We often talk about “shoulder seasons” producing the best surf throughout the year.
Shoulder seasons are when major climate patterns transition from one to the next — and during these transitions, more favorable (or even unique) weather patterns can develop.
The move from fall to winter in the Southern Hemisphere is the quintessential shoulder season. The best swell-producing period of time, bar none. But in the Northern Hemisphere, the transition from spring to summer is by far the weakest of the shoulder seasons. Think one-month-after-shoulder-reconstruction-surgery weak.
But that wasn’t the case in May 2019. The North Pacific and North Atlantic shared some of the spotlight with the Southern Hemisphere, delivering surf while they should’ve probably been sleeping. Which means May was a damn good time to be a surfer in the U.S.
- Winners: Everyone. All indicator spots were above-average in terms of wave height, conditions, and days over chest-high.
- North Pacific stayed busy late in the season, with solid WNW/NW swells lasting through mid-month.
- South Pacific swell grew through the first half of the month, peaking overhead mid-month, while consistent, more westerly angled swell graced the second half.
- A period of rougher conditions and colder water arrived mid-month as storms impacted the coast.
- Most spots were 25-45% larger than average — even Mav’s broke a day or two, but with onshore wind.
- Most indicator spots saw two to four times the average number of days over chest-high. SoCal spots averaged 15-20 days.
This was one of the more unique Mays in recent memory for California. Typically, we see an active run of South Pacific swell in May, and this year over delivered. However, it was the other factors that really stood out: cool weather, above-average precipitation, and the number of NW swell events (both short and mid-period). SoCal saw many glassy mornings during a month that’s generally synonymous with south wind. Though the Bay area didn’t fare well, the Central Coast to Santa Cruz enjoyed a number of clean mornings and even full days of favorable wind.
Can Southern California Match its Magical May?
The combo of North and South Pacific swells led to a well-above-average number of Fair or better days for most of SoCal. Even a rare Good-to-Epic window opened in Huntington Beach one afternoon when the wind turned offshore behind a squall line for a couple of hours. “That’s something we occasionally see in the late summer or early fall,” said Surfline’s Director of Forecasting, Kevin Wallis, “but I can’t recall seeing that in May since I started working at Surfline almost 20 years ago.”
- Winners: North Shore early to mid-month, South Shore mid to late-month.
- North Pacific produced fun, late season NW/NNW swell through most of May, easing late.
- South Pacific swell started slow then increased mid-month; swell continued over back half, peaking in size.
- Most North Shore spots saw above-average wave heights, conditions, and days over chest-high
- South Shore spots saw well above-average wave heights and number days over chest-high.
The North Pacific usually shuts off around the beginning of May, bringing flatness to the North Shore. The North Pac continued to churn late season, spitting out fun-sized pulses through the month. During a month that’s typically flat for the north exposures, the winter standouts produced a handful of days over chest-high. A couple of those pulses even sent overhead surf to Pipe.
Jon Warren, Lead International Forecaster, says “it was one of the better Mays in recent memory for the summer breaks.” The South Pacific finally delivered to the southerly exposures after the past couple summers haven’t performed well, ending up below average. May’s action already put the past few summers to shame — around half of the days delivered surf over chest-high.
- Winners: Northeast through Outer Banks were above-average in terms of wave heights and well above-average for conditions and days over chest high.
- Fronts remained active through the month and low pressures moved off the coast from the Carolinas through the Northeast.
- Low pressure in the Western Atlantic early month delivered surf to all regions; another low delivered surf over Memorial Day Weekend
- Southeast and Florida saw near-average wave heights and most spots were below average on conditions (New Smyrna the exception).
A favorable pattern set up in May for consistent surf along the northern half of the East Coast. Northwest Atlantic lows and southerly frontal windswells combined to produce above-average surf heights for all key locations from Hatteras Island through Maine. Low pressure in the Western Atlantic, one early in the month and another late (part of the system that brought severe weather and tornados across the nation), delivered the best swells. These swells reached nearly everyone on the East Coast, including over the Memorial Day Weekend.
Outlook: Will June Be as Good in Your Area?
East Coast Lead Forecaster and Outer Banks resident, Kurt Korte, reflected,” May in the Outer Banks can be a mixed bag, especially for spots north of Oregon Inlet. This year we saw several NE swells but the days that really stand out to me are Sunday the 26th and Monday the 27th (Memorial Day). Days like that, before the hectic summer traffic and inevitable flat spells arrive, are definitely ones for the memory bank.”
The fronts weren’t as beneficial for the southern half of the coast but did help produce southerly windswell for the Southeast region. Down in Florida, the early and late month storms (and small trade swell) were enough to keep surf heights around average.
The lone standout in Florida was New Smyrna Beach — one out of three days in May rated Fair or better. Other areas weren’t as fortunate. For East Coast Lead Forecaster Mike Watson “during the actual swells around my break in Melbourne Beach, it seemed like we were fighting the tide, the wind, or marginal sandbars. This offered up shorter windows of good surf than in other areas.”
Every Tuesday, Surfline’s Forecasters update the Seasonal Forecast for all U.S. regions. The Seasonal Forecast (found below your Premium Regional Forecast) takes a look a few weeks to a month or more into the future. Check it now to find out if June is looking as good as May.