Place of Sands

By Andrew O'Reilly

Surfing in Rockaway, One Year After Sandy


Surfer in the Rockaways at Beach 90th Street, Oct. 2013. [All photo: Andrew O'Reilly]

Surfer in the Rockaways at Beach 90th Street, Oct. 2013. [All photo: Andrew O’Reilly]

One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between Man and Nature shall not be broken.
—Leo Tolstoy

Driving over the Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge from Broad Channel is how I always get my first real look at New York’s claim on the Atlantic. When I hit the bridge’s crest the ocean comes into view over the top of the dilapidated senior center, Surfside Manor. If the winds are offshore, I can hear the waves break as I pull down onto Beach 94th Street. I pass by a bronze statue honoring the dead of World War I.

At first glance, Rockaway Beach doesn’t appear to be a likely candidate for the surfing mecca of the United States, on par with its more glamorous peers: the Banzai Pipeline in Oahu, or Huntington Beach or Malibu in southern California. Once touted as a vacation locale for Manhattanites, Rockaway Beach (or “the peninsula,” to its familiars) seems to be a forgotten blip on New York City’s radar. Its aging housing projects, crumbling beachside homes, and shuttering businesses feel cut off from the rest of the city by the expansive Jamaica Bay, whose thirty-nine square miles surpass the area of Manhattan.

After Hurricane Sandy, this beachside community was devastated. Even now, one year later, thousands of residents are still living without a home and scattered around the metropolitan region. Over 750 businesses were severely damaged during the storm, with the city earmarking $1.77 billion in federal aid to help in the recovery. On top of that is the loss of a way of life and culture as residents have been uprooted or mentally distraught in the aftermath of Sandy.

But this is not the first time the Rockaway community has found itself decimated, nor will it be the last. Surfers, who are a part of the Rockaways’ DNA, are a hardy breed, accustomed to sanding over their roughest patches and riding their toughest breaks. A year later, the peninsula is moving on—and thanks to the peeling left-hand waves off its rock jetties, its own isolated and distinct surf culture continues to thrive.

By coincidence, I had begun to learn Rockaway Beach’s idiosyncrasies just before Sandy struck. I had recently rediscovered surfing thanks to a friend who insisted I teach him. While floundering around in the dumpy late spring surf in the Rockaways riding a too-thin, too-narrow shortboard, I realized that I was totally ill-equipped to be out there.

Unable to catch a wave on that mini-gun, I paddled to the point of exhaustion, panted for breath, and watched guys on nine-foot longboards sit far out and gracefully slide into a wave before walking to the nose or dropping knee for a classic trim-and-fade move. These guys easily peeled into waves, cutting back into turns and walking to the front of the board to keep the ride alive, while I bobbed helplessly in the line-up. That day was all wrong—the wrong surf, the wrong beach, the wrong wave, and above all, the wrong board: It wasn’t mine.

A note on surfboards: Surfboard design has evolved since the first polyurethane foam began to appear in the 1950s. Styles have come and gone; some last for decades while others fade into obscurity. The first boards to gain mass popularity were longboards. Ranging from eight feet long to more than eleven, with a large, single rear fin, the longboard was perfect for the small, crumbling waves at beaches like Malibu and Waikiki, where cutbacks and noseriding ruled.

As surfing began to move away from smaller waves and into larger, hollow surf, boards began to take on more aggressive shapes. Pointier, upturned noses that could cut more easily through the water appeared, along with a narrower silhouette that enabled more athletic maneuvers. In the early 1970s, Australian surfers like Wayne Lynch and Nat Young popularized this type of surfing using shortboards that pulled off more technical moves on the waves.

Shorter boards also led to experimentation in fin design that aided maneuverability. Twin-fins became popular in the 1970s, followed by the three-fin thruster of the early ‘80s, which is still an industry standard. Quad fins and tiny keel fins are currently enjoying a resurgence, especially on fish (particularly short, wide, and thick boards) and mini-simmons surfboards, thanks to their ability to perform technical moves in small surf.

And so I became seized by a hallucinatory vision of becoming the Miki Dora of Beach 90th Street. I set down a nine and a half feet of polyurethane foam blank onto a jury-rigged shaping stand in my parents’ garage in the woods outside Philadelphia, far from Dora’s Malibu Beach (and my own adopted Brooklyn). My dad’s power tools became increasingly strewn about as I traced a rough outline of the noseriding longboard that haunted my dreams. I would find the feel, that ineffable emotional connection between board and ocean that can only come from putting planer and sandpaper to surfboard blank, turning two hunks of chemically-bonded foam and a piece of balsa wood into functional, aquatic art.

A bastardization of the Lenape word “rack-a-wak-e,” meaning “place of sands,” the Rockaways first appeared on the periphery of the surfing world back in 1912 when Hawaiian surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku visited Beach 38th Street. Since then, the sport has evolved along with the peninsula itself. Surfers born and bred in the Rockaways developed their own gritty style more akin to Venice Beach’s Dogtown in the 1970s than the polished flair of Duke’s Waikiki Beach.

Surfers in the Rockaways near Beach 90th Street, Oct. 2013.

Surfers in the Rockaways near Beach 90th Street, Oct. 2013.

“A lot of guys were taking the train to the beach,” said Ed “Fast Eddie” McCabe, one of New York’s first and most influential surfers, reminiscing about the peculiarities of city surfing. “We were knee-paddling without wetsuits on in November, and when we got them they were a half inch thick and chafed like hell.” (Today’s wetsuits feature softer interior padding and contour to the body; the original wetsuits offered little flexibility, making surfers look like the Michelin Man dressed for a funeral.)

“It was a totally different time,” McCabe said. “It was tougher to surf back then.”

Now in his seventies and with a set of bad knees that keeps him out of the surf, McCabe was one of the best—and best-known—surfers to come out of New York during surfing’s first real heyday in the 1960s. That was when McCabe and surfers like 1965 United States Surfing Champion Rusty Miller began experimenting on the waves at the Rockaways before moving from its notoriously sandy break to more challenging peaks farther east, like Montauk’s Ditch Plains, Babylon’s Gilgo Beach, or East Hampton.

The mainstays in the line-up back then weren’t the current crop of hipsters-turned-wave-riders on custom retro fish boards bought in Williamsburg. They weren’t today’s batch of young rippers either, who like to turn two-foot, sloppy waves into a skate park. Most of the surfers in the ‘60s came from working-class backgrounds — union guys who first picked up boards while stationed in the Philippines or some other tropical locale while in the military, or their sons.

“These guys were aggressive. They didn’t have the media — it’s not like surfing was an everyday idea,” Thomas Brookins, director of the Rockaway surfing documentary Shadows of the Same Sun, told Eastern Surfing Magazine in 2011. “They had to teach themselves and develop a style; looking at some of the old footage, you can clearly see it… Any wave, they’ll charge it. They’re humble, but they are tough cookies. That’s something embedded in New Yorkers.”

Rockaway Beach’s early surfing honeymoon was short-lived. It was a tough place that only got tougher as the 1960s bled into the 1970s and New York City became the poster child for urban blight. The city teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, violent crime was rampant as the drug trade flourished from the Bowery to the Bronx, and a weakened NYPD struggled to recover in the wake of a widespread corruption scandal and massive layoffs. The isolation of the Rockaways did little to prevent these issues from leaking across Jamaica Bay, and in fact only amplified them as City Hall struggled to deal with the existential problems closer to the mayor’s office.

Thousands of New Yorkers picked up and left the city during those depraved years, and many Rockaway surfers followed suit. They moved to neighboring beach towns farther up the Long Island coast where they felt they could catch waves away from the ruin.

“A lot of drugs got involved during that time, when everyone switched from longboards to shortboards and things got more radical,” McCabe said. “In the ‘70s, in Rockaway and Long Beach, nobody lived there. I remember they shut down the boardwalk because it got so bad.”

By the beginning of this decade, the Rockaways and New York City in general were flourishing. The “bad old days” were long gone as crime rates began to drop and the city’s population began to rise again. New York’s surfing community also found itself enjoying the rebirth.

Boardwalk near Beach 90th Street, Summer 2013.

Boardwalk near Beach 90th Street, Summer 2013.

Young Brooklynites were heading to what has been dubbed the “Hipster Riviera” (or, worse, “Rockapulco”) as hip eateries like Rockaway Taco opened to cater to the hungry crowds peeling off the A train at Beach 90th Street. Surf shops like Boarders opened up, renting foam boards to the pasty, tattooed crowd from Kings County and Asian tourists who wanted to try and catch a wave.

Compared to the decrepitude of previous decades, the Rockaways began to reclaim some of its former glory. Its beaches were packed. Everyone was out floating around on surfboards, and, much to the chagrin of the old-timers, most of the newcomers were clueless. In the relaxed atmosphere of a weekend romp at the beach, it was all too easy to forget—or disregard— the fact that surfing has its own rules and code of conduct like any other organized sport.

“I’ve never seen it like this,” Rockaway long-boarder Richard Livsey told the New York Daily News in 2011. “If they came here and respected the culture it would be one thing, but they disregard the No. 1 rule in surfing: They drop in on you.”

But even bad surf etiquette wasn’t going to stem the Rockaways’ rising tide. Its renaissance benefitted nearly everyone on the peninsula. Reporters from the New York Times and New York magazine were showing up regularly to cover how the young and hip were finding their own version of the Hamptons off the A train.

It all seemed to be going so well. Then disaster struck.

Back in the garage on a brisk October evening, every slight imperfection, divot and bump on my unfinished surfboard was cast in sharp relief under the harsh fluorescent light.

I’d used an electric planer to bring the board down to the desired thickness, coating the floor in a thick layer of foam snow. A hand planer helped carve down the rough edges on the rails and smooth out the deck, which already had a rocker (or upturn) curling gently from each end. It was beginning to look like a surfboard, but still needed a lot of sanding. And then, of course, I got the bright idea to paint the damn thing.

No doubt, the board looked great. It sported a royal blue bottom wrapping around the rails, a cardinal red pinstripe and a white deck. It was a classic noserider that could have been shaped in 1960s Malibu.

But I’d used generic water-based spray paints, which betrayed my novitiate ignorance. As the viscous, vicious resin seeped into the board and began to harden, cracks, pimples, and bubbles began appearing on the bottom of the board—my beloved board—which now bore an unfortunate resemblance to a pubescent member of the Blue Man Group.

The next few days as the board dried were marked by sheer terror. Finally, I summoned the courage to see what the finished product looked like. Heartbreak. Dried cracks and rivets gave the deck the appearance of an electric blue surface of Mars and the feel of a nine-foot-long book of Braille.

Shaping and sanding in the garage.

Shaping and sanding in the garage.

I looked for a sledgehammer, a baseball bat or a sawed-off shotgun — anything to avenge my ruined board. But when my dad, who had been patiently observing my project for the better part of a year, handed me a palm sander and some 150-grit sandpaper and told me it was time to get to work, it felt true. The long recovery of sanding down and repainting was about to begin. Shapers never talked about this stage when they talked about the feel of a board, I thought bitterly for a moment. But perhaps it was a stage one could only discover during the actual process.

I leaned into my work. A fine dust rose as I smoothed down the bumps and evened out the rails. Hours later, I still wasn’t satisfied. When shapers talk about feel, this is also what they mean. I closed my eyes and ran my hands down the board trying to find any last imperfections to sand down. Knowing the board is key to successfully shaping it, but the beautiful paradox that all great shapers know is that at some point, you have to step away.

“I only do what’s necessary because there [are] so many steps and foam — as soon as you touch it, it starts going away,” late Hobie surfboards shaper Terry Martin told the Surfer’s Journal in 2010. “The least amount of steps I can use to get the board, the better.”

By midafternoon on October 29, 2012, it was already apparent that this wasn’t going to be a typical Atlantic hurricane.

Hurricane Sandy was bearing down on the New York metropolitan area, the eye of the storm on a track toward the Jersey Shore only 90 miles south of the city, and the Rockaway peninsula was slated to bear a heavy blow. The forecasts were accurate. Huge barrel waves roared up the beaches I had so recently become acquainted with, as a storm surge destroyed major sections of the boardwalk and ruined homes just blocks from the sand. An electrical fire ignited an entire section of the Breezy Point neighborhood on the far southern end of the peninsula and destroyed over one hundred homes. The train line connecting the Rockaways to the rest of the city was completely knocked out. The full moon’s high tide only compounded the destruction of the storm surge as massive flooding occurred where the ocean meets the bay. Fifty-three people died in the New York region alone, and countless more lives were ruined.

But this was only a small fraction of the destruction of Sandy. For those who were out on the peninsula the day after the storm, it is hard to express the horror that was left.

I was reporting in Breezy Point, where I met twenty-year-old Gene Duffy, whose family’s home was one of the many burned to the ground. She sat in the still, smoking rubble of her house’s foundations sifting through the ashes for something to save.

Tom Tully's house in Breezy Point; Oct. 30, 2012.

Tom Tully’s house in Breezy Point; Oct. 30, 2012.

Farther up the beach, I spoke to Tom Tully, a sixty-two-year-old bartender whose home was wrecked by the fourteen-foot storm surge that sent his back deck flying fifty yards away. The inside of his house looked as though it had gone through a blender with its top blown off. Golf clubs and family portraits were scattered on the front lawn.

But despite the debris and lost property, those people on the Rockaways, just hours after the storm, were confident that they would rebuild. After all, they had done it before.

“We’ll get back on our feet, we’re all good people,” Tully told me. “We’ve always pulled together for other people when they needed it. So now it’s our turn.”

Sure enough, the community that had helped quietly define Rockaway for so long, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, rose to the occasion. Some of the first boots on the ground to help rebuild the Rockaways were surfers.

Members of the Surfrider Foundations, Waves for Water and other surf-related non-profits, as well as rogue groups of wave riders, descended on the peninsula, offering food, clothing and their own sweat to help residents and businesses rebuild. The Rockaway Beach Surf Club began handing out meals and clothing before getting shut down by the city. Surfers who volunteered with Smallwater, a grassroots relief organization, began collecting donations for the effort; numerous Facebook-formed groups picked up sledgehammers and masks to tear down destroyed homes and start putting up new walls.

“Part of the reason I got my shop opened up by June was that surfers had come down to help out,” said Steve Stathis, owner of Boarders surf shop, which had major flood damage from Sandy.

“Could I have done it without the help? Probably, but it would have taken a lot longer, and I would have spent a lot more money.”

Sunset over the Rockaways, Manhattan in the distance.

Sunset over the Rockaways, Manhattan in the distance.

On a warm mid-autumn afternoon I paddle out at Beach 67th Street into a clean, three-foot swell kept alive by a light offshore. There are only about four other surfers out as sun begins to dip behind the high-rise apartments standing sentinel over the surf. We trade waves with ease as the smooth sets and dusk roll in together.

I paddle out on my newly shaped 9’2” noserider, cutting effortlessly across the glassy sea outside the break zone. As I wait for waves, I prop myself up into a sitting position and watch an aerial exploit taking place over the water. A small squadron of gulls skim the water’s surface looking for fish, while a flying “V” of Canadian geese makes its yearly migratory journey. A Virgin Airlines flight soars above it all after taking off from nearby JFK airport. It’s been a year since Sandy hit New York and while life is still far from normal, a few things, like the birds and the sea, never change.

On the peninsula, huge sandbags create a barrier that the Army Corp of Engineers says will prevent flooding, but currently only seems to prevent easy access to the beach for anyone lugging a single-fin longboard. Some shops have reopened — Rockaway Taco did steady business over the summer — while others still lay in disrepair or ruin. Some residents are coming back to fixed-up homes or new ones, while others are still living with relatives far from this sandy strip of land.

“There are literally thousands of families that are still not back here on the peninsula,” Stathis said. “I know one woman who is still sleeping on a chair because her house is not repaired.”

The Rockaways took a hit from which it may not fully recover, and whether it does or doesn’t, the peninsula will never be quite the same. But people are still surfing, more so than ever it seems. The beaches over the 2013 summer were crowded with veterans on dinged-up longboards, young rippers on florescent-painted thrusters, and first-timers on rented foam projectiles — all vying for that crappy-yet-delightful summer swell.

While autumn is always a mixed blessing on barrier islands — bringing both good surf and the threat of another Sandy— it’s once again my favorite time to be in the water. The crowds are gone, the water is still warm, and the surf picks up.

As a set approaches, I let the first two waves pass to my neighbors before swiftly paddling into the third wave. I feel the wave quicken and I glide down its face for a rare, clean right-hander, pulling a smooth bottom turn before tucking into its pocket. The last rays of the dying sun hit down the line as I walk toward my board’s nose and carefully throw the toes of my left foot over the front, hoping to never let go off that feel. That’s how the maxim goes: It’s all about feel.

headshot copyAndrew O’Reilly is a journalist who lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ESPN The Magazine, Fox News, and Hemispheres Magazine, among others. On a day with a good swell he can be found floating somewhere in the water off Beach 67th St. in the Rockaways.

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