Driving is the New Flying: Choosing Your Surf Vehicle

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By Courtney McCaffrey

Planning a surf trip has always been one of the best parts of being a surfer, but lately, it seems like a ticket to just about any surf destination is approaching $1000 (not to mention escalating board fees).  A quick search on Kayak may have you convinced that you’ll never be able to leave your home break again.

So what do you do? Settle into the knee-high shore break of your local surf spot and accept it as your destiny, or sell all of your belongings and work triples for a year just to spend a week in Costa Rica.

We (my boyfriend Jeff and I) refuse to settle for either of those options, and you should too. It’s time to get yourself a surf vehicle and start driving to the countless beach, point  and reef breaks dotting the shores of the west coast of the United States, Mexico and Central America.

While buying a new vehicle may seem like a huge investment, you can find an ideal surf-mobile for the price of a ticket to Bali. When shelling out the cash, keep in mind that you now have an asset that can be used for tons of epic surf trips. And if you realize the vehicle doesn’t suit your needs, you can sell it and get your money back (or buy a plane ticket).

Choosing the perfect surf vehicle can seem overwhelming, but as long as you keep your budget and comfort needs at the forefront, you’ll be cruising to some of the world’s best waves in no time. Oh, and don’t forget to watch out for topes (speed bumps).

Car and Tent Combo

The most budget-friendly option, traveling in a car or truck with your tent in tow, works well for surfers who aren’t afraid to rough it. You can also build a sleeping space in the bed of the truck if you have a topper to protect you from the elements.

The gas mileage is great and having your own vehicle to cruise from surf spot to surf spot is awesome, but the tight quarters might get old (and stinky after days of surf). Setting up and taking down your tent every night can get really tedious, and you simply can’t leave a tent pitched all day while you’re in the water in some areas. It’s very likely you’ll come back to your campsite, and all of your belongings will be missing.

Tents also don’t offer enough security for certain areas. In 2010, armed banditos robbed a number of tent campers in La Ticla – a popular destination in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, for American and Canadian surfers. Although tent robberies aren’t a major occurrence, it’s best not to make yourself an easy target.

Buy an RV

Recreational vehicles are a comfortable alternative for those who don’t want to sleep on the ground. They can also save you tons of cash on hotel rooms for the days that are just too hot to tent camp or in areas where tent campers are vulnerable to crime.

RVs would really be the ideal surf vehicles if they weren’t such a money pit. The amount you save on hotel rooms usually goes into gas and, even worse, repairs. And who wants to play rock, paper, scissors every time the septic tank needs to be emptied?

RVs are ideal for cruising across the States or sticking to the toll roads in Mexico and beyond, but when you decide to veer off the pavement to some of the best breaks, your RV may not seem so useful. Many RVs won’t fit on the tiny, pothole-filled dirt roads of Baja and Central America, so you may end up missing out on some killer waves.

The Ideal Surf Vehicle

After trial and error with tent camping and shopping for the perfect RV for Mexico, we came across the most ideal combination of the two – a van. It may not have the same to ring to it as Winnebago or Toyota Tacoma, but a van is essentially an affordable, and permanent, tent on wheels.photo 2

The most economical choice is a family van that still gets a decent amount of miles per gallon. Although you may not reach the breaks that are only accessible by 4X4 vehicles, a small van like the Honda Odyssey can house a good sized bed (with the rear seats removed) and plenty of boards and supplies for two. Note: Don’t forget to remove the stick figure family on the rear window after purchasing.

Although minivans get better gas mileage, we chose a full-size van for the additional room. For just a few thousand dollars, we were able to snag an ‘86 Chevy Vandura with a 4X4 conversion done by Quigley Motor Company. It came with a gutted interior, so with a few of pieces of plywood and an old futon mattress, we created a bed in less than an hour. A couple of beanbag chairs and plenty of storage bins later, our creaky old work van turned into a full-blown surf vehicle.

We sought the 4X4 version, so we could access the muddiest roads in all of Baja. Although 4X4 isn’t necessary, it certainly suits our needs, and the extra money we’ve spent on gas has proven to be less than what we previously spent on months in hotel rooms. And best of all, we’ve parked on cliffs overlooking some of the best waves in the world without another car or surfer in sight.

So before you start missing the surf at home because you’re working a double to pay for flight to Costa Rica, think about investing in a vehicle that you’ll be able to use surf trip after surf trip for years to come. Heck, the proper surf vehicle may even give you the confidence you’ve been needing to quit your day job.

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.

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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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