Miami Beach is hardly a surfer's haven. With the Bahamas blocking off any swells from the east and Cuba locking us away from any southern waves, it takes a very peculiar set of circumstances for our stretches of ocean to come alive with the sharp crests and strong peaks for which surf rats of all credos long.
While this hellish bitch we've come to know as Sandy, the savage freak of a storm, has spent the last day and a half lashing away at the cities of New England, ripping cranes out of the sky in New York City, and bringing the Hudson River's frigid waters into the streets, we in Miami were witness to a very different kind of hurricane weather. For us, Sandy's effects created a perfect moment along the coast, one that transformed the Miami Beach coast into an unfamiliar but welcome setting -- a place where something rare and magical happened both in and out of the water.
It started with the waves. The weekend's glancing visit from the 'Frankenstorm' stirred up the sea to a degree of epic insanity the likes of which we are unlikely to see again for years. The waves were not just immense for Miami surf -- reaching up to 15 foot faces in South Beach -- but they were clean, and perfectly formed, and blisteringly powerful.
I got a chance to sit down with lifelong surfer and Miami resident, Scott Payne, owner of the local surf shop and established cultural institution, Island Water Sports. Payne has grown up within the world of Miami surfing since he started working at ISW on 163rd and Biscayne Boulevard when he was 18 years old, some 30 years ago. He is a dyed in the wool, true blue surfer, and when he talks about the waves, it is impossible not to sense in his voice the years of experience in the water and the love for riding.
"This was definitely one of those once every 10 or 20 year storms," he began, "the way the storm set up was about as perfect as you can possibly get for the biggest waves that you can get in South Florida...To have a hurricane sitting over the Bahamas, moving slowly, with those strong winds moving right up the coast and then coming offshore down in Miami, it couldn't get any better and it couldn't get any bigger."
The sets that hurricane Sandy brought about were rolling in under the sort of conditions that surfers dream of, and enticed not only the vast majority of local surfers, the thousands of Miamians who spend months upon months starving for waves with dry boards, but also called the attention of surfers from around the state. They even attracted a handful of world tour calibre pros, including Shea and Corey Lopez, Chris Ward, and, according to rumor, Garrett Mcnamara, who currently holds the world record for the largest wave ever surfed -- a 78' behemoth off the coast of Portugal.
Payne explained the downside to this kind of incredible alignment of meteorological circumstances: the sheer mass of people. "It was just an insane, insane amount of people. And even though that makes it more of a scene -- there's more people in the water and people watching on the beach -- it takes away from the experience and makes it more difficult to actually surf. With that many people, the break turns into something like a little gladiator pit and if you aren't aggressive you aren't going to catch any waves."
In spite of that, though, there is something very special that happens with this kind of event, apart from simply the waves. It is a rare moment where an oft deprived community is allowed to thrive and the resulting atmosphere is almost as amazing as the sets that bring them all together. The beach simply changes, both off and on shore.
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As the water becomes populated with a fraternity of athletes holding communion in these surreally ideal conditions, the sand gathers scores of people who've come to see the monstrously giant waves and all those tidal shamans and A-frame voodoo practitioners who seem to dance along them. As Scott puts it, "People don't just come out to look at each other, they come out to look at the ocean," to which he added, "That's power of the ocean, it's crazy." The air changes, and instead of feeling like a place where beachgoers worship their vanity, one might be convinced that they were worshiping the ocean they'd forgotten how to admire until now.
"You go out there, and it's hypnotizing to watch," said Payne, "and when the waves are this good, everyone who surfs finds their way to the beach one way or another. It's kind of like when the Heat win the championship -- you remember the people that you're around and high-fiving and sharing this event with. And as much as the amount of people can make it so hard to surf, that feeling of camaraderie, the social aspect of sharing it with all those people you've know for years and some that you haven't seen for years and only see in the water, that's always cool. And as long as you're out on the beach, you're sharing it, even if you're not in the water and I love that."