What to Do

Surfing on Nantucket

You may not see palm trees, or grass skirts, but the Old Grey Lady has a well deserved reputation as one of New England’s top surfing destinations.
Nantucket’s advantages have everything to do with geography. Its location off the southern coast of Cape Cod, places it nearest to the Gulf Stream and its warm southern waters. The water can easily be 10 degrees warmer than other New England surfing spots and that can be the difference between surfing in shorts and surfing in wetsuits.

Geography offers Nantucket another prime advantage, one that is most important to experienced surfers looking for the biggest waves. Ocean storms, particularly hurricanes pushing north in the late summer and fall can bring truly awe-inspiring waves to Nantucket’s South Shore, what surfers call double overhead – waves with 12 foot faces, twice the height of a person. The island’s location places in the best position in New England to catch these waves as the big storms curve offshore.

For the rest of us, looking for tamer summer conditions, anywhere along the South Shore from Madaket to Nobadeer should offer plenty of surfing excitement. There is no one best spot, or best beach or secret spot where you can find the best waves. Because of constantly changing conditions in terms of winds, tides and even the sandbars off the shore, the best spots are in constant motion. The good news is that there are enough great spots to keep surfers forever satisfied.

If you are looking for the very best conditions, look for a day with moderate offshore breeze, for Nantucket this means winds from the northerly quadrent. Try to hit the beach midway on an outgoing tide. This should create ideal conditions of smooth, groomed waves, easy on beginners and fun for everyone else.

On any given day you will find as many as 200 surfers spread across the south shore beaches. Cisco is a popular destination, but you will find surfers a Madaket, Miacomet and Surfside as well. One important note, there is no surfing allowed between the flags on lifeguard-protected beaches, beyond that the waves are open to everyone.

And surfing is open to virtually anyone as well, with a couple of provisos: You need to be a strong swimmer, the impact zone is no place for the doggie paddle. And even good swimmers should be comfortable in the ocean environment. Strong surf also brings strong rip currents that can overwhelm even experience swimmers who panic and make poor decisions.

For beginners, the most important advice is to take a lesson, one or two might be enough for some people to get their feet wet, while others will want to hone their talents with continuing lessons.

We’ve listed a number of places where lessons and equipment rentals are available. Beginners generally start out on long boards, which are easier to paddle and more stable
than the shorter boards. But even some experienced surfers stick with the longer boards. Others prefer the speed and maneuverability of the shorter boards.

For experienced surfers the real season is late summer and fall. This is when offshore storms are most frequent and the water temperatures remain comfortable well into October. For these folks a hurricane or tropical storm cutting between Bermuda and the east coast is cause for celebration and making their way to the island. The best storms curve out to see a couple hundred of miles south of the island, leaving great surf and an untouched island behind.

And then for a final hardy group, there is nothing quiet like surfing in the winter. This requires thick wetsuits, hoods, gloves, boots and a belief that there’s never a bad time to be looking for that perfect wave.

Surfing Nantucket's big waves is best left to the experts.

Inquirer and Mirror photo