Surfers Dare to Hang 10 on Stormiest Day of Year

Wearing their wet suits, the windsurfers who converged on Haifa's surfers' beach at Bat Galim yesterday appeared invulnerable, crazy and the subject of adulation. They surfed in extreme conditions - high waves in a stormy sea and low air and water temperatures, at least for Israel. They left the beach far behind, hopping and somersaulting over the waves. It was only later, when one of them removed his wet suit, that it became obvious from the way he shivered and the purple mottling of his skin that the surfers, like their audience, are not impervious to the cold.

Thirty-two surfers came from throughout Israel to take part in Storm Rider 2010, an annual event sponsored by the Red Bull energy drink. The aim is to catch the waves on the stormiest day of the year.

"Every year we wait for the craziest day, the highest waves and the strongest winds," explained participant and coordinator Shahar Gal. "It's all about the chance to test your personal and mental power as a surfer against nature. Everyone waits to see where the edge is, everyone here is surfing on the edge."

The Mediterranean was pretty crazy, as the surfers say, yesterday, although "it's all relative to the conditions in Israel," they emphasize. In Australia or Hawaii, there is no need to wait for stormy weather to catch five- and six-meter waves. But things are different in Haifa, and when you're talking about the coldest day in the year, with winds of 25 to 30 knots and waves up to four meters high, it's a surfer's holiday.

Surfing aficionados, in coats and knit caps, came with their families, their cameras and their binoculars, enjoying every meeting between wave and surfer that involved catching a lot of air. "Here it comes, here it comes," they shouted excitedly when one surfer caught a wave and accelerated toward the shore at 50 kph. They also laughed at and commiserated with those who wiped and needed help, like the man whose board was washed out to sea and who had to be rescued by a jet ski dispatched from the shore.

All eyes yesterday were on local boy Arnon Dagan, 31, an organizer of Storm Rider and a top-ranked windsurfer in Israeli, European and international competitions. "Every year we're on constant alert for days like these, for us the sea is perfect today, the bigger the wave the more challenging it is," Dagan said.

But even with 17 years of windsurfing and a decade of international competitions behind him, Dagan said: "The initial feeling is fear." He said the surfer reaches speeds of up to 50 kph, and the wave is just as fast. That meeting is like a head-on collision, and that's what you're looking for, to go higher, but afterward, you're filled with joy, a strong sense of freedom."

The competition was won by Eyal Shelef, 28, of Tel Aviv.