Forget Michael Jordan, barbeque and tobacco — even tobacco lawsuits — when it comes to surfing, the Outer Banks stands as North Carolina’s most valuable commodity. From the northern beaches of Corolla to the holly and palmetto-lined roads of Frisco — and farther south to the island of Ocracoke — Hatteras and its surrounding beaches offer a refreshing shot of consistent and hollow surf for the dehydrated traveler.
For decades, the Outer Banks has been the most hailed and well-documented of North Carolina’s surf regions — and rightfully so. While a wide continental shelf flattens swells like pate at most East Coast beaches, the region’s narrow shelf allows swells of all sorts to hit the beaches relatively unfettered, and the cape’s exposed locale receives the full brunt of all low-pressure systems, northeasters and other tropical and non-tropical events. Sitting where three distinct water masses meet, Hatteras also gets a little help from weather stirred when coastal water from Virginia and North Carolina mixes with the cold Labrador Current and the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. Such stormy conditions made the Banks a popular hangout for pirates in the 18th century, including the infamous buccaneer Blackbeard. While Blackbeard was eventually found and dispatched, history proved the low-lying, sandy surface of the islands to be lethal to many a vessel, earning the barrier island the moniker “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” In terms of strict spiritual reward, however, this Graveyard still breathes life.
Nowhere else on the East Coast is the yin and yang of the beach lifestyle more evident than the Outer Banks. In addition to being First in Flight, this isolated barrier island of North Cackalacka also is first in serving up the finest blend of soul, stoke and overall commitment to the ocean enigma. Besides abundant and captivating species of wildlife in and out of the water, and a gracious and down-to-earth mystique that is unmatched in its simplicity, there is superb fishing, clean water and unlimited access to miles of coastline. (Granted, there are also hurricanes, psychotic rednecks, malevolent cops, questionable chicks and a devastating lack of industry exposure for hopeful local surfers.) But when talk turns to North Carolina’s humble, grassroots beach communities, the Outer Banks is always the first place mentioned, serving as the tip of the dune-berg.
Once inhabited mainly by isolated fisherman, the beaches of Dare County are now connected by a network of bridges and ferries; the villages and towns of today harbor a hardworking and diversified local population, as the economy of the island has become almost completely dependent on tourist dollars. From June through August, the sandy arteries of the Outer Banks get clogged with enough beach boy cholesterol to give Frankie and Annette heart attacks, and locals live a symbiotic, love-hate relationship with summertime visitors. This fragile bond carries over into the water at times, and the virgin Outer Banks traveler may get a sour taste in his or her mouth when attempting to ride some of the more popular waves on the island. Fortunately, there is enough coastline that — with a little help from four-wheel-drive — you can find your own little piece of the aquatic pie on any given day.
All the usual, and a few unique ones: rednecks, heat stroke, skin cancer, dehydration, jellyfish, sea lice, sharks, bluefish, cops, STDs, pregnancy, riptides, bar fights, tobacco (NC’s finest vegetable), water spouts, turning lanes, speed limits, Bible Belt, closed-mindedness, hurricanes, lightning, floods, submerged pilings, neck-crunching tubes, jar heads, fat chicks in thongs, alcohol, dirtweed, horrible drivers, tourists, pier owners, sand traps, Breathalyzers, pirates, scalding sand, cactus, sand spurs, Jimmy Buffett, ball and nipple rash, ignorant and jaded locals, deep-fried seafood, mosquitoes, horseflies the size of your big toe and perhaps the most annoying hazard and the one most responsible for traffic accidents — OBX stickers.
Hurricane season begins in June, and although the jet stream may be as straight as McGruff Crime Dog, disturbances off Cape Verde can move quickly across the Atlantic, depending on how warm the water is at that point. Anyone on the Outer Banks during the epic summer of 1995 will testify to the glorious tropical gifts that can come with summertime.
Barring hurricanes or tropical storms, south swells can creep in overnight at any given time, sometimes before the Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore even sees it, and dawn patrollers can score back-lit morning glass before the college kids shake off their hangovers. Furthermore, due to their relative beach angles, some of the southern beaches like Frisco and Buxton can turn on better in the summer than any other season. So summer sucks on the East Coast, right? Typically, yes. Flatness, jellyfish, tourists… But while spring is the season for hope, summer is the season for surprises. And we all love surprises.
The tourists thin out, the air cools off, business slowly drops and the surf cranks. North swells, south swells, east swells, windswells, hurricane swells and an abundance of light westerlies — fall is when you get shacked on the Banks. Big pits, small pits, clean pits, dirty pits — it’s time for all those famous spitting barrels that Hatteras is famous for. You can usually trunk it until October, but those wetsuit vests come in very handy in Dare County. The fishing rocks this time of year also, and if you have the means, go offshore and haul in a boat full. Ask anyone on the East Coast, and most will reveal that there just ain’t anywhere better than Hatteras, especially in the fall — unless there’s a hurricane striking the coast.
Outer Banks surfers deal with cold water in the winter, very cold water, sometimes as low as 37 degrees. Add to that stiff northwest winds at about 30 mph, frozen sand, icebergs (no joke) in the sound and you got yourself a real man’s hard-core surfing situation. Ice cream headaches don’t go away after you emerge from the depths. They continue to throb as the wind whistles through your thin, thin eyelids. A 4/3 wetsuit, a good set of sealed booties and gloves and retractable balls of steel are all musts this time of the year. A hood and a warm girl to curl up with at night are also suggested, but not required.
The water remains cold — lower 40s to lower 50s — until the Gulf Stream starts to push in, which can happen early or late in the year. One year, surfers were not able to shed their fullsuits until mid-July. There is never a need to purchase a springsuit on the Outer Banks. Surfers here go straight from trunks to fullsuit and back to trunks, seemingly overnight. The air temperature is constantly rising and falling, but generally feels colder from all the northeasters that cough on the island around this time. This is also the time of the year when sharks become more of a threat, and their usual food ain’t even swimming around yet. Still, the waves during spring are second only to fall, and swells (particularly from the north) keep coming and coming, treating the teased adults to a few final blasts before school lets out for the summer.
Linked to the north by US 158, the Banks extend from the Virginia state line southward to Cedar Island. Toll ferries connect Ocracoke to Cedar Island and the Swan Quarter, and there is free ferry access across Hatteras Inlet. Western routes are US-64 and 264 through the island of Roanoke, and NC-12 runs the gamut south toward Ocracoke.