For most people, hurricanes are thought of as something to be feared. They bring strong winds, rain and storm surges that cause major destruction to coastal communities. Of course, hurricanes also bring surf, but often this is short-lived and hard to pin down, due to the relatively small area of the system and the speed with which it moves. Hurricane surf typically comes with strong local winds that change direction quickly and unpredictably.
However, this isn’t always the case. Over the last ten years, there have been a number of occasions where hurricanes have produced really excellent swells, with good local conditions, and sometimes in unexpected places. This usually happens when the system tracks in a straight line for far enough to generate a large, relatively long-lasting swell, but the storm itself stays well away from the coast.
Here, we take a look at some of the most interesting surf-producing Atlantic hurricanes over the past decade years. It’s not an exhaustive list – if you scored epic surf from some other hurricane over the last few years, tell us about it. Or maybe just keep it to yourself.
Igor: Sep 8-10 2010
Igor originated from a disturbance that moved off the west coast of Africa on September 6 2010. It then tracked slowly westwards and deepened into a tropical storm by 8th. After a brief slack period, due to some vertical wind shear, it then quickly intensified, hitting Category 4 on the Saffir-Simpson Scale by 12th. It passed a few hundred miles northeast of the Lesser Antilles as a major hurricane, with maximum sustained winds of 155 mph, and then weakened slightly as it continued on a northwest track until the 15th. The system then turned towards the north and gradually weakened, passing close to Bermuda and going on to Newfoundland and beyond.
A large, short-lived pulse of northeast swell reached the Lesser and Greater Antilles – including places like Puerto Rico – on 18th with wave heights up to ten feet and excellent surfing conditions. In additions, a longer-period, longer-lived pulse of east swell hit the east coast of the U.S. around 20th, with good local conditions.
Katia: 29 Aug – 10 Sep 2011
Katia originated from a tropical wave south of Cabo Verde on August 29 2011. It quickly developed into a tropical storm and tracked rapidly towards the west-northwest. By 1st September it had reached hurricane status about half way across the Atlantic. It then turned towards the northwest and began to track over warmer water, passing about 300 miles northeast of the Lesser Antilles as a major hurricane. It reached Category 4 on the Saffir-Simpson Scale by 5th, before arcing around to the north. Several processes, including increased wind shear and colder sea surface temperatures caused it to weaken quite quickly as it continued north and then turned towards the northeast. It then continued on across the North Atlantic as a post-tropical system, eventually crossing Scotland around the 12th.
For about five days between 1st and 5th September, Katia travelled in a more-or-less straight line towards the U.S. East Coast, generating a large, long-period swell, which arrived around 8th September, with wave heights reaching ten feet at exposed spots. The system swerved away to the northeast well before hitting the coast, so local conditions remained clean.
Sandy: 22 Oct – 2 Nov 2012
Hurricane Sandy is remembered as one of the most destructive and costly hurricanes in history. It killed 233 people in eight countries. For those not involved in the clean-up operations, Sandy also produced some good surf south of the disaster area.
Sandy started off as a tropical wave disturbance in the Caribbean Sea on October 22 2012. Conditions were already extremely favourable: within hours the system developed into a tropical storm. It continued to intensify, crossed Jamaica on the 24th and continued into the Caribbean Sea as a Category-2 hurricane. It crossed Cuba on the 25th, briefly reaching Category 3 before re-emerged off the north coast and hitting the Bahamas on the 26th. It then made a right turn and tracked northeast about 200 miles off the US East Coast, as a Category-1 system.
Then, on the 29th it suddenly turned left and slammed into New Jersey. By this time, Sandy was a post-tropical system with hurricane-force winds, and had expanded to enormous proportions, with storm-force winds spanning a 900-mile diameter.
Between the 26th and 29th, as Sandy tracked parallel to the east coast of the US, it pumped a large tangential swell towards the coast, with a short window of offshore winds as the back end of the system disappeared north. Exposed spots reached around eight feet, with strong offshore winds.
Edouard: 11-21 Sep 2014
Hurricane Edouard started off as a weak disturbance southwest of Cabo Verde around September 8 2014. It drifted northwest and became a tropical storm by the 11th, continuing to move steadily in a north-westerly direction. On the 14th, as it moved into warmer waters east of Bermuda, it became a hurricane and quickly strengthened to Category 3, with winds of around 120 mph. A few days later, on the 16th, it had swung around towards the northeast and weakened back to Category 1, but expanded in size. A pulse of smallish, long-period swell was already hitting the US East Coast, with good wind conditions as the storm remained well out in the open ocean.
Over the next few days, Edouard continued gradually curving around to the east, before dissipating about 300 miles west of the Azores. A pulse of large, long-period swell reached westerly exposures in the Azores on the 19th, with wave heights exceeding ten feet, periods of up to 19 secs, and excellent local wind conditions.
Gastón: 20 Aug – 3 Sep 2016
Similar to Edouard, Gastón was another hurricane that stayed well away from the coasts of the Americas. The system emerged into the Atlantic south of Cabo Verde around August 20 2016. Moving steadily west-northwest, it became a tropical storm by 22nd, and a hurricane by the.24th. It turned towards the northwest and continued in a straight line, began to track over warmer waters, and strengthened to Category 3 by the 28th, a few hundred miles east of Bermuda. It then took a sharp right turn and began to pick up speed towards the northeast, with winds up to 120 mph.
The long, straight, northeast trajectory of Gastón and the hurricane-force winds on its southern flank generated a huge, long-period swell that arrived in the Azores on September 2. Exposed spots saw wave heights well over 20 feet, with fresh south or southeast winds. If you knew where to be, you would have got some epic big surf – something extremely rare in Europe for this time of year.
Ophelia : 9-17 Oct 2017
Hurricane Ophelia is still being talked about as one of the worst storms to affect Ireland for many years, with extensive damage, power cuts and other chaos. It was also the easternmost Atlantic hurricane ever recorded.
Ophelia didn’t start off in the tropics; it developed off a frontal system southwest of the Azores, around October 6 2017. At first, it drifted around a relatively small area, gradually intensifying and becoming a hurricane on the 11th. It then began to accelerate towards the northeast, passing south of the Azores and becoming a major hurricane on the 14th. It was still a hurricane as it passed about 300 miles west of Galicia on the 15th, before shooting northwards towards Ireland. It then transitioned into an extra-tropical system, expanded in size and struck the southwest of Ireland on the 16th. After crossing Ireland and Scotland, Ophelia moved into the North Sea and finally dissipated over Scandinavia.
A moving field of hurricane-force winds on the southeast flank of Ophelia generated a massive southwest swell, which arrived in southern Ireland and southwest Britain late on the 16th. The swell pushed up into the Irish Sea and produced large surf at extremely rare spots as far north as the Isle of Man. Wave heights on the southeast coast of Ireland – normally sheltered from North Atlantic swells – reached 30 feet with periods of around 16 secs.
Lorenzo: 22 Sep – 4 Oct 2019
Hurricane Lorenzo was a Category-5 hurricane – the highest on the Saffir-Simpson Scale – which, in a similar way to Ophelia, stayed on the eastern side of the Atlantic. Lorenzo started off from tropical disturbance south of Cabo Verde on September 22 2019. The system moved westwards, gradually intensifying and quickly transforming into a Category-4 hurricane by the 26th. After reaching about half way across the Atlantic it began to arc around towards the right, momentarily weakening but then re-intensifying to Category 5 by the 29th. It then became entrained into the periphery of a mid-latitude depression to the north, and began to accelerate towards the northeast.
The straight-line trajectory towards the Azores and the hurricane-force winds on the southeast flank of Lorenzo generated a humungous swell in the Azores on October 2. Wave heights at west and southwest exposures were, let’s just say, well overhead, and perhaps difficult for the models to predict accurately. At the same time, the system produced an excellent-quality long-period swell in Madeira, with wave heights probably exceeding ten feet at exposed reefs, periods of up to 19 secs and clean conditions.
Lorenzo then continued on its north-easterly track, becoming an extra-tropical system which reached Ireland late on October 3. It dissipated fairly quickly as it moved inland, but not before generating wave heights over 15 feet and very stormy conditions in Ireland.
Teddy: 11-23 Sep 2020
Hurricane Teddy was one of the best surf-producing Atlantic tropical storms of all time. It generated pulses of good-quality large swell in at least three separate areas. The storm stayed well away from the coast in all these places, keeping local conditions clean.
Teddy started off as a disturbance just south of Cabo Verde on September 11 2020. It moved westwards and by 14th became a tropical storm, rapidly intensifying to a category-2 hurricane by the 15th. A pulse of swell was already heading for the Lesser Antilles, which began to arrive on 17th. East-facing spots in places like Barbados had some excellent surf with wave heights up to eight feet and light offshore winds.
Teddy continued to intensify, hitting Category 4 on the 17th, with sustained winds of 140 mph. On 20th it turned towards the north and eventually made landfall in Nova Scotia on the 23rd as a post-tropical system. In Nova Scotia, conditions weren’t so clean with wave heights well over 20 feet and extremely stormy conditions. After that, the system weakened and headed off into the far north.
The straight-line northwest track that Teddy took between 16th and 20th September generated a large, long-period southeast swell. This arrived on the US East Coast late on the 22nd and pumped the following day too. The fact that the storm veered off to the north before coming close to the coast meant that local conditions remained good, with light to moderate offshores all day.
As Teddy approached Nova Scotia it became entrained into an existing northeast flow that had been hugging the east coast of Canada. This caused the system to expand in size, becoming one of the largest Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded. The large northerly fetch on its western flank generated yet another pulse of swell, which reached the Greater Antilles around the 23rd. By the time the swell hit, the storm was thousands of miles away, so local conditions were clean.