Autumn on the East Coast speaks to the myriad souls of surfers who know and have lived the magic of late summer days, warm waters, golden light shows and the thrill of solid swell. Hurricane season officially runs from June 1st to November 30th when most tropical cyclones tend to form in the Atlantic and the march of storms coming off the coast of Africa can often send weeks of waves all along the eastern seaboard. The anticipation of an incoming swell, the timing of its arrival, whether the winds will line up and what board to wax are topics of discussion in beachfront parking lots, coffee houses and among friends from the Outer Banks to Halifax. Among the dedicated, the tried and true, lives the crew from New England. This year, Hurricane Lee in September delivered the goods to Rhode Island in a day of firing points and beach breaks that left the locals panting for more. Here are a few narratives from that recent event.
I have been living, surfing, and photographing surf in Rhode Island since the mid - 2000s. Hurricane Lee, in September 2023, was one of the best and most classic hurricane swells in recent memory for a lot of East Coast surfers, especially those of us here in Rhode Island.
I went into this swell with a bit of a game plan and tried to stay focused on filming for an upcoming movie I’m working on. I shot hours of great footage for a swell edit, and ended up getting a few memorable hour-or-so long solo sessions between filming my buddies. I also got to ride a new 8’1 Antistatic Hull shaped by Tristan Mause of Fantastic Acid, and made during the filming of another project about Tristan’s shaping residency this past summer in Brooklyn. This last project was a joint effort with Fantastic Surfboards & Pilgrim Surf Supply.
Being able to surf, and to film friends surfing a new, magic board made with lots of purpose is a special feeling. Getting to see the smile on my buddy Josh’s face after he had an amazing marathon session was priceless.
In the evening, when the swell peaked, I made the tough decision to surf instead of shoot, even though the shooting conditions were the best I had ever seen at Point Judith. Luckily enough for everyone in the water that night, Brian Bielmann, the world famous surf photographer from Hawaii was hanging out on the cliff, snapping images of that swell. My friend Chris Gautheir also happened to be shooting film of the whole session and got a lot of amazing snaps.
I've had to make the tough decision whether to shoot or surf for each good hurricane swell that has come and gone over the years. More often than not, I decide to shoot instead of surf. I’m really happy that I made the decision to surf that particular evening.
When all was said and done, Hurricane Lee came and went and we surfed and filmed nearly ten separate sessions and spots during the swell. From crowded Surfline cam spots to solo sessions down meandering footpaths, we all walked away with amazing memories, visions, and waves. Even though we live in an ever - crowded surf world, every once in a while a swell comes around that provides plenty of waves for everyone. Looking forward to the next one that spins up our way!
The boat photo was taken on Thursday 9/21/23 at around 6:00 P.M. in Rye Beach, New Hampshire. The surf looked pretty bad all day despite Surfline claiming 4-6 feet and good. Finally at around five o’clock, I saw the conditions begin to change for the better on the cam and decided to check it out. When I got there, it was going off thanks to the little pulse from Hurricane Nigel.
I had no intentions of filming or shooting pictures. I had only planned to surf. I ended up taking a quick pre-surf bathroom pit stop at a local break and saw some guys standing and pointing out into the ocean. I got out of the car, and to my surprise I saw this nifty little right-hander wave breaking with only a couple of guys on it. Then I noticed the boat coming in the distance.
Thankfully I had my camera in the car. I quickly grabbed it and dialed in the settings with only ten seconds to do so. The timing could not have been better. People even asked me later if the image was photoshopped! The answer is nope. I just got lucky with how all the elements lined up.
After getting a few frames I went to enjoy some waves for myself, and as soon as I got home I plugged in my SD card because I was so excited to see how the boat photos came out. “Wait a minute... I know him!” Zooming in on a photo, I recognized the surfer in the frame. I shot a quick text to Tyler McGill, co-owner of Summer Sessions Surf Shop in Rye Beach, NH, who also happens to be the boss man. This surf shop is where you’ll find me when I'm not filming or shooting photos. He immediately called me and confirmed it was him, and neither of us could believe it. It was amazing how everything lined up for this shot. For me, this photo screams “right place, right time!” I was extremely lucky. New England is always a great place to be in the fall, and this photo is one of many examples why.
I'm originally from the East Coast. I grew up there in the 70s. I lived in Norfolk, Virginia and surfed in Cape Hatteras, North Carolina and Virginia Beach. I actually lived in Hatteras during the summers of ‘74 and ‘75 right before graduating from high school and then moved on to Hawaii.
We always thought we had the best waves in Hatteras. Florida was not as good as Hatteras, but it was warm and tropical so why in the world would we go up North? It was freezing there, and, honestly, it never crossed my mind that there could be good waves farther up the coast. Recently, I was in Virginia helping my Dad take care of my Mom, who is 92 and dealing with dementia. So I came home and spent almost every day with her. I got out a few times to spend some time with old friends and once even got down to Hatteras for the day.
When my brother showed up to take over helping with mom, I decided that instead of going straight back to Hawaii, I would go up North to Massachusetts to see an old friend, Natalie. She took me all around Rockport, Massachusetts shooting scenes for a week. Wow! How beautiful it was there. There are these little fishing villages with boats and castles in the background, lighthouses and sunsets that look like Hawaii. I loved it all. I had already decided to book a flight home to Hawaii when I happened to check my Instagram and saw that a friend of mine, Scott Sullivan, was coming with his daughter Flora to surf a swell in Rhode Island that would be hitting the area in a couple days (thank you Hurricane Lee!). I called him up and asked if I could jump in on his trip. Twenty-four hours later, I met them at Boston’s Logan Airport and we loaded up a van to head to Rhode Island. I'd been there about thirteen years ago and saw a pretty significant swell hit Ruggles, but it was rainy that year and nothing special. So I didn't know what to expect.
We woke up the next morning and thank goodness for Scott. He knew which breaks to check. Scott grew up in Rhodie and is a great photographer himself, but this was a daddy-daughter surf trip all the way for them. The three of us checked out about six different spots all over the state within the next two days, from beach breaks to reef point breaks to deep sea slabs. It was crazy to realize all the different types of waves there are! I had not planned on shooting surfing when I left Hawaii, so all I had with me was a 100-400 Canon zoom lens, with no water housings or fins. I did a lot of pulled back lineups which seems to make the most sense.
There were no surf stars, just East Coast surfers who were so excited that the waves were pumping. It looked like 6' plus Hawaiian size. I got to jump in for a session on a borrowed longboard to get a few myself and had so much fun. I love hanging with east coasters, and always feel at home. I will tell anyone on the right swell that during hurricane season that Rhode Island and anywhere else up north will not let you down. What a fantastic surf trip!