It Was Swell: Beachgoing as Spectator Sport

By MANDY LOCKE

The thousands of Vineyarders who flocked to the Island's south shore this weekend found a new respect for Mother Nature, whose wrath carved out monstrous swells along the southern coast in the wake of Hurricane Fabian.

From South Beach to Philbin Beach in Aquinnah, beachgoing became a spectator sport, as crowds watched the thunderous waves pummel the few swimmers who braved the surf. Surfers set up a permanent camp along the Vineyard's coast this weekend - floating on their boards like ducks near the breaks, surfing the rapid-fire succession of six to ten-foot waves late Saturday and throughout Sunday.

"It was dangerous but gorgeous," said Dennis Arnold, head of the South Beach patrol, a team of four trained lifeguards patrolling between right and left forks throughout the weekend on all-terrain vehicles.

It was the most apt summation of the Vineyard's coastal oddities this weekend. Tall, crushing waves, compliments of a hurricane tormenting another island over 600 miles away, banged against the Vineyard's shore. Bermuda endured more than four hours of 120 mile per hour winds tormenting the island of over 60,000 residents Friday. Sixty-year-old trees were uprooted, and four residents went missing when the wind lifted their cars from the road.

Another island's misery became this Island's paradise. Wave watchers were silenced by the glory of it all and when they did speak were forced to raise voices over the thundering surf. The weather couldn't have been crisper - holding in the 70s through much of Saturday and Sunday, allowing baskers to brave the breeze with only their bathing suits, and some surfers to shed their wetsuits.

South Beach lifeguards managed to escape the weekend with no incidents, braving the water once on Saturday for what turned out to be a false alarm.

The southern winds, angled slightly eastward, created tube waves throughout the day Saturday in Aquinnah - providing the perfect playground for the Island's more serious surfers.

"Gay Head was jumping. Everyone was out, and there were lots of hollow waves," said Alex Karalekas, who's been surfing on the Vineyard for six years. The hollow waves of Painters' Beach and Philbin Beach on Moshup Trail carved out a nice barrel for the skilled surfers to skim through.

"The winds cleaned up the swell, and we had beautiful long lines. There were plumes of spray coming off the back of the waves," Mr. Karalekas said.

Squibnocket east to South Beach offered no hollow waves but surprisingly good surfing, said surfer Alan Lovewell.

"South Beach at the end of Saturday was pretty spectacular. It was just me and a few other guys chasing these six to ten foot waves peeling to the left," Mr. Lovewell said.

"It was great to see a lot of people out there watching. You could pick up the energy in the parking lot before you even got up to the beach," he noted, explaining that he did not leave the water the entire weekend except to eat and sleep.

"I'm paying for it today, though, because I have a cold," Mr. Lovewell said. "But no regrets."

Samplings of weather and water data from the weekend prove unremarkable - not fully explaining the sights and sounds beachgoers beheld. Records from the Martha's Vineyard Coastal Observatory's stand one mile off the southern shore near Edgartown Great Pond, operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, found wave heights only five feet at the stand on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Wave heights registered only three feet in the four prior days. Wind speed topped 15 knots on Friday but mellowed to below 10 knots on Saturday and Sunday.

Albert J. Williams III, scientist emeritus for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, explained that Nantucket Shoal, a long stretch of shallow water stretching south of Nantucket, tames the waves that ultimately reach the Vineyard.

"By the time they get close to where we measure them, these waves have been feeling the bottom for 30 miles," Dr. Williams said.

According to Dr. Williams' data, Sunday's water offered the fiercest waves of the weekend - when wave periods slowed to 12 seconds.

"That is hurricane swell. These long-period waves heap up as they come into shallow water. Those are beautiful conditions for surfers," he said. "The 12 second wave is nothing to sneeze at. Those are pretty big when they get to shore."

Hurricane Fabian is even more safely beyond our shores now - 680 miles northeast of Cape Race, Newfoundland midday Monday - but the Vineyard is not yet on the other side of hurricane season.

"Cross your fingers. We're definitely overdue for one," said Mr. Arnold, who has been part of the South Beach patrol for 18 years. "This weekend was our closest brush since Hurricane Bob in 1991."

Weather experts' attention is now turned to Hurricane Isabel, a tropical storm that started brewing more than a week ago south of Cape Verde off the coast of Africa. Yesterday, she hovered more than a thousand miles east of the Leeward Islands in the Lesser Antilles, the chain of Caribbean islands that includes Antigua, Barbuda, Dominica, Martinique, Saint Lucia and Barbados.

"It's looking almost the same as Fabian. We've got to watch it," said Mr. Williams, noting that it's too early to chart Isabel's exact course.