Here’s a Throwback Thursday article on surfing in New York. I don’t have photos because I was not affiliated with the illustrious Kymri Wilt then. But it’s a good read nonetheless…
Here, now, is New York Surf by Kevin Six…
When planning a trip to New York, I can now add a wetsuit to my list of things to pack. I’ve got friends who are always asking me to visit but I won’t take any trip that isn’t a surf trip. After spying several people with long boards in the subway, and hours of research on the internet, my friends found out that New York could easily be a surf destination, so I planned my first-ever surf trip to New York.
I flew into Newark, New Jersey on the redeye arriving at 6:00 a.m. June 2, having departed at 8:00 p.m. from San Diego on the first. I took the Olympic trails bus to Pennsylvania Station, though I could just as easily have taken, I later learned, the New AirTrain. Then it was the number Two subway two stops downtown from Penn Station to 14th street, where my friends had agreed to keep me – and help surf New York.
I first tried looking for surf on Staten Island, a free ferry ride and a bus to Great Kills. Though there were no waves, there were many informative and friendly lifeguards. They said that New Jersey blocked all but the biggest swell and that J Hook usually had pretty decent waves. They also said that J Hook wasn’t going off on June third.
On June fourth, I took the C train from Manhattan to Broad Channel in Queens and boarded the S shuttle to Rockaway Beach, about an hour train ride if you make all your connections. Legend has it that hip Manhattan surfers haul their eight foot planks on these trains to the Rockaways and are in the lineup by 7:00 a.m. At 8:30 a.m., there was no one in the water and only about six inches of swell. It’s a good thing too, because, had there been waves I could not have surfed – no board.
It turns out that the laws in New York City and insurance requirements make renting boards cost prohibitive. I learned this from the clerk at the Rockaway Beach Surf Shop, the only surf shop in Rockaway Beach and one of two in New York City, just a short walk from the subway. They did carry about 150 boards, both short and long. It turns out that these boards are manufactured in China under the shop’s logo as well as the legendary “Plastic Fantastic” logo from the 70’s.
Two days later, and after much more research, I headed for Long Island. It was rumored on a website that there was a point break that could handle 15-foot faces (this would be about seven-foot waves in Hawaii, where waves are measured from the back, or what we in California call “Double Overhead”). The author told of an epic surf session in January with waves as big and perfect “as Second Reef at Pipeline” on the North Shore of Oahu. Though I didn’t believe that any wave in New York could be that big, nor that anyone would be crazy to surf in water that cold, I had to see for myself.
I boarded the 7:49 a.m. Long Island Rail Road train to Montauk and, three hours and change later, I was at the Northeastern tip of New York State. The cabs that I saw, and there were many, all were driven by young women. Veronica, my cabbie for the afternoon, was patient with me – much crazed after two days of flat surf and a long, early morning train ride. She took me to Air and Speed Surf Shop in the edge of the small village center in Montauk. She was also kind enough to radio the cab base for a surf check. Another cabbie, who’d driven by the beach reported “stormy and choppy,” but I had come too far to stop now.
I rented a 9-foot single-fin Donald Takayama Noserider. Made in Oceanside California, that board had come farther than I had on its trip to the surf capitol of New York. Veronica, a surfer by her own admission, waited while I rented the board and a wetsuit and drove me out to Ditch Plains beach two miles away. She told me that I had just missed by two days excellent waves and warm water, something that surfers everywhere will say to visitors.
She also said that the walk along the shore to The Ditch was considerably shorter but I didn’t want to drag a 30-pound, nine-foot plank for a mile on any beach if I could avoid it – though I’d gladly have carried my trusty 6’2” that far. I was getting excited. After 3,000 miles in the air and hours on various trains, and after being shut out on two previous trips, I knew that my luck was about to change and my travels were to be rewarded. I also knew that intrepid surf journalists often find less to surf in, and more to complain about, on warm-water boat trips than “stormy and choppy.”
Who knows, to these Long Island surfers that could very well mean fun or at least rideable. And the waves at The Ditch at the far end of Long Island were both. The Crescent shaped beach, with a jetty to the North and town to the South, was formidable. The Ditch Which, the woman who ran the snack trailer, said that most surfers went out near the jetty, but it seemed that the waves, which were breaking all over the place, were a little bit more defined just in front of the trailer. The water temperature, which had been just cold of pleasant two days ago, had dropped to an estimated 57 degrees and I felt every bit of it in my over large rented wetsuit. But I was paddling out into a break that less than 40 Long Islanders surf regularly and I was stoked. Anyone can fly to Hawaii or California or even Florida for an American surf trip, but I was in New York, one of few surfers crazy enough to make the California to New York journey.
I was told that the waves were choppy because of a low-pressure system that moves north to South creating onshore winds (which we had that day) as well as offshore winds that smooth out the waves and make for nice long lefts. Though I’m goofy-footed (a surfer who plants his left foot back and prefers to surf right to left when facing the beach), I didn’t have time to wait out the weather. I had to be back in Manhattan that night to take in a Broadway show. I lined up my take-offs just to the right of the Ditch Which’s trailer and hoped for the best.
I caught a number of waves, breaking in a number of directions, while the current pushed me from West to East and back. There seemed to be a wave breaking deeper, in what I was later to learn was the rocky bottom, which reformed on the sandy beach. My first wave broke on the outside and was bigger than I thought it would ever be in New York. About three to four feet with a shoulder-high face. I wiped out before I could catch the reform. My second wave was a shallow, sandy wipe-out. My third wave was the wave of the day.
After taking off too late on two other good-sized rollers, I grabbed a left (stage left if the beach is the audience) just in time. I popped a wheelie, getting eight feet and eight inches of the rented nine-foot Takayama up in the air and, digging the single fin into the face, shot down, bottom-turned and nose-rode the reform before digging the fin into the sand at the end of the ride. Had there been anyone else in the water, I’m sure there would have been enough hooting and arm pumping to match my own.
The transition from outside face to re-form beach break was tricky and I only managed it two more times. I also managed to catch more than a few shore breakers and to miss two outside rights that could very well have left me stranded on the rocks of the jetty. After about an hour, the wind got the better of the waves and my personal store of body heat so I paddled in.
I had had the break to myself, something unheard of in San Diego. While drying off and working the shivers out, I talked to a number of surf-stoked Montaukians who were all eager to share their waves and information. Every car I saw parked at The Ditch was an SUV, a Mercedes or a BMW. I guess you need a little green to surf Long Island on a Thursday morning but these gentlemen surfers, to a one, were welcoming, friendly and informative – proud of their piece of paradise.
I spoke with one guy (with a single-fin long board strapped to his 450 SL) who told me that it would take warmer water to get him in on a day like today. In the two hours I was there, only two others went out. Another gent, who had just returned from eight years in Florida, which he hated, said that Montauk was the most beautiful beach on the East Coast. With dirt roads leading to clean beaches, sand dunes covered by pink-flowered shrubs and no building over two stories, I had to agree.
He also told me that when the swell is really on – during winter storms and summer hurricanes – waves break from outside the jetty for 800 or more yards to “that house over there.” I asked about the rumors of 15-foot faces and he said he’d seen them. He also said that, in big surf and the right conditions, the swell wraps around the point of Long Island and breaks on the other side. If the waves at The Ditch are too big and blown out, they are perfect on the other side. This is what I think will bring me back to the Hamptons – in September for warmer water and likelier storm conditions. That and the great people.
Two other surfers offered to take me looking for surf near the light house but it was time to meet Veronica the cabbie. She took me back to Air and Speed to return my equipment. You can’t miss the surf shop; it’s next to the only bank, just off the main drag and a short walk from Town Beach. She also recommended a place for lunch. I had a decent fried flounder burger at Gosman’s Dock, or Goo Dock, which seemed to be the hang-out for fishermen, summer residents and year-rounders. After a 20-minute walk back to the train station, I was on the 2:20 p.m. train to Manhattan.
On the train back to the City, I contemplated the show I’d see that night and surfing my home break, Scripps Beach in La Jolla, California in three days. But the memory of my day in Montauk will stay with me for a long time. The long trip, the shut-outs and the cold water were erased by decent surf, the quaint town and the great, cold water stoke of the surfers at The Ditch.
Kevin Six is a native of San Diego and an avid surfer. He is an arts administrator who, on vacations, never likes to be more than a day’s ride from the beach. He has surfed throughout California and Hawaii and his goal is to surf waves that break in American waters, including the East Coast and the Great Lakes.