Surf the City

When I started this story-before local grocery stores in New York City sold out of flashlights, batteries, and bottled water in anticipation of Irene-surfing in the Big Apple remained somewhat under the radar. In a city where sunbathing often means spreading a towel on a chunk of concrete pier off the West Side Highway, riding the waves seems an unlikely pursuit. And yet as storm hysteria swept the city, surfers took center stage.

Mayor Bloomberg gave a direct warning to New York’s surfing community on Saturday morning, warning them not to head into the water. The day before, the New York Daily News covered the surf scene at Rockaway Beach-the city’s only designated surfing area-as thrill seekers took advantage of a swelling sea and uncharacteristically large waves.

If hurricane Irene didn’t thrust local surfing into the spotlight, then certainly news of an upcoming pro surfing championship did. This is what initially sparked my curiosity. I sat down on the subway one day and saw a tidal wave looming above an elderly man’s head. Plastered to the wall of the downtown A train, there was a poster advertising the Quiksilver Pro New York surfing competition, which begins this weekend in Long Beach, NY. While the competing surfers will come from all over the world, the existence of a major competition nearby got me thinking, what does surf culture look like in NYC?

I started in SoHo where a shop on Crosby called Saturdays deals in coffee, clothing and surfboards. Of course, Saturdays isn’t only for surfers. Walk by on a weekday afternoon and you may see sales associates from nearby shops ducking in for a drink, or a group of chefs from the adjacent French Culinary Institute lounging on the bench outside. However, one surfer you will see there is co-owner Josh Rosen, who has been surfing for 20 years.I asked Josh what characterizes New York surf culture and he mentioned its less visual side. “It’s not as exterior in New York,” he said. “You don’t see cars with boards on top or surfers walking down the street in board shorts. A guy in a suit may be a surfer or a gal in a dress and heels heading to her PR job.” I realized this could be why the local surf scene has eluded me for so long. Another reason? Most New Yorkers are barely waking up by the time Josh and his friends are peeling off their wetsuits. They often meet at the shop at 4am, drive out to Rockaway and catch some waves before heading back to Manhattan so they can be at their desks at 9:30am.

Next, I hopped on the L train to check out another city surf shop, Mollusk, which sits near the quite un-surfable Williamsburg waterfront in Brooklyn. There I caught up with store manager Johnny Knapp, who further explained the qualities of a New York surfer. “We’ve got a tougher skin here,” he said. “In California they want the wave at the end of the street. We have to take cars and subways to get to the wave.”

Before stopping at Mollusk I had noticed a kitschy spot in Williamsburg called Surf Bar on North 6th Street. I couldn’t wait to ask Johnny about it and secretly hoped we’d head over there to dig our toes in the bar’s sandy floor (real sand…in the city!). But when I mentioned Surf Bar he only smiled and said, “Oh I’ve never stepped foot in there.” I then remembered that Josh Rosen had warned me about theme bars-they usually don’t draw the true surfing crowd. A better bet for a surf hangout, he said, is Epstein’s Bar on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

I got a taste for NY surfing’s more edgy side, when I chatted with Epstein’s owner, Pat Conlon. “Pat the Rat,” as he was called growing up (he was a water rat from the beginning), was born and raised in Rockaway. When I asked if he’d be checking out the Quiksilver competition this weekend, he said, “Sure, I’ll be there. But I don’t stand in line, I don’t sit in the cheap seats, and I don’t pay for shit.”

After we cleared up his seating preference and established that I’m not a hipster (Pat is not a big fan, so of course I vehemently denied it), we got to talking about surfing in Rockaway. “It’s a mixed bag of nuts,” he said. “Visitors from all over the world surf there-men, women, old and young.” And like Johnny Knapp, Pat took a certain amount of pride in the toughness of a Rockaway surfer. “I’ve earned it,” he said. “I’ve been out there in the winter with Vaseline on my face so that it doesn’t freeze.”

I had to see Rockaway for myself, so that weekend I took the A train from Manhattan. Immediately I gained appreciation for guys like Pat who surf year round because I couldn’t even get my Manhattan friends to venture out on a sunny day in August, let alone in the dead of winter. “Rockaway? It’s too far. And what if it rains?” one friend moaned. So, I went alone. The trip to the Beach 90th St. stop was actually a relaxing one on a Sunday morning. It took just over an hour and the whole time I thought of a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti in which he travels all over the country, but always pines for “a Sunday subway for some Far Rockaway of the heart.”

At the Rockaway Boulevard stop two guys carrying boards got on and a gaggle of girls squealed excitedly, “Oh my god! Surfers!” I followed the guys off and watched them maneuver their boards through the subway turnstile-definitely not a skill required for surfing in Hawaii.

Once I got to Rockaway Beach, the surf scene became very apparent, very quickly. On my way to the boardwalk I passed Boarders Surf and Skate Shop where you can store your board and take a shower before jumping on the subway. The shop also rents boards ($35 for a half day or $50 for full day) and can arrange for a lesson.

On the boardwalk I discovered plenty of good bites for surfers looking to refuel-arepas at Caracas Rockaway, fish tacos at Rockaway Taco, and Thai food at Ode to the Elephants. There’s also Thai Rock just up the street from the boardwalk on 92nd. The restaurant sits on Jamaica Bay and has live music at night. But a Rockaway must, according to Pat Conlon, is a frozen piña colada with a floater of rum on top at Connolly’s on 95th Street.

Finally, I made it out to the beach to see the main attraction-the surfers. When I saw the dozens of heads rhythmically bobbing in the water and the artistic turns of a surfer riding a wave, I was surprised to find the sport as graceful as dance performances I’ve scene at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center. There was no doubt in my mind-surf culture is alive and well and very much a part of NYC.

The Quiksilver Pro New York competition takes place September 1-15 in Long Beach, NY.

[flickr image via jarito]