Trials and Tribulations: The Art of Being an East Coast Surfer

Post-hurricane swell in Carolina Beach, N.C.
Post-hurricane swell in Carolina Beach, N.C.

By Courtney McCaffrey

Sparking an interest for surfing is simple on the East Coast. There are plenty of days to go out and fart around in weak, uncrowded waves. You can have them all to yourself and can advance somewhat quickly with lots of practice (take a look at Kelly Slater).

But once you embark on that first surf trip to Central America, Puerto Rico or even California, you start to learn that other areas offer waves with better form, more consistency and are also often world class, which the East Coast rarely has.

Although you may come home and complain about what a bummer the East Coast is, don’t pack your car and start driving to the over-crowded, over-priced beaches of California just yet. If you’re willing to practice some basic meteorology and browse a number of swell and weather-forecasting sites every day (thank God for technology), you can master the art of East Coast surfing.photo 1

Swell Forecasting

There’s no point in waxing your board if there’s no swell on the horizon. The first step to even thinking of surfing on the East Coast is to check if there’s a storm or any sort of motion in the ocean.

Your local surf shop, MagicSeaWeed, Surfline and SwellInfo all offer swell charts to help you predict upcoming waves. Although these sites are helpful, they’re all a little bit too good to be true. When they have the swell correct, the wind is wrong, and when you think it’s chest high and barreling you walk out to knee-high mush.

The most reliable source I’ve found for swell is buoyweather.com. Click on the ocean buoy closest to your local break, and you’re guaranteed the most accurate swell forecast.photo 4

Wind

Wind is the most important (and most fickle) element in East Coast surfing, so you need to be onto the wind forecast like a fly on $*&#.

Generally the winds are lighter at dawn and dusk, but East Coast winds are so unpredictable, they can change several times throughout the day. The surf can go from bad to good to crap again in a few hours.

Again, your local surf shop or any of the swell-forecasting sites will have a wind forecast for you to check. Although, the most reliable source I’ve found is the Weather Channel.

Go to WeatherChannel.com, choose your local spot, then click the tab that says “hourly forecast.” I love this site (and app) for it’s extreme accuracy – an hour on the East Coast can mean the difference between glassy barrels and complete chop.photo 2

Tide

Tide is another critical factor in East Coast surfing. Unlike some reefs and points at world-class breaks where the tide change is minimal and doesn’t really affect the surf, East Coast surf is drastically dependent on tide.

Make sure you know the tides for your local spot. There are a number of free apps for your smartphone that you can use to find an accurate tide for each day – especially since it changes about 45 minutes to an hour every day.

It’s almost always best to catch the surf on a middle-incoming tide, but if that’s not possible, you need to avoid the dead highs and dead lows. Some breaks do work better on low tides than high tides and vice versa, so get to know your break like the back of your hand.

799px-FEMA_-_1626_-_Photograph_by_Dave_Saville_taken_on_09-01-1999_in_North_Carolina

Be Prepared

Don’t assume you can party all night, wake up groggy, have a nice sit-down breakfast at Waffle House and still catch some surf. This isn’t Panama. The wind is hardly ever offshore all day on the East Coast, and even when it is, the swell may only last a couple hours. You need to be ready to surf when the time is right.

  • Start swell-forecasting a few days ahead of time. Regardless of the wind and tide, you can’t surf without waves.

  • Check the hourly wind forecast a day before the waves are coming. Keep up with that forecast throughout the entire swell. Ideally, offshore winds are best, but if that’s not the way the flags are blowing – less wind is better.

  • Know your break and (if possible) surf when the tide is best for your special spot, but don’t be afraid to browse for breaks that work well on other tides if your timing isn’t perfect.

Optimizing these three factors will help you get the most out of your East Coast sessions. And you’ll find yourself surfing nice waves a lot more often than the people around the world who say, “There’s no surf on the East Coast,” may think. Even better, you and your buddies will probably be the only ones in the lineup.

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Author: Courtney McCaffrey

I'm an adventure travel writer and editor based in Wilmington, N.C., Mexico and around the world. This site is named after my grandma’s talk radio show “Bits of Life,” which allowed her to talk about whatever the heck she wanted to talk about, and people loved it.

4 thoughts on “Trials and Tribulations: The Art of Being an East Coast Surfer”

  1. Omg this is soooo true!!! U have a few tricks I look forward to trying in the ever changing world of surfing the east coast! Also nice pictures btw wish I was there for some of those days!

    1. After years of practice, these are the best sources I’ve found, and they work well for me! I’m always interested in new apps and sites though if you have any to share!

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