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Sifting through the hurricane hype

Don't believe the hype.

If you're wondering why Atlantic hurricanes draw so much attention, it's not that the East Coast is normally so dismal. In actuality, the Eastern Seaboard gets some serious surf — in the fall and winter. It's just that during those months, the beaches, boardwalks and coastal hamlets are ghost towns.

You know that block where you couldn't find a place to park last week? In another month, you can ride a unicycle in a leopard-print Speedo down that same street and there won't be anyone there to even care. By late September, half the businesses will have closed, most of the lifeguards will be back at the frat house and the beach will belong to surfers again.

But with the entire population down at the beach, renting bicycles and playing paddle ball, the media can't help but fuel the blazing conflagration of hype that comes with any tropical system that moves northward.

And surfers themselves? Sure, they get excited. A hurricane swell presents an opportunity to drop the longboard, fish, biscuit, toad or whatever else they use as a crutch for summer dribble. It means a chance of catching some overhead waves while wearing a pair of trunks. And after Tropical Storm Ana fizzled last week, Hurricane Bill was really the first storm of the season.

There was so much anticipation for this swell that C.J. Hobgood stuck around his home state of Florida to meet Bill. Hawaiians such as Garret Macnamara and Ian Walsh, plus Californians Warren Smith and Dane Ward, and even three-time world champ Andy Irons were out big-game hunting in the North Atlantic.

Hurricane Bill was certainly no joke. At one point, he reached Cat 4 strength, with top sustained winds near 135 miles per hour. Though it didn't threaten land (until it barreled into Newfoundland last night as a tropical storm) it did present quite a challenge for officials in coastal towns. And it did claim the life of a 7-year-old girl when a wave swept away unsuspecting beachgoers in Maine. A 54-year-old man in Florida washed ashore unconscious and later died.

North of the Outer Banks, most winter swells are more dangerous than Bill. But with so much attention and so many gawking tourists, beach patrols, police and local municipalities will often ban surfers and swimmers from entering the water. It's pretty embarrassing. Imagine being a year-round East Coast surfer and being kept out of the water on the best day in months.

Mike Sweeney, a dock master from Newport, R.I., is well aware of it.

"Of course, I see it with my job at the marina, too. People just go nuts whenever they hear 'hurricane.' It always gets overhyped," he said.

But what was not overhyped were the massive walls he rode on Sunday morning right in his hometown. Amid a crew of local brothers (and even Rhody-born world class Maui surfer, Walsh) the goofyfoot descended a few triple overhead walls, including one of the biggest waves of the morning.

"We just had our second baby six days ago, so I was lucky everything lined up right with a babysitter and everything. And the swell was just ideal."

It was the biggest he's seen the break on a tropical swell since Hurricane Gert in 1999.

"If it wasn't as big, there would have been five times as many people in the water. Mother Nature has a way of controlling the crowd," Sweeney said before heading back to work.

But for every great session, there were two tales of disappointment. Winds marred the peak of the swell in New England, hordes of summer surfers clogged line-ups, access was shut down by the boys in blue, and many spots were simply just shutting down. A handful of the East's best lensmen just threw in the towel and surfed themselves.

Persistence paid off though. In many cases, Monday's waves were smaller, but actually offered better sets than the sucking giants of the weekend. The water was warm, and with a little persistence, you could find that green summer peak from the Caribbean to the Canadian Maritime.

And Mike Sweeney almost named his new baby Bill.