Surfing at Sagg Main: Bill Brings it On

Posted on 27 August 2009

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By Benito Vila

Well-meaning people will tell you, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” On the East End, there is a special lot that live knowing, “When you get a swell, you go surf.”

Nothing stokes the surfing community here more than an off-shore hurricane or nor’easter. A wave forecast on Swellinfo, Surfline or Magicseaweed describing head-high surf is enough to make everyday commitments disappear and leave loved ones alone, waiting, wondering what might come next.

For those that surf, last weekend’s Hurricane Bill brought back the joy, mischief and thrill missing in two weeks of ankle-high waves. The storm surge that on Saturday closed beaches to swimming and gouged away the shoreline, came ashore Sunday in fast-moving walls of ride-able waves with 10-to-15-foot faces. Those quick-shifting conditions caused even the most experienced surfers to pause a bit before going in, checking equipment and confidence, and then setting off.

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Sunday Morning Coming Down

With talk of the surf having been best in Montauk on Saturday, Sag Harbor’s Mike Semkus and James Cassone woke up at 4:30 a.m. Sunday and headed east. Arriving at the popular spot called “Turtles”, just west of the lighthouse, the pair found a crowd of 30-some already anxiously assembled.

First light brought disappointment, the in-coming swells not quite setting up with the “clean” faces everyone expected in the off-shore wind. Still some surfers went in, but Semkus and Cassone came west checking other surf spots on their way before pulling into Sagg Main Beach around 8:30 a.m.

There, at their home beach break, the two found exactly what they wanted, sizeable, reachable, ride-able waves breaking 50-yards off-shore, without the rocks or the crowds they’d found out in Montauk. Walking into the surf just before 9 a.m., Semkus and Cassone encountered a slight westward sweep in the water along with a powerful three-to-four-foot white-water churn produced by the crashing waves.

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A Sweet Day

Those gifts from Hurricane Bill made getting out to where the surf was breaking difficult, but the pair paddled their way through and soon found themselves out beyond the inside break and close to being in position to take off. When Cassone came down the face of a 10-foot-high face, white water exploding even higher beside him, applause broke out from the ten or fifteen people standing at the opening in the dune.

Meanwhile, those few standing on the steps to the bathhouse were watching Semkus drift west ahead of an even bigger set building on the far outside. With Semkus riding up and punching through, then coming in to set himself for his first ride, and Cassone coming about in the water and heading out again, it was only a matter of time before others would come down and get in on what proved to be a “sweet” day at Sagg Main.

Before the day was through there was talk on the beach of tow-in surfing in Montauk, of surf breaking on the north side of the lighthouse and of surfers taking boats to Gardiner’s Island and planes to Block Island and Fishers Island to get the best of the swell there. All day though the break at Sagg Main continued to be ride-able for those that could, the evening session somewhat smaller and less intense than the morning, but “good fun” all the same.

Semkus and Cassone were still at Sagg Main at sunset on Sunday, their first session keeping them in the water until 1 p.m., and their second session starting at 5 p.m. When asked what the surfing was like, Semkus answered, “It was like two different days. The morning was wild. We’d been up for four hours before we got in and then we had to work for everything we could get. The water was fast and once we found [what we could and could not do], we were off.”

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Stories about Bill

The buzz about Bill started on the beach at Sagg Main last Tuesday, Surfline’s wave models calling for 30-foot off-shore swells and 20-foot near-shore swells. By Friday afternoon, a south-west wind brought in a building, but choppy, and inconsistent swell, head-high outside sets often closing out on longboarders and slightly smaller inside sets crashing down quickly on the shortboarders.

Saturday saw a massive off-shore break and online buoy data whet the appetites of nearly every surfer on the East End. In the morning at Sagg Main, Luke Washburn reported seeing buoy heights of seven-to-eight feet with 14-second intervals, excitedly adding, “I haven’t seen that in years.” At Georgica Beach in the afternoon, Mike Solomon reported 10-foot swells on the buoys with a similar interval, and pointed at the horizon, saying, “That means 20-foot waves out there.”

Meanwhile at Main Beach (East Hampton), three lifeguards went out to see if what they were seeing–and keeping swimmers out of–might at all be ride-able. Two made it out to the large outside break, with Scott McGuiness successfully catching what fellow East Hampton village lifeguard and Sag Harbor resident Bob Bori called “an absolute bomb.”

McGuiness’ supervisor, Ed McDonald said on Sunday morning the scene Saturday “looked absolutely Hawaiian, like those pictures you see with the little guy in the big wave”, adding that when McGuiness came in, he said, “It’s bigger than it looks.” That one “bomb” was enough, word spreading of McGuiness’ solo ride so that it was already legendary by Sunday afternoon.

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What Surfers Hope For

Saturday night’s buoys reported 13.8-foot swells 23 miles south of Montauk and 24.9-foot swells 54 miles southeast of Nantucket, the biggest part of the storm passing by in the dark. As is the norm, the National Data Buoy Center cautioned, “Individual wave heights can be more than twice the [given] wave height.”

The truth be told, Bill’s path was not the ultimate ideal for many of the local surfers. “What we need is something like Gabrielle in 1989,” explained Sag Harbor’s Butch Kunzeman early in the week. “She stayed around for a week and just pumped.” Having a hurricane “stall” several hundred miles out, much as Bertha did last July, yields a more consistent and lingering groundswell than fast-moving, more erratic storms, like Bill, bring.

The ideal track is one that sees storms stay further off-shore than Bill’s 250-mile brush-by. Rick Musnicki, who grew up in Bridgehampton, learned to surf at Georgica and now awaits good surf in Sag Harbor, said Saturday, “Bill’s too close. Once it’s out a bit, things will get better.”

Proved correct on Sunday and still happily surfing Sagg Main on Tuesday evening, Musnicki was asked what he liked most about Bill. With the weekend’s groundswell gone and a windswell making sunset more interesting, Musnicki answered, “There weren’t any people,” acknowledging the open playground created by the absence of swimmers on the inside and inexperienced surfers on the outside.

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Sagg Main 2009

This summer, like last summer, has seen the return of a sand bar to Sagg Main. That has attracted swimmers and surfers to the same area, often creating conflicts for the beach’s lifeguards, who set out flags every morning clearly indicating where each group should be.

The two-week flat spell Bill ended was not too unusual for a typical June or July, but those months this year saw the surf break regularly at Sagg Main both inside and outside. That unexpected but welcome abundance of surf, and last month’s biting bluefish, has led the lifeguards to become more watchful and protective of the bathing area.

Sag Harbor’s Lester Ware, who grew up surfing in Southampton and often longboards the outside break at Sagg Main, calls the surf this summer, “The best in years. It’s been there day in and day out, except for the first two weeks of August. With what we usually have coming in the fall, this could be one year we talk about for a long time.”

In describing his experience with Bill’s waves, Ware said, “I usually don’t say ‘Whoa’ too often [when I get to the water], but when I came over the dune [at Sagg Main] on Sunday morning, all I could say was ‘Whoa’.”

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