September is the height of the North Atlantic’s tropical storm season, a time of year when hurricanes—the most powerful of all tropical storms— can threaten New England with flooding rains, damaging winds and giant waves. While most Nantucketers batten down the hatches for these storms, there are some who don wetsuits, wax up surfboards, and paddle out into the hurricane swell.
These swells often arrive when a storm is still far from New England, and can last for days, lingering even after a storm’s passage. When a swell approaches from the right direction, with just the right winds at play, an impressive display of beautifully sculpted breaking waves can be found off the south shore of the island. “Specific storms and swells are tough to recall,” says Chris Emery, who’s been surfing through the island’s hurricane seasons for thirty years. Storms with names like David, Frederick, Erin, Emily and Igor are just a few that come to mind for Emery. “But the memories are so strong…of being on the water as the swell builds, for instance, of those crisp September skies, and of the experiences shared with friends.” Amidst these many storms of yesteryear, Hurricane Fabian sparks special memories for Emery.
In September 2003, Hurricane Fabian, which began as a band of moisture off of Africa and later dealt the island of Bermuda a heavy blow, brought Nantucket surfers some of the best waves of the year. As it gradually tracked into the Gulf Stream, several hundred miles east coast of the United States, Fabian developed into a major hurricane, with winds topping 125 miles per hour as it passed Bermuda. The peak of Fabian’s swell arrived to Nantucket at sunrise on a clear September morning, after the summer’s crowds had thinned. “Days like this are just too good to miss,” says Emery, who purposefully lightens his workload come September, as many island surfers do. “When a good swell is running, there’s just nothing else like it.” Fabian’s swell delivered breaking waves that stood well overhead. Each wave ridden toward the beach was paid for with a hefty paddle back out through the shore break. Offshore winds groomed the swell into nice, clean lines, or “corduroy on the horizon,” as surfers like to call it. As the morning progressed, the island’s surf breaks came alive with fellow surfers, spectating family members, and other beachgoers.
“It’s hard to describe the energy of a storm, that wave energy that’s been traveling for hundreds of miles across the sea,” reflects Emery. “But it’s incredibly powerful… rejuvenating. It totally recharges the batteries.” Offshore winds sent plumes of ocean spray off the backs of cresting waves that day, spawning countless short-lived rainbows in the sunlit spray. The ocean was alive and well.
In the late afternoon, Emery and friends headed to a favorite surf break for a sunset session, accompanied by only a few shorebirds, plenty of baitfish and seals. The incoming tide gave the swell a nice boost, and an underwater sandbar brought perfect shape to the breaking waves. The roar of the surf filled the air. As daylight waned, calming winds transformed the surface of the sea to a silky reflection of the colorful sky. For surfers and all those able to witness it, it was the stuff of dreams. Then again, it was September on Nantucket. “No doubt, hurricane season is our best shot at getting world-class waves on Nantucket,” says Emery. He stirs up memories of a few more recent storms – Igor, Bill and Ophelia – which produced great surf without causing any major destruction on land. “On a really good day in September, it’s as good as it gets…”