Hilton Head Island has a quiet surfing underground ... until disaster lurks nearby.
Up the shoreline in Myrtle Beach, Carolina Beach and Wrightsville Beach, people are running from Hurricane Florence. On Friday, that area will be battered by swirling winds and swamped with water, according to storm trackers.
But for surfers, the gods are smiling.
On Wednesday, the stirred-up ocean brought none other than Jimmy Buffet out in Folly Beach with a surf board in hand.
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On sunny Hilton Head Thursday, the storm brought big waves and about 50 surfers to Burkes Beach.
“I live for these storms,” said Patrick Safe, holding a blue, 7-foot board shaped by Mark Richards.
Normally, he’s running the family-owned Heritage Fine Jewelers.
But this week, while most of us are stressing out, Patrick is letting it rip in the ocean.
John Tolley, owner of Sunny Daze Surfboards on Hilton Head, said it was a fun day, but not all that they hoped it would be.
“We really thought this was going to be a day for the decades,” he said, with 8- to 10-foot waves on a rideable surf. He said the waves, created by Hurricane Florence a couple of days ago, weren’t as fast, and about 3- to 5-feet.
“You might say it was a B-minus, and we were all anticipating an A-plus-plus.”
Most of the surfers out on Thursday were local, said Jevon Daley of Hilton Head.
He would make barking-like hollers from shore as someone catches a wave just right.
“A lot of antagonizing goes on out there,” he said. “Teasing. Slamming.”
He grew up with these people. He and his brother, Gavan, lived in the surf shops, mentored by Nanci and Jerre Weckhorst, and “surfing” on cement with skate boards when the Atlantic Ocean kept its normal low and slow profile on Hilton Head.
“We have a big surfing culture here,” he said. “It’s still underground. Under the radar, no pun intended.”
Normally, you’d see him performing with the Lowcountry Boil bluegrass band. But on Thursday, he borrowed a board from Tolley and went to the beach.
“These are ideal conditions,” he said, with an offshore wind blowing from shore to sea, lifting up the waves. “You’ve got to get up on the front of the board,” he said, “and you’ve got to know Hilton Head.”
Byron Sewell, the face of Hilton Head surfing, missed it. He’s in El Salvador, Daly said. Byron is the one who painted the heart-warming “Welcome Home” sign two years ago when islanders returned to the battering Hurricane Matthew left behind.
Daly is 46 now, and still chasing the wave, the feeling, the spirit that has long captured the people of Beaufort County.
The Hunting Island State Park has been the Big Sur for Beaufort kids for generations. They’re still going, and they’re not kids anymore.
Daly said the most experienced surfers would be chasing the storm thrills in Jacksonville, Charleston, Wrightsville Beach or Cape Hatteras.
But Hilton Head’s underground was thrilled with the action at Burkes Beach and Singleton Beach.
Safe, the jeweler, started surfing as an 8-year-old in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. He’s now 48, and like a kid when a storm stirs up the waves.
“It’s the thrill of riding Mother Nature’s curl,” he said.
“I don’t know. I’ve thought a lot about it. I’ve thought about how we’re riding a creation that comes from Mother Nature with these specially-shaped boards ...”