White Knuckles

"You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this." - Henry David Thoreau
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In late January 2016, a monster El Nino-fueled winter storm was bearing down on the East Coast. Winter storm Jonas engulfed Interstate 95 with a blanket of snow for hundreds of miles, virtually shutting down the corridor. Twenty inches of snow is not uncommon for many states in the Northeast, but those in the Southeast were unfamiliar with slick black ice and blinding sleet. Every state in the Mid-Atlantic region declared a state of emergency and urged residents not to leave their homes. While most people were emptying grocery stores to stock up for the record snowfall ahead, a handful of surfers were making their own preparations. The surf forecast called for massive mid-period swell to be met with powerful offshore winds along the North Carolina coastline. The Outer Banks (OBX) region was looking like the best option to score. For surfers, a pot of gold waited at the end of the frozen rainbow.

The 200-mile long stretch of barrier islands of the Outer Banks is a favorite getaway and proving grounds for many upcoming East-Coast surfers. Described as a poor man’s Hossegor, it’s no secret that these sandbars have produced some of the finest barrels in the country for decades. There aren’t too many waves in Florida that can prepare you for the power and energy of these waves, yet alone in the middle of winter. Powerful waves, frigid water, and bone-chilling air temps are just a few of the variables that must be dealt with to survive an OBX winter session. Most of those conditions are huge contributors to the numerous shipwrecks around the area, dubbed “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

The night before the storm was expected to hit, I received phone calls from a few potential troopers ready to brave the agonizing drive in hopes of flawless tubes. The call was made and within a few hours we crammed the car with a fresh quiver of comprised of short twin fins, mid-length single fins, and few iconic relics. Thick neoprene wetsuits, leashes, wax, and even a dog filled in the remaining space. We were ready for anything the Atlantic was about to throw our way.

The old adage, “the journey is half the fun” wouldn’t apply here. There would be no fun on this journey northward. On a beautiful spring day, driving from Jacksonville to the Outer Banks is an eleven hour one-way trip. The addition of the fourth largest blizzard in history didn’t exactly make the voyage any easier. For the majority of the nerve-racking drive, my knuckles were whiter than the deep snow that covered the highway. Driving 50 mph was the standard for most travelers on I-95. Those who dared to ignore the speed-limit warning signs inevitably slid off the road and into the pine forest. To say us Floridians were out of our element would have been a huge understatement. The sleepless mission was fueled with anticipation of perfect waves, along with energy drinks and coffee.

After a long and grueling trek, we arrived at the Outer Banks, which by that time of year is a ghost town. Save a few local restaurants, most of the stores and gas stations are closed until spring. Hundreds of wooden stilt houses that line the roads are abandoned until warmer weather arrives. Pulling up to our beachfront cabin, we soon realized a few feet of water surrounded the houses and cars. After the agonizing 15 hour excursion, it was going to take more than some minor coastal flooding to keep us from surfing one of the best days the East Coast has had seen in almost a generation.
Running over the sand dunes for our first look at the ocean, I quickly learned there wouldn’t be time for rest and relaxation. We witnessed sizable surf detonate onto the inside sandbar with only a few guys out. Everyone rushed back to the car to frantically search for their gear. Wetsuits, hoods, gloves, and booties were tossed around until everyone seemed ready for what would undoubtedly be a very cold session. An array of bonzers and step-up boards were swiftly chosen and prepped for the frosty encounter ahead.

With no time to waste, we lucked into an empty expanse of a-frame peaks and wedges right behind our homebase cabin. Six to eight-foot lines marched towards us while a relentless 40 mph wind howled offshore, providing hollow chocolate-colored caverns up and down the beach. Thoughts of sleep vanished once submerged in the mind-numbing water. Those that timed the daunting paddle out just right were out in the lineup with ease but a few unfortunate souls were promptly sent back to the beach to try their luck again.

Disaster quickly struck as my oversized gloves filled up with water almost instantly, forcing me to reluctantly abandon my hand protection for the remainder of the session. Not the smartest idea given the current elements. A few snow flurries made for some blinding late drops and even better wipeouts. After begrudgingly watching Justin Quintal get spit out of yet another perfect brown-opaque cylinder, I turned around to observe one of the bigger sets of the day explode in front of me. This dark behemoth sent me straight to the bottom, flushed my wetsuit with the icy water, and sent me back to the cabin for hot chocolate and a satisfyingly hot shower.
After the sun had finally set, stories of the memorable day circulated the log cabin while we consumed pepperoni pizza and beer with reckless abandon until the early morning hours. From watching my friends airdrop into some of the best barrels I’ve seen on the East Coast along with a wipeout that’ll never be forgot, the OBX put on quite the show for us that day. The exhaustion, near death commute, and frigid temperatures were all worthwhile.