEN | Nov 28, 2018
Photo by: Ryan Johnson Drama at sea. The last two weeks have brought three major swells to LBI, giving surfers one of the best runs of swell in memory. This massive set arrived on the morning of Nov. 16.

Welcome back. Hope everyone had a good holiday and didn’t have to notch any new holes in their belts.

There’s been a long-standing struggle in my family over what time we should have Thanksgiving dinner. I’m told we’re not the only ones. My brother and I (and soon my nephews) campaign for a later dinner so we can make the most of the daylight hours either surfing or fishing. It’s pretty reasonable considering what we contribute to the holiday overall.

That’s not the least of it. I’m certainly not the only one who has said, “Can we hold that meeting on Tuesday instead of Monday? Uh, there’s supposed to be surf.”

Keep in mind, many of us are knocking along at jobs that we invented ourselves, piecing together a living around our surfing existence, as if it’s the most important thing in the world. We have ditched school, skipped work and arrived late to social functions because the surf was firing. I have a friend who left the hospital the day after his wife had one of their children, grabbed a quick surf and came back later that afternoon.

And whoever decided that wedding season should coincide with hurricane season really did us a disservice. Ever been at a wedding with a surfer who knows he’s missing good swell while he’s eating overcooked salmon and listening to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on ukulele? You’d think his or her house was burning down.

And relationships? Well, let’s just say most waveriders could use a little guidance when it comes to family and significant others. When we put up our Christmas trees has far more to do with how long the wind stayed offshore than any kind of Yuletide timing.

Most of the time, we can deal with our choices. But when we look at the sacrifices we’ve made in the name of a fleeting pursuit and the conditions don’t line up, it can be a bit deflating.

You’ve forgone that better job in Philly to live at the beach. You’ve angered your parents, kids and significant other with your inability to commit to a plan for next Saturday. You’ve missed out on cities, mountains and culture because every trip you take revolves around surf.

You have a shed or garage with 15, maybe 20 surfcraft. There are unfinished projects in your house. You’ve spent thousands of dollars on wetsuits. You’ve had two surgeries to drill your ears where the cartilage closed off from surfing cold water.

Not surfing is one thing. But when we wait for swell and then surf like a drunken pot-bellied pig in poor conditions, it’s even worse. Then we feel like failures at the thing we've  made most important.

You look at what you’ve done with your life and haven’t had a decent session in a month, you wonder “What kind of an idiot am I?” And then you pick up your phone, open the Surfline app and see when there are going to be waves again.

We are fully motivated to experience several seconds of pure joy (and make no mistake, there is no joy like that joy), but even when we’ve learned to keep expectations in check, there is no end to the way the Atlantic Ocean can disappoint us.

The surf is tiny all summer. Then hurricane swells close out or the wind is wrong, like it was the entire month of September.  Fall and winter swells are quick hits. When the wind finally does go offshore, it honks at 40 knots, blowing the surf to nothing. By this time of year, we have limited daylight. The tide is too high or too low. The sandbars aren’t set up right. Maybe there’s ice in the line-up?

When the seasons start to change, the water stays cold until summer. Spring winds are weird. Sometimes we get four south swells in a row where the wind goes southwest, making LBI sideshore while everyone to our north is straight offshore. Beach replenishment has buried most of the jetties.

And occasionally when everything seems to come together, there’s some x-factor where the surf just sucks anyway.

Fortunately, that has not been the case lately. A few strong storms have helped. Do you ever remember a fall that has knocked the pots of mums off the hay bales this often? It seems as if we’ve had three epic swells since the last Liquid Lines. Often we fall into patterns where the surf is just good for a stretch, one swell after another where we actually feel a little bit of rhythm. I think I dropped into more overhead, makeable waves in half of November than I did all last winter.

It’s safe to say it helps us to justify our existence.

THREE EPIC SWELLS: As mentioned above, we’ve been in a very good pattern of late. The usual variables that wreck our surf sessions have been keeping out of our business.

Things started back in the third week of November. We had a minor local storm on the evening of Nov. 12, but the real weather was off to our south. With a good fetch coming from the south at a hard angle, the winds switched in the morning, really cleaning up by mid-day.

We haven’t seen a swell like this in some time simply because of the south angle. The bulk of the fetch was directly off the Outer Banks, which set up peeling rights, and the offshore winds were light. The surf was a foot or two overhead most of the day, but even with the wind offshore, the surf actually built in the afternoon. For regularfoots, it was a barrel-riding dream. As one surfer put it, this was the best day of rights in years, and the evening session had some well-overhead bombs. And it seemed to be working pretty well everywhere.

The following morning offered a much smaller version, but equally clean with some peelers for longboards in the cold.

We didn’t have to wait long for the next swell. The Island got ugly on Nov. 15, one of three storms in the past few weeks that the wind has actually hit 60 mph. The strongest gusts seemed to come in the wee hours of the morning when the wind went offshore. The morning surf check revealed howling winds and 10- to 15-foot surf with a dead low tide. It wasn’t rideable until late in the morning, but it was definitely fun to watch.

The bravest started hitting it late in the morning. At that point, Harvey Cedars was the spot for all the varsity guys. It was critical and quickly got crowded with sets still pushing over 8 feet. In addition to all the unbelievable barrels, I saw a guy take a massive free fall, get held underwater and pop up a split second before the next freight train unloaded on his head. There were broken boards and a few broken hearts early on.

Keep in mind that Harvey Cedars had that extended period of beach replenishment all summer. The sand didn’t really equalize until two weeks ago. Right now, the bar is close to the beach, and everything about the set-up feels great. But that was just one spot. Everywhere on the Island seemed to be working from north to south. And up in northern Ocean County, there were some historic waves ridden, possibly some of the heaviest ever in New Jersey.

This was something of a combo swell, which helps us in terms of rideability with a pretty equal number of lefts and rights. The size dropped a bit by late afternoon, but by then everyone’s confidence level was through the roof as they were gunning into deep tubes. The wind was certainly a factor early on, but through the day, it did subside a bit. There was also enough swell that it stuck around through the incoming and outgoing tides.

The third swell was last Sunday after yet another maelstrom rocked LBI on Saturday night. I can’t remember us feeling like storms were coming right into our bedrooms like this so many times in a few short weeks.

Again, we woke up to perfectly clean 4- to 6-foot surf and light offshore winds. High tide was at 8 a.m., which may have made conditions a little fat, but when the surf is a few feet overhead like that, a little water isn’t the worst thing. I’m not sure I remember a session with that many makeable overhead drops in a while.

When the tide dropped, the swell may have lost a bit ofheight, but it just got juicier. The wind stayed light, and everywhere seemed to have a wave. You could pick those “outer” sandbar spots like Ship Bottom for longer, peeling waves, or hustle the spots breaking closer to the beach for some barrels and beatings. Who doesn’t love those? And that’s not to mention that Sunday was an absolute banger of a day, warm with light winds, a fantastic way to end a fun holiday weekend. I know I was thankful.

The water temp has been dropping, but it’s not too bad yet considering some of the colder weather we’ve had. I’d say we’re just under 50 degrees now. We should have a few more weeks of wearing 4-mils. If your 4-mil isn’t hooded, definitely look into a beanie or a detached hood. Hopefully we get through most of December before we have to lug out the 7-mil boots and 5-mil gloves.

There is nothing better than multiple swells where you can get yourself in a surf groove. Overall, the sand is just good right now even though the jetties are buried. We’re in a period of active weather. All of the swell periods have been in the six- to10-second interval range, which has meant fewer closeouts. The storm tracks have been favorable for offshore winds (again, not too hard, though) and everywhere has been working, so if you want to surf by yourself, you’re welcome to do it. It’s been one of the best stretches of surf in the last five years.

ECO STICK: For the last few weeks, I have been running down some good gift ideas that are moving us in the direction of being more responsible consumers. Just last week, our government’s National Climate Assessment released a report detailing how the effects of man-made climate change are already upon us and how they will start to adversely affect the economy in the future. But I wouldn’t worry – a reality TV star says it’s a hoax.

Anyway, maybe check out the Lib Tech Waterboard. Island Surf N’ Sport should reopen for Christmas shopping after getting the big lift this year.

Lib Tech, a pillar of the snowboard industry, came out with the Waterboard surfboard about five years ago, using all products that had never been used in surfboard design, a carbon construction with organic basalt. It uses resins with low amounts of volatile organic compounds and environmentally friendly blowing agents. And they’re made in the U.S., which means less fossil fuels to get them to you. Performance wise they are solid boards, and many are Matt Biolas-designed Lost Surfboards shapes. Some of the Island’s best surfers swear by them. They run $500 to $750.

DECEMBER HAPS: This really is a fantastic time of year for our sandbar. If you’ve read Liquid Lines for a few years, I always say that Labor Day through the holidays is just awesome with a little bit of each season. Life has been pretty good lately.

I’m especially a fan of all the goodwlll that goes on this time of year. Friday evening will see the culmination of “Movember,” which is good because I can take just so many more creepy mustaches. Shave the Date, hosted by Swing Graphics, will go down from 4 to 9 p.m. at The Arlington in Ship Bottom. A host of local barbers and Ryan’s Barbershops will have a pop-up shop, donating all the haircut and shave proceeds to David’s Dream & Believe Foundation. Both Jetty and Farias have “teams” that have been raising money and awareness for men’s health. This is for the Shave the Date ambassadors, but also for anyone who just wants a donation haircut.

Saturday is the 39th annual Ship Bottom Christmas Parade. The borough’s tree lighting is at 5:30 p.m. on Friday evening. This year’s theme is Great White Christmas, which should put some teeth in your holiday season. Saturday looks pretty flat, so if you have kids, there shouldn’t be much conflict with the festivities.

On Dec. 8, Five 0 Six Surf Boutique will have its Holly Jolly Holiday Market from noon to 5 p.m. with crafts from local artists, festive food and drinks. Everything in Five 0 Six will be on sale for that day only.

Warm up that hot chocolate, and let’s hope the swell train continues because there’s nothing more depressing – and depressed – than a surfer who doesn’t surf.

joncoen@thesandpaper

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