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Surfing America's Hurricane States
By Tom Anderson
Summersdale Publishers Ltd Copyright © 2009 Tom Anderson
All rights reserved.
I was fortunate to meet up with Dean one last time the day he died. In fact, he'd been dead for some time prior to that, but his generosity was so far-reaching nobody actually noticed.
Our rendezvous took place at the end of Ocean Avenue and Pearl Street in Maine, just south of the city of Portland – on and around Higgins Beach. The morning was deathly calm, except for the pleasant waist-high waves crackling over a mid-tide sandbar. The water was deep blue and harshly cold. Higgins beachfront lay postcard-still, devoid of the summer bustle that had pushed it to near bursting point just weeks earlier.
Dean had got there some time before me. Someone said he'd made it into town three days ago, but hadn't impressed people as much as he had elsewhere in New England. As a result his passing wasn't being mourned with quite the same sense of loss as further south along Interstate 95, where he had been considered a kind of saviour to some.
I tried to deny it, to kid myself into thinking he could survive just a little longer, but I knew the thing to do was just accept what had happened. The problem was that now, with Marc gone, my bank empty of funds and Dean dead I was, for the first time on this continent, totally alone. The ride was over, and there was nothing that could be done about it.
But at least I had been able to meet Dean at his best. I'd seen his good side. Others had not, and they were the people I should have really felt for.
Because Dean, for all his virtues, had been much crueller than he had been kind. And some were glad that he, and Erin like him, were both dead.
I had never cared for Erin, but Dean was different – the least I can do is explain what he had meant to me ...
A TALE OF TWO SUMMERS
Vale of Glamorgan coastline; Atlantic Ocean. Pressure: Record-breakingly high.
Tuesday 18 July, 2006; two months prior to the start of El Niño. Heavy air, no sign of thunder clouds.
It's not often you can feel completely crushed by heat in South Wales, but that July ruthless sunshine was blazing through the sticky atmosphere and the air was so thick you couldn't even hide in the shade.
I was staring lethargically at the shoreline from the car park at Llantwit Major beach. The sea was feeling it too. A mass of water, the volume of which we mere mortals cannot even begin to comprehend, was completely motionless. Even the mighty Atlantic was unable to muster the energy to move in these conditions.
Behind me, a dog tried to resist going for a walk over the chevron-fold cliffs, and an elderly couple sat eating lunch in the front seats of their car (the heat even forcing Mr to take the drastic action of undoing a shirt button). This was South Wales's Vale of Glamorgan as seldom seen. A July heatwave, an unusual weather system bringing overland winds from the sweltering mid-summer European mainland – the same system that was causing fires in the Algarve, and placing pompiers in the pine forests of southern France on twenty-four-hour call at a time of year when all they wanted to do was sit on the beach. An entire continent had ground to a halt.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, in anonymous waters just east of the Caribbean Sea, the second phase of this weather pattern was soon to begin. The stillness, the weight of air on water, the pounding sun and atmospherically retained heat were all building up, until the ocean could take no more, hitting back and restoring the meteorological status quo. Tropical Storm Beryl was, quite literally, warming up. From this stillness would soon come a natural force capable of generating more energy in a few hours than that stored by all the nuclear weapons in the belligerent northern hemisphere combined.
She would, in the course of the following three months, be followed by Chris, Debby, Ernesto, Florence, Gordon, Helene and Isaac – an unusually short but violent season, ending two storms short of 'K'.
For now, Beryl's payload was still over a week away. She had yet to spin up towards New York, sending an unexpected blip across to the frustratingly calm summer seas. In the meantime, all we could do was wait, and sweat. And wish we lived on Cape Cod, where some of the best waves in recent surfing history were shortly to find their way ashore.
Lost for ways to spend the rest of this sub-tropical day, I turned back to my ageing Nissan Micra, fired the engine up with a burst of blue smoke, plenty of acceleration and clutching, cursed the car's lack of air-conditioning and began to drive home. Maybe there was something in that Cape Cod thought?
For several seasons I had been monitoring hurricanes as a surfer, seeing them in a different light to those who didn't ride waves for a hobby. I knew about the havoc they could wreak on tin-roofed Central American towns, but it was hard for me and my fellow surfers to attach ourselves emotionally to these horror stories. For most of us, Atlantic hurricanes meant one thing: surf.
This was typical of how I viewed most of the world's significant goings-on. Since moving to Porthcawl as a kid, surfing had basically run my life. It had governed the jobs I did and the people I knew, as well as the places I went, of course. Between surf trips, I usually worked on ideas for surf trips – from the monotony of whatever job was currently letting me save the necessary money. Even after getting my lucky breaks with writing, it was still common to find me 'hobbling' in some manner for extra cash to get away on another wave-finding mission – a quick winter hop to Morocco, a summer sojourn in France or a red-eyed drive up to Scotland if the weather charts suddenly demanded it.
I'd been aware for a while now that pretty much the best place on earth to be a surfer during hurricane season was the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, as it got almost all the swell from these tropical storms. With my mother living in Toronto, only a day and a half 's drive from the US coast, it was a place well within my reach. Could I find an excuse to take a more long-term leave from Wales for the promise of North America's luring line-ups?
These Atlantic hurricane storms usually moved into the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean or to the Atlantic near Florida, and we in Porthcawl would get no surf from them. Once or twice a year, perhaps, their trajectory would veer north towards the Azores, and that would be the time to start waxing your board. But the thought of chasing these storms to whichever locale was the best placed along a vast coastline was something I couldn't help but feel drawn to – something that just wasn't possible in Europe. I wasn't sure if I knew any surfers who'd been to New York; the neon billboards of Times Square weren't the sort of vistas you dreamed of if you'd given your life to riding waves.
Eventually, summer began to give way and further changes occurred in the northern hemisphere's weather that, again, nobody had been able to predict. All of a sudden, the small part of the Atlantic that we in South Wales relied upon for waves was calmer than usual. September and October went by without any serious autumn swells and then, in a few days, we had gone from one of the warmest summers on record to a soaking wet winter. The straw yellows of the mid-August grass soon disappeared as rainfalls ran into early frosts. Schools were closing due to snow and central heating bills reached for the dark, grey clouds.
At that time, as in past years, US storm chasing remained just an idea. I hadn't yet realised that it was only the first of two exceptionally odd years of wind and waves.
Porthcawl, South Wales. Pressure: 1006 mb. Thursday 20 July, 2007. One summer later. El Niño season confirmed. Still wet as ever. Fifth consecutive day of rain – northern England and Midlands underwater.
The following summer, alas, was nothing like its predecessor. Any hopes that those warm seasons were going to become the norm faded away as we moved into a spring that was grim and depressing. Not merely a return to the usual UK routine of drab holiday seasons, this was something else altogether.
As June washed into July, the British people had grown so used to the patter of raindrops battering windowpanes that the few dry spells were barely noticed. The media, of course, continued to be obsessed with the story:
'Record-breaking rains at Wimbledon.'
'A tale of two summers.'
'Storm surges more likely from now on.'
'Bitter North "left to drown" by government ...'
This July was characterised by floods. The North of England was deluged first, before the Midlands were almost washed away.
In a gloomy living room, flitting between the apocalyptic news scenes and a live webcast of pro surfers scoring gorgeous South Seas perfection, all sorts of useless meteorological statistics swirled around my head like a growing mist. Among them was the fact that my wetsuit had been soaking for a fortnight but had only been used twice. It was sodden with rainwater. Not only were there no storms in the East Atlantic to produce waves, but anything that did trickle ashore was being ravaged by nasty sea breezes and local squalls. All the while, the rest of the world seemed abundant with great surf.
'Let's be honest,' declaimed one of Radio Four's stiff voices. 'We haven't really been too concerned with climate change as long as it gave us warm summers, but this year the Great British public are having a nasty scare.'
On the other side of the all-governing Atlantic, summer on the US East Coast had got off to yet another fantastic start. Surfer magazine was doing an online feature on North Carolina's Outer Banks, a thin strip of land that had been given an early season gift in the form of Tropical Storm Barry, another disturbance tauntingly out of range for British surfers. But my attention was no longer on the European forecasts ...
'It's hard to predict the exact nature of this year's hurricane season,' claimed a weatherman on CNN, 'but most American experts are still expecting above average activity in the Atlantic this year. There is a one-in-three chance of a storm equal to, or more powerful than, Hurricane Katrina. We advise all East Coasters and Gulf Coasters to be extra cautious this year. Know your evacuation route. Know where to get gas in an emergency, and keep watching the weather reports.'
'Know where to get gas in emergencies for sure,' I thought, 'but know where to get surf wax too!'
The afternoon I booked the flight was the wettest I'd ever seen Porthcawl. After listening to three continuous hours of water rapping on my windows, I logged on to the Internet to see if there were waves, and on confirming that there weren't, looked at some flight quotes to Toronto. I knew my mother kept an old car in her driveway and hardly ever needed it.
On one of the sites, there was an open-ended ticket going for a drop-down price.
Engulfed in July Welsh gloom, I took a deep breath. This was it. I entered my credit card details, pressed 'BOOK FLIGHT' and then did not allow myself to press anything else until it was too late to cancel.
I was going to the hurricane continent, and would soon be within striking distance of what American surfers called the 'Right Coast' – due both to its fortunate placement for tropical storm surf and the fact it faced east on most maps.
Of course, I didn't realise back then that, with these actions, I'd already made firm arrangements to meet up with Dean. I thought that aimless and soul-cleansing wandering lay ahead but, looking back, there really wasn't much free will in it at all. My path was already set. But as I knew nothing of it at the time, it didn't make much difference.
Feeling pleased with myself, I then picked up the phone and made a call to the University of Wales's Physics Department.
'Oh yes, hello. I wonder if I could be put through to Marc Rhys please?' I asked.
'Dr Marc Rhys. Yes, I'll put you through to his extension now ...' But would Marc buy the idea? Of course he would. He had to.CHAPTER 2
CHAPTER ONE TROPICAL STORM CHANTAL
'What the hell are you doing in a place like this? I thought I'd called in to the wrong hotel for a minute!'
'Ah, I'm moving up in the world these days, see, matey. Just getting what I deserve, that's all. D'you want someone to bring you a cocktail?'
'Will I have to pay for it?'
'Then I won't have one.'
'Tight arse! All right then, I'll put it on my tab.'
'Really? Can you do that?'
'Can I do that? I can do bloody anything these days!'
Marc, or rather 'Dr Rhys', had indeed been rising through the ranks of late, and I was finding it a little hard to get used to. This was a guy who chuckled at toilet humour, watched The Simpsons as if it were daily prayers and had once travelled on a shoestring budget that would put most of us to shame. Yet someone had deemed it sensible to award him a PhD in physics. And now here he was, arranging for us to meet at The Standard in Miami.
Not the kind of haunt I'd usually expect for a rendezvous with Marc.
'While you're at it then, Marc, someone just drove my car away ...'
'Valet parking, Tom, that's what they, sorry, we, call it. You uncultured swine, you!' He lay back in his chair and stretched, grinning at me through a face full of beach-freckles – the kind that only surf and sun can give you. He rubbed his hair, originally a strawberry colour but now salt-bleached and messy, lifted away a pair of sunnies to show his green eyes, and winked.
'Er, right, valet,' I said, raising my eyebrows, and folding my arms. I had a couple of inches on Marc, and stared down my nose at him, dismissively. 'Doesn't matter what you and your new friends call it. He said it was going to be forty dollars. Money – you know, the thing I don't really tend to have much of? Any chance of putting that on the tab too?'
'I'll think about it. Your car's gonna look wicked next to some of the nonsense I've seen those boys driving around in since I got here though – but then I don't suppose you give a shit ...'
Before you learn any more about Marc Rhys, let me tell you about The Standard. Tasteful, plush and indulgent: this was not something of a habit for me (and Marc for that matter). The Standard was what you got when you put Miami's heritage of wealth and high living in the hands of good architects and interior designers.
This was, apparently, the old 'Lido Spa Hotel', given one heck of a facelift. The Lido Spa had become a symbol of Miami's golden days, until its clientele retired permanently to Florida condominiums and the place ran out of momentum. That was when a guy called Andre Balazs stepped in and bought it up, creating a chain of luxury hotels. The first Standard in Los Angeles had quickly become a hangout for the rich and famous, and now the sister hotel here in Miami was attracting a pretty exclusive scene too (Dr Marc Rhys for one).
The management of the new Standard had consulted all kinds of minimalist architects and designers, adding touches of Scandinavia ('fucking IKEA generation,' moaned Marc) with Roman indulgence and excess. The place was all about luxurious materials, soft sofas, tranquil space, rocking chairs and water features. Cold plunge baths and hot fountains bordered an infinity pool that appeared to run straight into Biscayne Bay behind. Upstairs, Miami residents who could afford it attended the gym and unwound in heated marble seats and peppermint-scented saunas.
Somehow, while the rest of Florida was being crushed by a heat so oppressive it made you fear for your life, the garden of The Standard remained serene and comfortable. Diligent staff waited to refresh your towel, move your parasol or bring you a drink, and stepped forward with raised eyebrows any time you made eye contact: 'Me? Do you need something, sir?'
Around us, despite being moments away from a fairly busy street, Miami's vast lagoons were the dominant setting. Pillared mansions and custom dwellings surrounded the bays, each boasting a different architectural style: Art Deco, Venetian, Bourgeois French, Rococo. And the millionaire yachts that sat moored to the shoreline lawns and landscaped gardens were just as varied. Some had gone for size, others design. Occasionally, a jet ski cruised past the hotel's quayside, its rider pausing to chat to one of the guests – the only motor sounds despite the fact that in the hazy distance you could see two major bridges, both teeming with freeway traffic. Fringed by thick, symmetrical palm trees, and decorated simply with a handful of mild colours complementing the sound of running water, The Standard was as much life in a bubble as Americans had yet managed to create.
'Classic – the food here is so good I almost don't want to eat it,' Marc explained. 'This guy brought me some kind of spinach thing yesterday and I thought fuck it – I'm just gonna sit and look at that for a minute. Like a bloody work of modern art it was, son. Tasted crap though, I think ... not really being educated in what to expect from that kind of cuisine. Crossed my mind to complain – just coz I could. Imagine that: Excuse me sir, this jus de whateveryoucallit is not quite balanced to my taste – could you take it back so the chef may feed his cat with it? It didn't though, coz I'm not that much of a tosser.'
Excerpted from Chasing Dean by Tom Anderson. Copyright © 2009 Tom Anderson. Excerpted by permission of Summersdale Publishers Ltd.
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