Scouring for surf: Yale’s surfers trace East Coast for waves

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When an offshore hurricane brought 14-foot swells and Huntington Beach-like surf conditions to the Rhode Island coastline, Yale Surf Club member Mike Kai ’05 was not surprised.

Dan Cooper '05 takes advantage of the surf in Narragansett, R.I., Saturday. Hurricane Fabian brought unusually big waves to the New England coastline this weekend.
Nathan Francis
Dan Cooper '05 takes advantage of the surf in Narragansett, R.I., Saturday. Hurricane Fabian brought unusually big waves to the New England coastline this weekend.

For 10 days, Kai, along with other members of the Yale Surf Club, had been tracking Marine and Navy reports forecasting record waves in Narragansett, R.I., as tropical storm Isabel grew into Hurricane Fabian. Given a rare opportunity, eight Yalies traveled more than 600 miles over three days this past week for an opportunity to ride the largest surfable waves since Hurricane Felix in 1995.

“This was special for us,” Kai said. “You can’t be casual about surfing on the East Coast.”

Unlike most sports, where the playing surface is one of the more reliable components of the game, the surf club’s trips are few and far between because of unpredictable weather and the typically small waves of the East Coast.

“We’ve all driven a long way [before] just for waves,” Phil Kenney ’05 said.

Jutting out to the southeast, Narragansett’s Point Judith is an ideal break for waves coming from the south, like those generated by Hurricane Fabian. The waves push up diagonally along the shoreline, allowing for rides as long as 400 yards. This past week, surfers enjoyed swells as great as 14 feet, with an average wave height of 8 feet.

The waves in the region are typically nonexistent.

“There haven’t been ridable waves there for over a month and a half,” said Kai, who closely monitors meteorological reports in the New England region.

Late Thursday afternoon, the record waves made local news, attracting a crowd of about 150 to the shore, in effect, giving the Bulldog surfers a large audience to cheer them on.

“As I weaved through the crowd with my surfboard, I could hear their reaction. They whispered, ‘What is she doing? Is she going in there?'” Molly Heintz ’06 said.

Although the surfers had no problems with wind, the craggy shoreline made for sometimes dangerous conditions. The danger of crashing into rocks worsens as the water level rises, when normally exposed rock is not visible.

These fears were quickly overcome after the rush of catching a solid wave on the historic swell.

“You find a spot you like where sometimes you can catch the same [kind of] wave twice,” Dan Conner ’05 said. “You’re 10 feet off the face of the water looking straight down and trying not to get caught in a free fall.”

The intensity of the waves at Point Judith shocked even Heintz, a surfer with eight years of experience.

“I thought I was going to puke,” Heintz said. “But I just wanted to get back out there.”

Founded in 1999 by Seth Burnstein ’03 as a casual group of surf-lovers, the Yale Surf Club gained recognition with the first-ever H-Y-P Surfing Competition, held in Long Beach, N.Y., on May 8. Finishing third in the peer-judged competition, the group looks forward to competing more frequently this year as well as forming the Ivy League Surfing Association.

While competitions are an important aspect of the sport, for the Bulldog surfers the real joy is just being out in the water.

“One of the most intense feelings is paddling onto a big wave with enough speed to stand up and ride it,” Kai said. “It’s a glory ride, you’ve got to do it out of instinct.”

–Francis reported from Narragansett, R.I.; Gopisetty reported from New Haven.

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