The Mast-Head: First of the Season

Hurricanes and big tropical storms offshore change everything in the water

A hurricane passed well east of us this week. The storm was born as a low-pressure area in the Atlantic off the Turks and Caicos. Sometime around Sunday, it pulled itself together, and the National Hurricane Center gave it the eighth name on its current list.

Gert was, for us, the first tropical storm of the season. On land, one scarcely would have known of it, except for a rumble of suddenly high surf. At the beach, it was different. As the day ended Tuesday, the sea began to stir, and lifeguards at the village beaches talked about whether to drag their stands to higher ground for the night. 

At the popular surfing spots, the summer’s small-wave torpor seemed shaken off. Young men in pickup trucks sped into the parking lots, loudly checking with friends before pulling on their wetsuits and running down to the beach.

Hurricanes and big tropical storms offshore change everything in the water. Surfers from who knows where show up, tangling the lineup of locals used to one another’s ways. There is a subtle etiquette among the waves that may be unfamiliar to people from away or perhaps just not universally shared. What are unspoken rules here may not apply at breaks up west.

Here, there is sort of a rotation. If you catch a wave from a certain place, I have an expectation that I will be next for a shot. If I miss my chance, the next person in this rough line gets his or her chance. Surfers maintain a polite distance from one another, don’t sit in front of each other, and don’t paddle aggressively past someone to get quick priority. It’s all a bit like waiting at a takeout counter; in the absence of a line, hungry folks get grumpy fast.

There is a point where the order breaks down, even among locals. When too many people gather at a restaurant or a surf break, the cues become harder to read. We glare, look for familiar, commiserating faces, and roll our eyes. Then we catch a wave or get our dinner and all is well again.