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No, You Shouldn’t Surf in Hurricanes

No, You Shouldn’t Surf in Hurricanes

The big waves that storms generate in Hawaii may be tempting—but high winds, brown water and sharks are real hazard.

From the alii of Hawaii nei riding koa boards along the Waikiki break, to modern big surf competitions on Oahu’s North Shore, to daily enthusiasts relentlessly dotting the horizon—surfing is as pedestrian as it is awe-inspiring in the Aloha State.

As with any open water sport, surfing comes with risk. Besides drowning hazards, surfers can run afoul of coral reefs or even their own boards.

“I patched up a lot of dinged heads, dinged faces, dinged arm cut by the skeg from the leash pulling back,” says veteran Waikiki lifeguard Captain Paul Merino.

There are obvious dangers associated with surfing under normal conditions—but the stakes are even higher when a tropical storm or hurricane approaches our islands and die-hard surfers paddle out to catch big waves.

Regular surf vs. hurricane waves
Hawaii’s beaches tend to have relatively consistent seasonal wave patterns when no storms are present. On Oahu, the North Shore gets big waves in the winter while the South Shore sees larger summer swells. These waves are formed by large storms, including hurricanes, that occur thousands of miles from Hawaii. They travel across the Pacific before making their way to local beaches.

“There's a long time for those waves to manicure themselves, with the wind blowing on them, and as they travel they separate and become epic waves,” says Cpt. Merino. These are the waves surfers love.

Hurricane waves—on the other hand—are an altogether different beast. In a hurricane, winds generate quick waves that are very close together and have a lot of whitewater.

“It can be like being in a washing machine because the winds, they're just pushing, and pushing, and pushing the water,” says Eric Lau, meteorologist with the National Weather Service Pacific Region in Honolulu, Hawaii. “So, when you don't have a lot of time for the waves to set up, they're going to be really short.” Short waves lead to more white water that makes paddling out and catching them nearly impossible.

Besides heavy surf, the high winds from hurricanes may send objects including coconuts or broken branches flying through the air, warns Lau. Hurricanes can also generate waterspouts and tornados that increase their danger, he adds.

The larger volume of water at the shore from hurricanes also causes beach erosion. “These waves continue to push white water into the beach and it piles up higher than normal onto the sand and erodes the sand as it comes back into the water,” says Merino. “It creates a very, very dangerous current close to shore.”

Between the high winds, short waves and dangerous currents, surfing big storms is incredibly dangerous, so what’s the appeal?

Who surfs a hurricane anyway?
Merino admits that in his youth, he couldn’t resist the allure of trying to surf Waikiki when Hurricane Iniki grazed Oahu and hit Kauai in 1992. He and his surf partner paddled out at Waikiki beach in 15- to 20-foot waves on 12-foot boards thinking, “we'll make history to ourselves.”

Before they could catch their first wave though, they ran into another danger that can happen in hurricanes. Merino recounts: “The most scary thing of that day, Hurricane Iniki, was that the largest shark I've ever seen in my life came right up to my surfboard and checked me out...That was our sign to get out of the water.”

Churning water and debris can bring in large predators according to both Lau and Merino. Regardless, big storms bring out thrill seekers in the surf community. As one storm surfer who wished to remain anonymous said, “surfing is never completely safe. That’s the thrill of it.”

Thankfully, storms tend to keep would-be surfers from getting into too much trouble: “Hurricane surf manages the surfers, because it pushes them back in,” says Merino. The strong winds and fast waves generally require an expert surfer to catch a wave. Everyone else gets pushed back to shore.

Brown water is as gross as it sounds
High winds, fast waves and strong currents aren’t the only dangers associated with surfing or even swimming in a hurricane or tropical storm. Brown water is common during any heavy rainfall in Hawaii.

According to the State of Hawaii, Department of Health, runoff from any large storm may contain sewage that has harmful micro-organisms and chemicals from industrial or commercial use.

Lau goes a step further with his explanation of brown water: “I think, just from all that water washing down in heavy rain, there could be dead animals that flow down. Could be pesticides that get washed out. So, with all that brown water, the choppiness of the ocean, the dangerous conditions, there could be even large predators that you don't even know about like sharks swimming around just to try to get some dead carcass.”

The Department of Health issues brown water advisories that you can check at the Clean Water Branch.

If in doubt, don’t go out
The 2018 hurricane season has already been active for Hawaii, and we may continue to see huge storms through November. According to Lau, Hawaii usually sees around four to five large storms each hurricane season. During storms, local government agencies will close beaches and issue advisories as the conditions require. Always be mindful of posted signs at any beach that warn of current conditions and stick to beaches that have a lifeguard present. Remember that if you do get in the water despite warnings, you may be putting more than your own life at risk.

“We warn the public the best we can with signage and verbal warnings. There are those that do go down to the shoreline. They get sucked in, and now we are risking our lives to go in and pull them out,” says Merino.

The best practice is to follow the lifeguard’s credo when deciding whether or not to get in the water: If in doubt don’t go out.

Medically reviewed in October 2018.

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