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East Coast Surfers Ride Large, Chaotic Swells Stirred by Tropical Storms

Unlike the consistent, rhythmic breaking of cool, Pacific waves against the western coastline, the Atlantic is far more chaotic and unpredictable, offering surfers the best swells only when conditions are most dangerous--during an approaching storm.

As the skies darken off the eastern shore, experienced surfers will make their way to the ocean, seeking the higher surf that builds ahead of a storm, Rodanthe, North Carolina, resident Richard Byrd said.

Many await the highest surf of the year, which occurs during the fall and winter months with the onset of nor'easters.

Despite the high waves, the water temperatures can dip to near freezing, Byrd said, adding that some prefer surfing in the summer during tropical storm season because of warmer waters.

"During tropical storm season, we can really get some good surf," he said.

Byrd, who works at the Rodanthe Surf Shop-Hatteras Glass Surfboards, has lived in the Hatteras Island region for the past 14 years and has been surfing the waves of the Atlantic since he was a young teenager.

"The [East Coast] gets the most waves during the winter," Senior Meteorologist Dan Kottlowski said. "The only way there is going to be large surf in the summer is from hurricanes or tropical storms."

New Hampshire based Surf Sauna Spokesman Tyler Sauter said that there can be suitable waves for surfing year round in New Hampshire, but consistent conditions begin in early fall and last until spring.

"Summer swells are few and far between until hurricane season; otherwise, the waves tend to be very small," Sauter said. "When there is a swell event in the summer, crowd control is the biggest challenge. Winter can offer some amazing surf conditions, but the environmental hazards can be treacherous."

Due to the harsh conditions during prime Atlantic surfing season, Surf Sauna was invented to offer surfers a mobile retreat from frigid waters, Sauter said.

The development team for Surf Sauna have been surfing in New Hampshire for more than a decade.

Even though the East Coast does not offer the consistent, large waves seen in the West, Byrd said summer storms off the coast will often provide decent conditions.

"It doesn't take much swell to get some good waves up here," he said.

While riding ahead of an incoming storm creates the most thrilling experience for surfers, Kottlowski warned of the extreme danger it poses due to rapidly shifting conditions and sudden changes in wave height that may catch even the most experienced surfers off guard.

"I would advise against anyone ever surfing when a tropical storm or hurricane is approaching the coast," Kottlowski said. "Waters become very chaotic and you have [potentially deadly] rip currents developing along the coast."

Along with the sudden changes in height, waves can also change direction rapidly, adding to the dangers.

Storms several hundred miles off the coastline can provide a safer alternative for seasoned surfers with large swells, Kottlowski said.

However, for novice surfers, avoiding a storm entirely may be the best option.

"It's still a dangerous thing to surf in those kind of waters," Kottlowski said.

Distant storms can stir large swells up and down the East Coast that are easier to navigate, but large swells can still create potentially dangerous conditions.