KAILUA, Hawaii (Reuters) - Will Rozier could not sleep on Thursday night, not because wind and rain from Hurricane Lane was lashing his Hawaii home, but because he was anxious to surf the huge waves rolling into one of his favourite beaches on the Big Island.
“I couldn’t even sit down and eat breakfast. I had to throw it all in my car and drive down to the beach and eat it while I was watching the waves and the sun rising,” said Rozier, 24, a resident of the archipelago’s southernmost island who has surfed since he was a child.
Once or twice a decade a tropical storm or hurricane pushes powerful surges of water towards the Hawaiian Islands, generating perfect waves to test the mettle of the legions of experienced surfers who call the islands home.
For tourists and less experienced surfers, the waves can be deadly, and state beaches were closed across Hawaii on Friday as the hurricane lashed the islands with high winds, torrential rains and heavy seas, even as the storm steadily weakened during the day.
“If you’re inexperienced, you want to stay away from these surf breaks, but for everybody out here, we’re running to the ocean,” Rozier, an instructor and guide for surf shop Kona Boys, said after riding a break off Kona pier that he said had appeared for the first time in four years.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said lifeguards were out in force with bullhorns, some of them on jet skis, ordering people off the beach and out of the water.
He said there were fewer surfers in the ocean on Friday than on Thursday, but he was especially concerned about the safety of tourists, who tend to be less experienced surfers and can endanger themselves.
On Maui, further north in the island chain, Debra Frey closed her surf school as she waited for the storm to hit. Even though authorities shut beaches to everyone, she suspected her instructors were surfing.
“They’re not supposed to, but if you know how, you go out and surf,” said Frey, who owns Waves Hawaii Surf School in Kihei on the south shore of Maui. “I’m sure they’re out there.”
As the storm tracked northwards, surfers at Kailua on the east side of Oahu began to see swells pick up.
“It’s going to be raging soon,” said U.S. Army veteran Keith Sarji, 53, who said he took up surfing at the age of 50.
Derrick Grace, a 45-year-old beginner and U.S. Army lawyer, was riding a few waves while he could.
“This is my second time out. It looks like a bit of a rush,” said Grace, who recently moved to Hawaii from Virginia.
In Waikiki, a Honolulu neighbourhood that is world-renowned for its surf beach, swells were already powerful, and Gregg Stebbins, 60, a lifelong surfer from Florida, chose to be cautious and wait on the beach until conditions were calmer.
“It would be foolish for me to go out there right now,” said Stebbins, who travels for his interior decorating job and takes a surfboard with him. “When this wind eases off, I’m looking to go out.”
By Friday afternoon, Lane had been downgraded to a Category 1 storm, the lowest ranking on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, with maximum sustained winds of 85 miles per hour (140 km per hour).
Reporting by Diane Craft; Additional reporting and writing by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Frank McGurty, Toni Reinhold