October. A weekday morning, before dawn.
I slip out of bed and layer on one, two, three sweaters, shoving a still-damp wetsuit into my bag. A question runs through my head, over and over.
“Why the hell am I doing this?”
It’s not even 5am, and I’m on my way to Rockaway Beach. To go surfing.
Getting up is torture, but this morning can’t be missed. Hurricane Joaquin’s kicking up a stink off the Carolina coast, sending big waves barreling into the Rockaways. If I time it right, there’s enough of a window between 5 and 10am to get out to the beach, surf for a couple hours, and still make it back into Manhattan in time to start the work day. And if my co-workers don’t mind sopping wet hair and sandy footprints across the office carpet, well, that’s a bonus.
I grew up on the small island of Guernsey, tucked off the French coast, surrounded by water on all sides, but I never gave surfing a thought. Mine was not a surfer’s childhood; in fact I thought you had to have a couple screws loose to ride those heaving walls of water on Trans World Sport. Bodies sliding down (and often under) double-overhead waves that couldn’t care less about the human beings spinning inside them.
But then, the summer after I moved to New York, I spent Memorial Day on the shoreline at Beach 67th Street and was transfixed by what I saw. Groups of weekend surfers gliding lazily down mushy knee-high waves. I watched all afternoon, and left with an itch to be able to do it too.
The next day I was back, standing in chest-high water in an old wetsuit with an instructor, grappling with an oversized soft-top surfboard and a nagging realisation of just how long it would take to become one of those agile surfers I’d watched from the beach. Aching and fatigued, I tried over and over to rotate my leaden arms fast enough to push up into a half-crouch and catch a wave, but I kept ending up face down in the water. And yet. And yet I was hooked.
The elegance, the speed, the power, it was all like nothing I’d experienced before. Once I’d felt it, I couldn’t unfeel it.
All through that first summer I monitored the surf forecast like an addict. Rising at 4 or 5am to take the A train out to the Rockaways, just for the chance to ride two foot waves, might sound masochistic to some, but I was growing to love it. If I managed to catch even a few of those short breaks in a session it was like an early payday. I was officially addicted.
Surfing in New York has a storied history. The recent renaissance at Rockaway Beach and out along Long Island is nothing new. As Serena Solomon explains
“New York City’s surfing community is knit together through adversity. The conditions will probably be small and choppy, except after a hurricane or snowstorm. A high-pressure career often gets in the way of the time-intensive journey to the beach.”
According to Rockaway veteran and New York Surf School founder Frank Cullen
, the first group of modern-day surfers started in the 1950s. But it was the arrival of the shortboard era in the late 1970s when Rockaway Beach became a real surf destination on the East Coast.
“Up till the late 1980s, 80% of the people that surfed in Rockaway Beach were born and raised in Rockaway Beach and had been surfing there since they were kids,” said Frank. “The level of surfing at this time was extremely high. I remember seeing surfing contests on the Wide World of Sports on network television. It became an amazing concept that you could actually make a living surfing.”
And when conditions like on this particular Thursday morning in October roll around, you need to have a plan. Much like New York rewards those with ambition and drive, so surfing in this city requires an agenda, a detailed plan, and a method to execute on it. Here’s mine: to surf before work; to be out to the Rockaways and back into Manhattan by 10am.
At the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station, waiting for the A train, I stand out like a sore thumb. I’m in board-shorts and a heavy jacket, clutching my eight-foot, soft-top. I could swap it all for a Hillary Clinton costume and get less attention.
I change trains and head towards Beach 60th Street, where I’ll meet my friend Dave, who lives out by the water. Dave’s been my partner in crime over the summer, aiding my transformation from hapless beginner to slightly less hapless beginner. And now, after a couple lessons from the Sierra Surf School, I’m starting to feel that I might be getting the hang of it. Or at least, that onlookers might not feel the need to call the coastguard, at least not right away.
The wind picks up as we cross Broad Channel. In the last 24 hours the hurricane has been downgraded to a storm, but the swell still holds promise. Riding this stretch of the line over Jamaica Bay is my favourite part of the trip. It’s always disconcerting to jump on the subway in Northern Brooklyn and then find yourself a half-hour later in what looks like a small East Coast fishing town.
As the subway curves around the beach I catch a glimpse of the churning ocean. It looks heavy, with five foot waves slamming on the shoreline. The sun is barely up, but already surfers are crowding the break at 87th street.
I meet Dave outside the station and we drive to a deserted stretch of beach. Planes drift overhead on their way into JFK. Pylons from old piers jut out of the water about every three hundred feet, and the two of us paddle out in a lull between swells. This end of the Rockaways is still a little rustic, a little rough-around-the-edges when you stray a couple blocks from the boardwalk, and with the elevated track of the A train running overhead, it’s no Copacabana.
From the shoreline I thought the waves looked smaller here, like shifty little two to three footers, a little heavy maybe, but manageable. But up close, things look different. There’s no one else out here; the whole beach is deserted. Once we’re safely beyond the surf we sit on our boards and rest, two black specks bobbing on a blue, windblown sea. The waves out here are bigger than anything I’ve surfed before, the power like a plane gearing for takeoff.
After ten minutes of cautious inaction I ball up my courage and decide it’s time to catch a wave. After another ten minutes of cautious inaction, Dave stops giving me a choice. It takes a while but he spots something manageable and before I have time to think I spin my board and dig in deep, and suddenly Dave is shouting: “Paddle! Paddle hard! Up, up, up, up, up!” Then I hear nothing but the roar of water.
The peak of the wave - both the highest point and the first section to break - is ten feet to my left. Ideally you want to paddle into a wave by lining up dead center with that peak, and try to time things so it arrives right behind you just as the lip’s about to break.
Getting in line with that lip requires both perfect timing and perfect agility, which explains why I’m ten feet away from it. Timed just right, good surfers will get to their feet as their board drops with the wave. Timed poorly, bad surfers will fall down a lot. Which is what happens to me this time. I’m on my feet for a glorious split-second, but then my board pearls and I topple over the front.
For someone who has never stood on a board and ridden down the face of an onrushing wave, the sensation and satisfaction it brings is impossible to describe. And the desire to keep trying is equally unfathomable. William Finnegan, author of Barbarian Days, comes closest to nailing it in “Playing Doc’s Games”:
“Riding a serious wave is for an accomplished surfer what playing, say, Chopin’s Polonaise in F-Sharp Minor might be for an accomplished pianist…. Even in unchallenging waves, the faces of surfers as they ride become terrible masks of fear, frustration, anger…. The assumption, common among non-surfers, that riding waves is a slaphappy, lighthearted business—fun in the sun—is for the most part mistaken.”
After the fall, I’m caught in the broken-wave zone - that is, the shoreward side of a set of waves. The next wave in the set rears up over my head. I swim underneath that wave and then keep swimming towards the open ocean. When I surface the second wave looks like a 10-foot wall of water. It is ready to break in front of me. It takes all my strength to dive under it and swim hard, fight back to the surface, grab a breath, and then dive again.
I feel the strength in my arms slop out of me, fast. Each time I surface, there’s another wave in the set to tackle. Dave is safely outside, I hear his shouts over the roar of water “Come on, paddle harder, you should be riding these!”
After the sixth wave, I find myself on the other side of the break. I haven’t actually moved, I’ve stayed right in the impact zone but the set has passed. I collapse on my board, unable to lift myself up. Fire shoots through my arms and shoulders, and it’s barely eased when Dave shouts again. Another wave is approaching, another one I should be able to manage. I turn, paddling hard. And then something magical happens.
The board slips down the front of the wave and I find myself rising unsteadily to my feet. Gravity pulls me down and down, for what feels like days. Unconsciously, at the bottom I turn and there I am, ahead of the peak, gliding across the break toward the shore. There’s no sound but the roar of the water cascading behind me.
An hour drifts by. I don’t catch another wave like that second one, but I’m pleased I decided to come out — I know that for the rest of the day I’ll have a dopey grin on my face, feeling the echo of those two waves, the sweet, primal rush. Not to mention the deep calm that comes from being worked over, and chilled to the bone, and then the hot shower that defrosts you.
It’s 8.30am and I’ve got work to do. Just time to change in the car on the way back to the subway and make it into Manhattan for a 10am meeting.