Love, Hate and Ultimately Bliss in Ocean City, MD

Surf in Ocean City, MD Friday June 24, 2011
Surf in Ocean City, MD Friday June 24, 2011

Right off the bat I am going to state that I know that I’ll get A LOT of nasty-grams for this post. I am about to trash a Marylander’s favorite beach town, but I don’t feel bad about it. After all, when you take away the cotton candy, crowded boardwalk, trashy hotels and trashier bars, cops, red lights, junk food and sand renourishment projects, the place is CLEARLY lacking, right?

Ocean City beckons to those who, in my view of the world, don’t know better. Whether they haven’t been exposed to other beaches, or the place is just a “home away from home” or a “place they grew up with”, there are masses of people that love and swear by this place. And that’s certainly their right.

I’ve scoured the East Coast from top to bottom, and I can safely say that, unless you like stepping into the quintessential cliche of a trashy beach town, give this place a miss. But, as a surfer who wants to get the best waves I can, I find myself there time and time again. For the many times I ask myself why, occasionally I am reminded of exactly what I am doing in OCMD (as stickers and those “in the know” refer to the place).

Waves. That is the reason, but the answer isn’t usually satisfactory. Leaving behind all of the land-born atrocities OCMD dishes up, the ocean provides all the respite any surfer needs from the dismal on-land situation. At its best, Ocean City offers up steep, peeling waves that will barrel all the way through their short lives on the local sandbars. But the place is fickle. At times, the place can be a surfer’s dream, but usually the reality is far from that.

Any beachbreak can get good on its day, some more often than others. This Eastern Shore “city” is a maddening place in the surf, almost as much as it is on land. My drive to get there and surf takes about 2 1/2 hours without any traffic. If the surf forecast doesn’t look good I usually don’t go. Marginal doesn’t cut it, because, well, the place IS fickle.

I do have to consider the better parts. On a good day, as Friday morning was, hollow walls peel off in every direction up and down the beach. On a quality swell with some south in it, as Leslie has provided, there are shortened versions of the super bank in Queensland wherever you look. Snag one of these runners and you’re smiling for the rest of the day. Snag a bunch, and the smile takes a long time to fade. It’s the true redeeming quality of this seedy spot by the sea. But Friday was an exception, definitely not the rule. These beachies go from spinning perfection to wonky weirdness if you even look at the ocean wrong. In my 20+ years of surfing, I don’t think I’ve seen a more temperamental beachbreak.

Start with the tide. Anything other than low to rising is pretty much out. And dead low can create sand-sucking death bomb closeouts. Once the tide gets too high, the backwash destroys any perfection you may have been enjoying. So there’s usually no more than a two to three hour period to get optimal waves in the tide cycle.

Then there’s the wind. Anything but offshore tears the place apart, turning hollow dreams into ugly, wonky, clam shell closeouts. And even on the days with perfect wind forecasts, the local breeze has a way of being off just enough to turn the waves to crap.

In summertime the denizens of the thousands of condos come out and clog up the inside, so even when things do fall into place you’re likely to run some clueless kook over before you can kick out.

I could go on, but there’s not much point. You get the idea. It’s not my favorite place to surf. In my opinion, there are more utilitarian spots in the vicinity. But when the elements DO come together, then there is no better place to be on the Eastern Shore (save for some secret spots, but no names be named here).

Yes, Ocean City displays all of the characteristics of any annoying and frustrating beachy in the world. Yet it also shares one with the best of them too–sick barrels. And Friday was all about sick barrels, and ultimately bliss. The trick is to not let the scenery ruin the stoke as you drive out of town post-session.
Here’s some of the local groms getting sand-thrashings in OCMD. Represent.

One Fateful Winter Day in Montauk

     This is a true story that took place in the Winter of 1996, late February if I recall correctly. The previous few hurricane seasons had produced waves in abundance, from fun head-high days on up to muscly triple overhead freight trains, if you knew where to look. The countless hours I spent pushing my abilities and confidence in larger waves led me to feel like I was ready for a particular rock reef at size in the middle of Winter.

Anyone who surfs all four seasons in the Northeast will tell you that Winter surfing can be like punching yourself in the face. The conditions are to be endured, not enjoyed. But the waves can and will fire in Winter time, and you either want it or you don’t.

On that February day in Montauk, I expected a pretty big swell, but checking the surf revealed that it was bigger (by a lot), and more shifty than I anticipated. But I had driven 90 minutes to surf there and I wasn’t going home with no surf time. I suited up, noting two other surfer’s cars in the lot, one of whom I knew. Down the trail to the paddle-out spot, and from there I could see the two surfers sitting further outside than normal, disappearing behind the smaller inside waves. I watched a set come through, and it was way, way overhead. Without someone dropping in, the waves were hard to fully gauge.

Scoping it for a few more minutes, I watched another set sweep through the lineup, and once it dissipated I made for the outside. The air wasn’t freezing cold; it was warm for February, the air temperature was in the low 40’s. The water was still in the mid 30’s, having bottomed out for the season. Water that cold is never inviting.

I made it out okay, but I realized that the waves were breaking about 200 yards further out than I had ever seen them. It seemed like two swells were crossing, peaking the waves further outside and making their walls seem even more imposing. Wave choice that day was critical.

I sat near the two other surfers for moral support and to lean on their lineup knowledge. Both looked apprehensive, which, frankly, made me nervous. We all had the right boards, and I could tell they both had experience in bigger conditions. But still, there was something about this swell; it simply seemed intimidating.

The first to take off was the guy I knew. He was from Long Beach, in his thirties, and he seemed like he just wanted to get one under his belt. And one was all he got. He went down on the take-off, then was dragged about 150 yards by the wave. He came up ping-ponging through the inside rocks, definitely not having fun at that point. That was all for him, he hiked back up the trail, simply having had enough.

At that point I knew I didn’t want to wipe out. It was me and the other surfer, a female, just the two of us alone in a huge lineup. I’ve never surfed big Sunset Beach, but I venture that this day wasn’t too unlike a big day there. The shiftyness, the way the waves dragged through the inside and churned forever. We exchanged small talk, agreeing that not getting caught inside was priority number one.

A good twenty or twenty five minutes went by, as we tried to dig up nerve to snag a set wave. It had grown foggy and dank, making it hard to clearly see what was coming on the horizon. The larger set waves would appear as huge lumps slowly materializing out of the fog, and from different directions. I was very alert and on-guard.

We sat about ten yards apart. I was on the right, she on the left, as we peered into the blank horizon. Suddenly, it got dark. The whole space in front of us filled with easily the biggest wave I’d ever faced, already steepening and growing in size as it approached from deep water. This thing loomed large, seeming bigger than a house, and my first thought was, if I get caught by this thing, I’m a goner.

We both snapped to, proning on our boards and scratching like mad. No matter what, one of us was going to get caught by this nightmare. Usually at this cove, you want to paddle left as the sets start feeling the reef to your right. There is a channel there, but on this day that channel wasn’t helping this wave or our cause any. She paddled left, I right. My call was a do-or-die. If that thing swung toward the channel, and went wide of the normal take-off zone, I would be clear. If it balled up and closed out on the takeoff zone, I’d probably drown.

Luck was with me. The gal went left and that thing swung hard toward the channel and took her on a hell-ride all the way through to the paddle-out spot. A distance of at least three hundred yards. She got right out and never looked back. Gulp. I was fine, but alone. I paddled up that thing forever, and damn it was steep, but it peaked just down the line to my left, and I just made it over, with my legs shaking and my adrenaline just coursing.

Alone. And the swell seemed to be peaking. Now I reversed my objective: I didn’t want to safely snag a set wave, I wanted to get the hell out of there. Fog. Cold water. Big waves. Pondering another macker, the thought of being all alone out there wasn’t comforting.

It was forty five long minutes before I felt that I had timed the sets enough to make a run for it. Getting in from big surf through boulders is never easy. Add to that the sweep and swirl of the currents and it gets even tougher. When conditions are testy, it’s easy to get swept hundreds of yards in mere moments, which can cause all sorts of problems.

Timing the sets I noted a five minute lull every 15-18 minutes. As the third timed lull seemed to start, I made a MAD dash to the inside, straight toward the gnarly boulders. I knew the current on the inside would sweep me toward the right spot. I’d like to say that there was heavy drama on the paddle in, but there wasn’t. I was able to hurl myself out at the right spot having taken just a few inside waves on the head. I was just glad to be out of the ocean at that point. Feeling completely exhausted without having ridden a wave, I stumbled up to the parking lot. It was empty. It probably should have stayed that way that day, it wasn’t a day for surfing.

The session humbled me. It was the first time I had approached my limit. It wasn’t the size of the waves alone, it was the atmospheric conditions, the freezing water, and the vibe. It was a lesson to listen to my instincts and not push things too far. I was grateful to climb out of the sea that day, even if it was (and still is) the only time I paddled out without paddling for a single wave.

It kind of looked like this, only colder and bigger.

Flowrider-the fresh(water) way to surf

Turning on the Flowrider

On a recent trip to the Gulf Coast of Florida I was lamenting the fact that I wouldn’t be surfing. Not for a lack of access to ocean or gulf, but for the insipid surf forecast for both coasts. A natural salt water surf session clearly was not to be in the cards.

Flowrider wipeout
This is what the first bunch of (attemtped) rides looked like. Trying to bodysurf it? No, wipeout.

So I was stoked when I arrived in Clearwater Beach and saw the sign for the Flowrider, which was housed inside one of those hokey wanna-be surf shops along the beach strand. Not that the option of riding a high speed sheet of water could ever outshine riding an ocean-borne wave, but what the hell, I figured it would make for some boarding fun. And after this miserable Winter of waves, that was just fine with me. Nevermind that notable surf-scribe Matt Warshaw once compared riding a Flowrider to “sex with a blow-up doll”, sometimes a down and dirty fix is needed, fake or not.

Flowrider ride
Gettin' the Flowrider hang of things.

With 21 years of wave riding under my belt I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous at the idea of totally kooking out on this thing. The potential for that was very real–I’ve heard pro surfers talk about how hard it was to grasp riding one of these things. And I also recalled the Flowrider scene in Endless Summer II, where many body-slamming wipe outs were taken by well-known surfers.

In any case I was feeling intrepid, and also was relieved to find just one other surfer enjoying a stationary surfing session. And he was just 9 or 10 years old. The worker dude was the only other one inside the wave room, and he seemed to roll his eyes when I informed him of my “real” surfing experience while also pleading for his help in getting up and riding.

I started out by edging the board off of the lip of the front of the wave while holding on to the rookie rope, which was held by the worker dude. He slowly let out some slack until… Floosh, I was unceremoniously whipped upside down and whisked up and over the wave by the jet of water. And again, and again. This was turning out exactly how I hoped it wouldn’t. But I didn’t give up, even taking pointers from the young kid who was riding the thing fairly well. When I found out he was from Canada and had never surfed, my pride kicked in–after all it was I who should be schooling this youngun in the way of the wave.

The aha moment came a few attempts later. Lean way back on the back foot, worker dude said, almost like when stalling a “real” surfboard on an ocean wave. Riding a board about the size of a large skateboard, flotation wasn’t a factor in keeping upright and riding–it was all about keeping that small board from being sucked under the water flow. And I was up and riding, for about 1.3 seconds.

I kept at it and before long I had mastered standing there like a statue, gliding to the top of the wave and back down. Trying to engage the rail for a turn only had me being hucked off the machine in all sorts of contorted positions, as my whip-lashed neck would attest the next day. Yet like the mole in a whack-a-mole game I kept popping back up for more, determined to get some turns going and display at least a modicum of style. Who ever knew sex with a blow up doll could be so painful?

Turning on the Flowrider
Gettin some style points.

The session lasted 30 minutes, and by about the twenty minute mark I was starting to grow out of the training wheels, getting little turns going and enjoying the ride rather than feeling like I was in survival mode. And by the end of the session I was getting the feeling down, engaging the rail and carving turns across the sheet of water. Fun… Artificial, but fun.

Yeah, so what if this is the silicone toy equivalent in the surf world? Fun is where you find it, and when the Gulf of Mexico is guaranteed to be flat flat flat, a little chlorinated, manufactured fun is called for.

S-Turns in about five minutes

S_Turns Rodanthe, NC Hurricane Bill swell gallery

That’s about the time I took to squeeze off a few shots at Rodanthe’s photo studio as I was headed out of town after vacation. I had just gotten back from Saudi Arabia, and surfed hours on end every day of the OBX trip. I was sooo surfed out by this point–fried. This was just after Hurricane Bill had nearly kissed the coastline the night before. It was pretty windy, and not as clean as the days leading up to it, but plenty juicy and bigger. As John “Logie” Logan once said to me, “This place thumps.” Gotta love good old S-Turns.



S_Turns Rodanthe, NC Hurricane Bill swell gallery
S-Turns post Bill brushback