MASONBORO ISLAND, N.C. — Hurricane Earl edged toward the Atlantic coastline Thursday as tourists and residents fled the Outer Banks of North Carolina in the wake of forecasts that the storm might lash the state by the end of the day.
On Masonboro, an undeveloped barrier island near Wilmington reachable only by boat, a small armada bobbed on the protected mainland side Wednesday as a steady parade of short boards and zinc-coated faces streamed over the dunes to the surf. There, the still far-off storm created a bonanza of waves.
The National Hurricane Center said late Wednesday the storm was picking up strength, with winds of about 140 m.p.h. It placed most of the North Carolina coast under a hurricane warning — meaning that hurricane conditions were expected at least somewhere in that stretch.
Earl, expected to hit the region sometime Thursday evening, was already churning the surf. To the north, a tropical storm warning was in effect from Virginia to Sandy Hook, N.J., and a hurricane watch for all of Cape Cod and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
Storms following a path like Earl’s, running roughly parallel to the coast, can threaten outcroppings like Cape Hatteras, N.C., where a mandatory evacuation was in place on Wednesday. But they can also create a brief, rare season of world-class surfing on the northern Atlantic, particularly on beaches that face south or that, like Masonboro, are protected by a jetty.
“This is like, prime time,” said Evan Barton, 17, a competitive surfer who takes high school classes on the Internet, thus allowing him to begin his surfing day at 8 a.m. Evan, with sun-bleached hair and a complexion beyond the reach of sunscreen, piloted a boatload of friends to Masonboro from nearby Wrightsville Beach.
Others played a form of hooky for grown-ups, rising early to scan Web sites like Swellinfo.com and to compare notes with fellow enthusiasts. “When they name the storm, that’s when you start planning your schedule,” said Mark Mitchell, a 59-year-old real estate developer, standing on the hot sand with a friend, Douglas Sprunt, an architecture curator, each with a board under his arm.
For still others, the storm was work. Sean Ruttkay, an artist and photographer, hurried back from a job in Washington to capture images of hurricane-amped surfing. To minimize his use of fossil fuels, he biked, with surfboard and camera, to the south end of Wrightsville Beach, and then paddled across to Masonboro on his orange surfboard. “This time of year, you’ve got to be on it, because the East Coast, it’s flat most of the time,” he said.
What was good for the surfers was bad for business.
Forecasters said the heart of Hurricane Earl was not likely to made landfall, remaining about 100 miles offshore and dealing Cape Hatteras a glancing blow before moving north, perhaps strafing Cape Cod and the Maine shoreline on Friday night and Saturday. Still, experts warned that it could buffet the coast with destructive winds and currents, generating large waves and hazardous riptides and forcing vacationers away from the ocean in the last week of summer break.
Ferries leaving Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks, with a population of 800 and 5,000 visitors, were packed, and innkeepers wondered if they, too, would have to evacuate.
“We were full and we were planning on a nice weekend for Labor Day, but obviously, that’s not going to happen,” said George Chamberlin, the owner of Captain’s Landing, a small inn on the harbor. “It’s too bad we have to have these interruptions, but it’s just part of the cost of living on the East Coast.”
The surfers had their share of disappointment, too. Around 3:30, a whole new crop of them materialized, breaking out into eager jogs as they came in view of the water. Austin Nichols, 30, an actor on “One Tree Hill,” which is taped in Wilmington, said he had shot a scene in the morning but had gotten off in time to get some surfing in.
“I think hurricanes should have menacing names like, ‘Hurricane Edward Scissorhands,’ ” he said. “Hurricane Earl sounds like a guy drinking a beer on a porch. That’s not scary.”
Mr. Nichols was not impressed by Earl’s somewhat erratic effect on the waves, either. By late afternoon, in fact, the beach was dotted with surfers standing in perplexed clumps, scrutinizing the water and wondering what exactly had gone wrong. The waves were “closing out,” or cresting all at once instead of in a ripple. Or they were coming too fast. Or maybe it was the tide?
“For the storm to be right here, it should be a lot better,” said Richard Edwards, 33.
But surfers know that their sport depends on an ever-changing array of variables. Evan, who had gotten in a couple of dangerous-looking moves, emerged from the water. “It’s not as good as it was this morning. It’s closing out,” he said.
But he shrugged it off. Hurricane Earl would be driving the surf for a few days to come, followed by tropical storms Fiona and Gaston. Edward Scissorhands will have to wait.