When the wind rips palm leaves from treetops and trashcans are blown around like tumbleweed, Charleston surfers know to set their alarms for sunrise. The cold rain and wind of the winter months provides Folly Beach with some of the biggest waves outside of hurricane season.
“Yo, wake up! The wind’s going offshore at about 9:15,” said Folly Beach surfer Joe Conway. He called every surfer he knew on the island. “It should be overhead and barreling.”
Heavy winter winds usually give the waves their impressive size this time of year making sunrise the most ideal time to paddle out. The temperatures may rise in the afternoon, but the waves can get too choppy and disorganized to ride. Most mornings, the air and water temperatures hover around 45 degrees. Preparation for the cold weather is extremely important.
Surfers typically wear three or four millimeter wetsuits with neoprene gloves and booties. With everything but the head covered, diving under waves can cause a brain-freeze worse than a 40-ounce Slurpee.
“I’ve got to wear booties,” said Charleston native Mark Stewart. “Once my toes go numb, my surfing goes bad.”
It may not be like the 50-foot winter swell in Hawaii or a cozy February in Tahiti, but this year’s winter swell has been satisfying for the locals. After a flat December, Mother Nature cheered up Folly Beach with abundant January swells. The 6-foot tubes were hollow enough for surfers to stand up in. Waves like this hadn’t been seen since November’s tropical storm Noel.
A cloud of fog hovered over Folly Beach for three straight days in early February. The shoulder-high surf was unable to be seen from shore. Webcams couldn’t broadcast through the haze, so the waves were kept for the locals, un-crowded and glassy.
As mid-February neared, surfers checked the forecast and cancelled Valentine’s Day reservations for a date with the waves. From Feb. 13 through 18, high pressure extended over the Folly Beach region, and the waves were epic. Sunlight was obstructed by thick rain clouds and surfers flocked to the beach for head-high waves. Later, the clouds broke and the sun burned everyone’s pale, winter faces. Choppy, 7-foot waves turned the ocean into a washing machine, but surfers didn’t quit until it was too dark to see.
“I heard it was big yesterday,” said College of Charleston junior Matt Casey. “I had a six-page paper due, so I refused to call the report, check the cams or anything.”
“I got up promptly at dawn the morning of Friday, Feb. 22,” said Ian Riggs, McKevlin’s Surf Shop employee. “It was solid, 5-foot and offshore with only a few people out. It was one of the best swells in the past year and a lot of people slept on it. It was even spitting barrels at high tide!”
In most parts of the country, winter precipitation and violent wind usually means a blizzard is in the forecast. At Folly Beach, it means it’s time to grab the thickest wetsuit, wake up with the sun and paddle through fierce currents for some of the best waves of the year.
“I guess the most important parts of being a winter surfer are being persistent and having a flexible schedule because when it’s cracking, you got to drop everything and go,” said Riggs. “And living on the beach with a hot shower close by doesn’t hurt either.”