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The Perfect Storms

Extreme weather conditions send surfers around the world chasing some of the biggest waves of the summer

Last thursday night, before Hurricane Frances lumbered across central Florida, Paul West of Neptune Beach prepared for the fury the way any self-respecting surfer would. "I was up all night cleaning my boards," he said on Friday.

Over the weekend, surfers along the Florida coast waited for the eye of the hurricane to pass beyond them in hope of catching a few precious hours of big waves. Other tropical storm systems around the world sent thrillseekers scrambling into the open waters.

Hurricane Howard, a Category 4 storm sitting 385 miles southwest of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, tracked in 12-foot swells along the Southern California coastline and 15- to 18-footers in Baja. And Typhoon Songda, one of the most powerful storms to hit Okinawa in three decades, produced some of the most epic waves ever at the Quiksilver Pro surf contest about 900 miles northeast in Hebara, Japan. "It's pretty rare to have three major hurricanes cranking waves out at the same time," said Bill Sharp, who monitors surf conditions around the world for the Billabong Odyssey 100-foot wave contest. "Other than all the flooding and destruction, it's been a spectacular day for surfers."

While none of the storms produced record-breaking waves, pro surfers competing in Japan were initially worried that they hadn't brought adequate gear to ride the swells. For the first time in 27 years the Japanese stop on the world championship tour had been scheduled during the typhoon season, but dismal one- to two-foot waves on Sept. 1 stalled the contest. Two days later Songda, which generated 100-mph winds at its epicenter, unleashed massive swells that produced perfect six- to eight-foot surf off the coast of Hebara.

"I never thought we'd get waves like this in Japan. It's unreal. I was frothing a bit at the start because it was so fun," said Danny Wills, an Australian pro rider who had the day's highest score in the second of seven rounds of elimination. While Wills was knocked out in round 4, typhoon-enhanced swells lasted until the finals on Sunday, when C.J. Hobgood of Satellite Beach, Fla., beat Joel Parkinson of Australia. Hobgood caught a smooth, righthanded barrel in the last 40 seconds of the 30-minute heat for his second win of the season.

The unusually big summer waves along the California coastline meant thousands of hurricane surf junkies swarmed to the beaches. However, their thrill was short-lived, as it was for those trying to take advantage of Hurricane Frances. The strong winds that hit Florida produced choppy, washing-machine-like swirls that quickly flattened out when the storm subsided. "[In Florida] everyone is surf-starved during the summer, so there's always an incentive to stick around and get some water," said Mike Bloom, who, with his wife and two kids, stayed in their home in Jupiter, a mandatory evacuation area. "During hurricane season we're always ready to get out there and catch the waves. My surfboards are standing by the door."




Frances churned the waters off Boca Raton (left), and Songda gave Hobgood a wild ride in Japan.



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