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 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 Click on the ocean buoy closest to your local break, and you’re guaranteed the most accurate swell 4


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, 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 2


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.


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.


What Does Obamacare Mean for Travelers and Expats?

By Courtney McCaffrey


Let’s face it. As travelers, we’re always more worried about where we’re headed than what American politicians are arguing about. In fact, many of us travel because we’re sick of American politics.

450px-Pedestrian_border_crossing_sign_Tijuana_MexicoIt’s no secret that American retirees have been moving to Mexico because healthcare is more affordable. Of the well over 40,000 American retirees currently living in Mexico, thousands of them have enrolled in the Mexican Social Security Institute, which offers health care with no limits, no deductibles and zero cost for X-rays, dental work, medicines and eyeglasses – for roughly $250 a year. So what if some of the hospitals aren’t using cutting edge technology? We all know you can’t get a tooth pulled here in the U.S. for that price.

But now we’ve got Obamacare. So what happens if you left the country for good, simply because no insurance company would cover your pre-existing condition? Or what happens when you come back to the States after years abroad? Will you be penalized for not having health insurance?

Us stinky traveler types aren’t used to having to think about issues like this. Many of us have 800px-ตึกโรงพยาบาลพระรามเก้าbeen exploring the world, dropping into Mexican dental offices and Thai hospitals as we saw fit. Maybe we had a toothache or knew we had to get a mole removed, but heaven forbid we do that in the States.  We told our foreign friends, “It would cost thousands there!” And we were right…

But contrary to what South Carolina news channels say, Obamacare presents zero need to panic.  Americans who live abroad for at least 330 days in a 12-month span qualify for an exemption, so if you’re still out of the country when the end of March 1, 2014, deadline hits, you won’t be penalized for not having coverage. You actually won’t have to buy health insurance until you return, but you must prove on your 2013 taxes or through a conversation with your state health care exchange that you are indeed living abroad.

769px-Puerto_Vallarta_dentist_officeSo what about travelers who leave the country for big chunks of the year but not quite 330 days? It’s simply time to sign up for health care. You may appreciate that if something serious happens abroad, you can always come home to the doctor you trust. And Obamacare certainly doesn’t deny you access to those dentists in Panama that are still cheaper than your deductible in the States, so go ahead and get your teeth cleaned.

Winter Waves in Folly Beach

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 800px-Folly-beach-pier-sc1winter 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.”

448px-Surf' for Casey and others who missed the mid-February swell, the tale end of the month brought one more notable day.

“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.”