Winter Storm Riley Sends a Ferocious Swell to Puerto Rico

Sunday and Monday were terrifying, marred with onshore winds and ominous gray. But by Tuesday, the sun was out and the offshore trades kicked in.

Paddling in took experience and fortitude. Photo: Dooley

The surf world has been buzzing about Winter Storm Riley recently. Soon after the March monster blitzed the East Coast of the U.S., it sent an even more ferocious swell to the Caribbean.

Big wave guns laid in the back of trucks and folks sat on the roofs of VW vans along the roadway in Rincon, Puerto Rico. Traffic backed up to downtown. Everyone wanted to witness this spectacle of nature.

At sunrise on Sunday morning, the famed reefs along Puerto Rico's Northwest Coast had a small wave. By afternoon, giant swell broke far outside the normal reefs and Tres Palmas was pulling in 30-foot sets. North Carolina underground charger Mason Barnes told SURFER Magazine there were 50-foot faces.

Sunday and Monday were terrifying, marred with onshore winds and ominous gray. But by Tuesday, the sun was up and the offshore trades kicked in.

David Carrero charging the XXL swell from Riley. Photo: Dooley

The swell also marked a concerted effort toward organized water safety in Puerto Rico. Will Skudin, a native of New York and surfer on the Big Wave World Tour is spending the winter in PR. He has been training with his brothers Cliff and Woody as well as noted international big-wave surfer, paddler, kite surfer and pioneer Chuck Patterson.

Before heading out on Sunday, Skudin arranged a meeting at the Shipwreck Bar and Grill of the surfers and captains who were heading out to challenge the massive lumps. The idea was to organize the parties into one team and apply the safety principals used in big wave arenas around the world. Among the assembled boat captains and surfers were Thomas Kosmoll, Cliff and Woody Skudin, Patterson, Craig Prothers, Jesse Prothers, Greg Carson, and Mikey Vicens.

“These guys have protocol because they’ve been doing it for 20 years. But there were a lot of new faces to that size of a swell. So I thought it was important to get people to understand the severity of a 20-foot swell at 17 seconds. I’ve been in those situations before and people have died and been brought back to life,” Will Skudin told ASN. “The best part was when we all got together and locked arms in a circle and said a prayer for safety.”

Skudin is recovering from a fall in Ireland where his board went through his leg. His leg got infected a month later as there was still shards of fiberglass by the bone. After two more surgeries and some time out, he’s at about 80 percent.

His plan for this swell was to play more of a safety role than surfer. And the surf was at another level for the Caribbean – Skudin called it 20-foot Hawaiian.

At one point, Woody paddled into a wave and took a serious fall. Will towed brother Cliff into the next one, unable to see Woody. While Cliff scored a photo by New York’s Chris Hamlet that went viral, the whitewater of his wave actually got Woody just as he was coming up and gave him a second hold down, without a breath.

“Mason Barnes was yelling to me, ‘Your brother, your brother.’ I thought he was talking about Cliff’s wave. But I forgot I had two brothers out there. Craig Prothers was going in for the rescue with his ski, but I called him off and grabbed Woody. It was like ‘welcome to big wave surfing.’ A year ago, he was risking his life for our country in the Middle East and now he’s charging this swell,” recalled Skudin.

This is what 20-foot swell at 17-seconds looks like in Puerto Rico. Photo: Dooley.

Guys like Carson, who owns Taino Divers in Rincon, French waterman Adrian Julien, Brandon “Chicken” Balabus and Sean Killarney of Long Beach, New York and Montauk’s Lief Engstrom paddled into some of the biggest waves of the swell as well as local boys Miguel Canals, Alexis Hollands, and Ramses Morales. And Skudin gives a lot of credit to relative underground charger, Ray King, who he credits for setting the performance bar.

“It all wouldn’t have been possible without the local community willing to collaborate with us. And the locals and the people who have spent time here really showed what they’ve got. I am blown away by Puerto Rico right now,” Skudin told ASN.

A more human-sized version of the swell is forecasted to stick around Thursday into the weekend.

More Big-Wave Surfing Content from ASN

We Asked Billy Kemper What He Thinks About the State of Big-Wave Surfing

Laird Hamilton Opens Up About His Personal Life and His Closest Calls With Death

Stepping Beyond: See How Mark Healey Thrives When Taking a Breath Isn't an Option