VIA – WSJ ONLINE
SEPTEMBER 2, 2011
By JOSHUA ROBINSON
Since he began producing surfing competitions for Quiksilver five years ago, Luke Watson has had to deal with anything Mother Nature could throw at him. There have been cyclones and floods and 15-foot swells. Last year, the earthquake in New Zealand even sent a tsunami hurtling toward his event site in Australia.
But what worries Watson just as much as any of Mother Nature’s temper tantrums are her quiet spells—those times when he is trying to run a surfing competition and the ocean is about as lively as tea in a cup. And when Quiksilver first began toying with the idea of holding this month’s $1 million world tour event in Long Beach, N.Y., Watson knew a wave shortage was a real possibility.
After all, there is a reason surfing the western end of Long Island does not make a lot of riders’ bucket lists.
“I think we took a massive gamble, but then we used the likes of Sean and his team to reassure us,” he said, referring to Sean Collins, one of the world’s foremost surfing weather experts and the lead forecaster for Surfline.
Predicting when and where good waves will come is a little like sitting down at a blackjack table. There are general guidelines to help your chances, it takes more than a little luck to win and you are always at the mercy of the house.
But Collins is the guy counting cards. He claims that with 30 years of experience, Surfline’s wave predictions are now accurate 95% of the time.
He knew weeks ago, for instance, that Hurricane Irene would come too soon to have any impact on the competition—though it did mean Quiksilver had to cancel its scheduled music festival. Instead, he has been far more focused on monitoring the development of Hurricanes Jose and Katia. And he does it all with only the most cursory formal training.
Collins, a lifelong surfer, never took more than a couple of meteorology classes in junior college before deciding he could teach himself the science of pinning down ideal conditions. He began taking his own measurements, drawing his own conclusions, and ultimately, knew enough to be on the ground floor of Surfline in the early 1980s.
“There was an instant reward: getting great waves,” he said.
But the question facing him when Quiksilver came calling over a year ago was, could there be great waves in Long Beach?
At first, Collins was cool on the idea. His list of regular hot spots was full of turquoise swells in locations like Tahiti, Australia and Hawaii. Like most of the surfing community, he had never thought twice about sleepy beach town on the northeast coast of the United States. (Even Quiksilver acknowledged the perception when they released a YouTube video of New Yorkers saying they had ever heard of waves here.)
But as Collins pulled together a report on the feasibility of holding a world tour event there, the two solid weeks of poring over data brought a pleasant surprise. Somewhere in the bathymetric maps and the 100 years of records he reviewed, he saw that serious waves actually visited Long Beach on a regular basis.
It wasn’t Malibu, but it might be enough.
“When there is a swell in Long Beach, a number of things come together that really do help to create a great wave,” Collins said.
Chief among those factors is the Hudson Canyon, an underwater trench several hundred feet deep, located off the western end of Long Island. It is a huge abnormality with an even bigger impact on surfing, Collins said, because the waves “feel” the topography of the ocean floor as they rumble toward the shore. In effect, the canyon acts as a magnifying glass, redirecting the waves and enhancing their energy.
“There are swells that don’t hit the canyon right, so they just come in normally,” Collins said. “But when Long Beach is at its best quality, that Hudson Canyon is definitely working to grab that swell, twist it around and multiply it.”
There was only one problem. According to Mike Nelson, who runs the Unsound Surf shop in Long Beach and has organized surfing events there for 13 years, the best waves usually hit in the dead of winter. The only other option was hurricane season.
As New Yorkers were reminded last weekend, the peak of hurricane activity falls around the end of August and early September. The long story behind it is that around this time of year, the upper-level winds, which effectively serve as tracks for hurricanes, turn parallel to the East coast of the U.S. and guide storms toward New York.
Long story short: Worse weather means happier surfers.
Using his own arsenal of models, National Oceanic Atmospheric Association records and anecdotal information from Nelson, a one-man almanac for Long Beach, Collins was able to precisely determine the area’s best surfing days for the past 15 years. Trends even emerged for specific dates. Sept. 6 and 7, for instance, are traditionally small days. Sept. 13 and 14, for some reason, consistently produce better conditions.
“If you’re going to invest this much to run an event, you’re going to look at every possible angle to improve your odds,” Collins said.
There is, of course, a doomsday scenario. What if the waves don’t come? What if the top surfers in the world are left on the beach staring out at a sheet of glassy water?
Quiksilver had Collins scout several Plan B locations as close as Montauk and New Jersey and as far as Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina. But none was different enough to warrant the massive undertaking of a parallel setup. Especially once they realized that Long Beach itself could give them four or five backups within a mile and a half.
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