Landing in the middle of thirty mph onshore winds and driving rain isn’t the ideal way to start a surf trip. With a nor'easter spinning not too far offshore of North Carolina, the Outer Banks didn't show the well-groomed sandbars under sunny skies that I’d hoped for. Instead, gallons of water hurtled down on us and puddles covered entire road sections, a drastic difference than the California Indian summer I’d left behind.
This is where surfing started for me, a short drive north to the beaches of Duck and Corolla. I fell in love with the ocean, spending part of every summer there, bodysurfing and boogie boarding and trying to clamber up to my feet on those boogie boards, with a modicum of success when I still weighed 100 pounds or so. Finally in my late teens, with a rented NSP funboard in tow, I paddled out for the first time, and awkwardly attempted to sit on the board before getting tossed over the falls on even the smallest waves. I still remember every second of that first real drop, a late slide down the face of a crumbly, two foot close out. I changed my entire life because of that five second wave, eventually moving across the country and throwing myself headlong into this addiction.
This was my first return trip to the Outer Banks since I started surfing daily, and I had dreams of its potential. With barrier islands, I knew the shifting sands could pop up perfect sandbars at any given location at any given time, exposed by the right tide and swallowed whole by the wrong one.
A sand dune runs much of the length of the beach of the Banks, which blocks some of the constant waves and weather that hurtle from the Atlantic towards all things man-made. This dune curtains off your view of the surf til you get just over it, when it reveals your options at any given access point. What a sight it is when you crest the top of that lump of sand to find yourself staring down waves, often with only a few other souls in sight.
To really do the Banks right, you need a vehicle with four wheel drive to climb over the less accessible dunes as the islands stretch south, and you need time and patience. I was in short supply of all of those items, so I was limited to the piers and sandbars scattered throughout Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills. But by Tuesday, the weather had started to clear, and the first signs of Joaquin started to roll through.
My previous trips here had been confined to the truly summer months, the time of year when the northern hemisphere (and especially the Atlantic) are fairly quiet on the surf front. I knew it could get good, I’d seen decent waves in person and great, sandy barrels in photographs. When Wednesday morning dawned with clear skies and offshore winds, I got a first-hand lesson in what it can be like, and was delighted, but unsurprised, to find out North Carolinians charge. Well-overhead, hollow waves pumping in eighteen inches of water were matched with top turns and airs and an inability not to pull into barreling sections. Coming up from getting crushed against the sand to dive under another thundering section and do it all over again.
My own surfing success, on the other hand, was mixed. I stubbornly continued to try to surf the sandbar out front of our rental, which from the beach or the deck above appeared to produce peeling waves with fun sections. Paddling out against the rips and the shore break, I’d disappointedly discover that what I’d seen from the beach was significantly mushier than I’d believed. It crumbled but then reformed without breaking until it reached its own, steep, shoulder-high shorebreak conclusion. Those waves were fun, but ended quickly and often right on the sand. No matter how many times I swore that I would abandon that sandbar, the next time it looked good from the shore I’d find myself heading straight out.
It wasn’t until I walked north a half mile, to the other side of the pier in sight, and struggled my way through a fifteen-minute paddle out that I found decent waves. With tired, noodle-y arms from long (if fruitless) sessions, I stroked my way into a few head high drops.
On one of the early trips surfing in the Outer Banks, I pearled on the take off and went face first into the water. At some point swirling around, the rail or maybe the fin smacked me in the face, splitting the skin under my eye open. It wasn’t the first time the ocean had humbled me, reminding me who was boss. It’s only fair that this trip back to where everything began for me served as a reminder that there’s still a lot to learn, that I can’t read every sandbar from the beach, that I’ve still got a lot of searching to do before I find those barreling gems that seem to always dance just out of reach.
It’s also a reminder of just how much I love that place, and just how badly I already want to go back.