Hurricanes mean good surf — and danger

A surfer takes advantage of the high surf on Madeira Beach caused by the passing of Hurricane Rita. Times (2005)
A surfer takes advantage of the high surf on Madeira Beach caused by the passing of Hurricane Rita.Times (2005)
Published May 13 2015

Surfers love hurricanes because these low-pressure systems produce long lines of well-spaced waves that are easier to catch than the sloppy whitecaps of a typical winter cold front.

The wind generated by tropical storms blows in gusts, and as a result, the waves form into "sets." The longer the distance ("fetch") the wind travels, the better formed ("cleaner") the waves will be.

The Gulf Coast has two surf seasons, winter and summer. From late October to early April, the Suncoast typically endures a dozen good cold fronts, each one kicking up two to three days of rideable waves. You don't see many surfers out during the colder months — only die-hard youngsters and veteran board riders.

But come hurricane season, when the water's warm and the sun is shining, everybody surfs, even those who don't know how. As a result, people die.

Hurricane waves can be three or four times the size of normal surf. Getting pummeled by a 12-foot wall of water can leave you broken and breathless, and sometimes, pinned to the sea floor running out of air.

If you are lucky enough to survive a wipeout and find yourself boardless and adrift, the rip current may sweep you out to sea, where you will eventually tire and drown.

Surfers in the Tampa Bay area are more likely to encounter currents that run parallel to the beach, but come with their own dangers.

Here are some ways to stay safe:

• Know the water. Don't surf in areas where you are unfamiliar with local conditions.

• Keep your cool. If you do find yourself in a dangerous situation, stop and think it through. Most drownings occur when the victims panic, tire themselves fighting the current and cannot stay afloat.

While local beaches seldom experience the dangerous rip currents that plague the East Coast, strong tides at the mouths of passes, where surfers find the best waves, can be just as dangerous. If you are caught in a rip current, don't fight it. Keep your composure and paddle parallel to shore until you feel the current slack. Then head into the beach.

• Don't surf alone. Practice the buddy system. All watersport enthusiasts — surfers, boardsailors and kayakers — should temper the urge to ride these big waves unless they have proper training and experience.