Mushballs! Riding the Big Apple's little waves

Surfing does not find the New Yorker. The New Yorker must find surfing.

Surfing Rockaway once put wave riders in serious legal danger. "They'd actually send the chopper in once in a while."
  • Surfing Rockaway once put wave riders in serious legal danger. "They'd actually send the chopper in once in a while."

"I caught that one! And I nailed the turn too! I am so stoked!"

"I caught that one! And I nailed the turn too! I am so stoked!"

Contrary to popular belief, there is surf to be had off New York City. Just as one can purchase a bagel (or passable facsimile) in San Diego, one can ride a wave off Queens. It's not the six-foot, sun-kissed, dolphin-dappled roller found on the West Coast, just as the California bagel is not a boiled, hand-stirred circle of dough imbibed with centuries of Talmudic mumblings as are those on the Upper West Side. But it is a wave. A short, choppy ride with a fat lip to get over — one the upper echelon of surfers can carve to pieces with fantastic results — but the thrill is there. Tenement-style high-rises flitting past in the distance, gentle stillness giving way to a rushing floor of white foam, the New York surfer coasts (or bellies) in to a shore littered with jellyfish and a gaggle of waterlogged friends cheering their heads off because, by God, that was a good one.

The East has a different pulse — different weather, different vegetation, different nightlife, different people — and this extends to surfing. Surfing does not find the New Yorker; the New Yorker must find surfing, as it is not as prevalent as it is out in, say, Venice, California. New York beach culture, at least for those in the outlying boroughs, consists of umbrellas, tanning oil, boom boxes, and a day-trip pass for the LIRR. Few log serious shoreside hours, and even fewer make it into the water past their ankles. No, the New Yorker is a beach observer rather than participant. New York surfers are rare — though less rare than two years ago — and a strange sight to the unfamiliar, zipped up tight in their sealskin wetsuits, rubbing wax across the surface of a tanker-sized stick. It takes a special love — insanity? obsession? — to hoist a nine-foot board over your shoulder and stumble onto the A train for the long ride, to load up the car and head for Atlantic Avenue, to brave the winter freeze for nor'easter beauties, and these diehards -- all ages, races, and genders -- have risen to the challenge with one thing in common: They are stoked. To the core.

"Rockaway people are a different breed," Billy Moore tells me. The sky is gray as he slides the SUV into the dead-end cul-de-sac on 132nd Street, dune rising to meet the clouds. "When I was in Cancún, this older couple was at a restaurant me and my friends had walked into, and we wouldn't know them from a hole in the wall, but they were, like, 'Hey, you guys from Rockaway?' We were, like, 'yeah,' and they were, like, 'I could tell just by looking at you.'"

Houses slide by, lawns tidy, some dotted with children's toys or outdoor furniture. Moore, at the wheel, is blocked from view by the tip of his wood-veneer longboard, the nose of which pokes between the driver's and passenger's seats. "Are you sure you can surf here?" I ask him. He nods his head. "They rarely ever give you trouble," he replies, meaning the lifeguards, bleach-haired boys and girls who sit high aloft in their chairs, eyes shielded by wraparound shades. Their word -- most of the time -- is law. But Moore seems undeterred. This beach, he explains, is usually empty, "because there's no parking." He pulls the SUV against the sidewalk and parks, hopping out to get the boards.

Moore has been surfing here since age seven, an early beginning he attributes to the abundance of surfers who lived on his block. Accessibility made it easy; his house was so close to the beach that he could lean out his parents' bedroom window to get a view of the shoreline. "At six in the morning I'd be tippy-toeing in," he recalls, laughing, "and I'd wake my parents up to look out and see if there's waves." Then he'd be off and running to tell his buddies, one in particular whose room was, to a teenaged boy, conveniently accessible by a 20-foot fence. "I used to climb the fence, and I'd yell into his window, 'There's waves,'" Moore says, boyhood enchantment all over his face, "but then he'd get up and he'd start yelling it and then the whole house would be up, and everybody'd be running out of his house to go surfing." From six in the morning until seven at night, Moore and his friends, dubbed the Surf Rats by a pair of lifeguards, would take to the waves until their stomachs called them out of the water for dinner. "We'd go in the water at six in the morning, and we wouldn't come out until six or seven at night," says Moore, "[and] if we did, it was just to sit on the beach and eat a sandwich or something and go right back in. The [lifeguards] could never get us out of the water. Even when it was crowded and they wanted us to move over we just...wouldn't move. But they were really cool about it."

Surfing stuck with him. In his younger days, Moore braved the New York winter and, clad in a thick coating of neoprene, took to the water mid-January. With everyone but the true-blues gone, leaving only a handful of brave souls, the beach would be his for the taking. Thirty-degree water did not deter him. "You know when you bite into an ice cream and your head just freezes?" he asks rhetorically. "That was normal. You would try and pick and choose your waves so your head never went under. When you get hit with a cold wave, your adrenaline's going so you don't feel it, but when you go under, completely submerge your body, when you wipe out, that's when it was cold."

Since his surf-rat days, Moore has expanded his surfing horizons and tackled waves on other coasts, including a trip to Costa Rica that was nearly his last. Surfing with a bunch of friends, Moore, then in his 20s, dropped in on a rough wave that dragged him under and, as he puts it, "caught him in the soup." Despite the excitement of exotic locales, Rockaway remains his home base. "The surfing community in Rockaway...everybody's really cool," he says, nodding his head in silent affirmation. "Everybody says hi to you; everybody says, 'Hey, what's going on, how are the waves?' If you're driving down the block with a board and somebody's coming past you the other way, you may get a honk or something like 'Is it up or down?' I wouldn't say that everybody's tight, but everybody at least gives you the 'Hi.'" And perhaps that's part of why he's stayed and is here to initiate the younger generation into the water, which is, after all, the day's mission.

The back door to the SUV opens, and Keira Frawley, Moore's nine-year-old niece, hops out. Clad in a pink floral bathing suit and a blue shirt bearing the words "Girls Rock," Frawley is freckle-faced and seemingly unafraid; today is her first day on the waves. With her mother Barbara, little sister Emma, and me, the stranger with the notebook, as her cheering section, she and Moore are to paddle out in tandem and see what they can catch.

Our crew hits the sand, clears the dune, and stops to gaze at the ocean view in front of us. The water is the color of slate, waves rolling in dark and strong. Mrs. Frawley's confidence is beginning to waver, but her daughter is ready to go. She follows her uncle into the churning water, heads bent together, information those of us on land cannot hear passing between them. Mrs. Frawley readies the camcorder.

As they approach the good surf, Frawley goes belly-down on the gigantic longboard. It dwarfs her, as Frawley is not yet five feet; the board easily passes nine feet. With Moore at her side, she clears the crest of an incoming break in a spray of water.

"That's too far!" Mrs. Frawley shouts from the shore. "Billy! Bill-eee! That's too far!"

Her words are eaten in the wind, which is blowing back to shore. There is no way her brother can hear her. But they seem fine out in their spot, Frawley atop the board like a papoose, Moore beside her, coaching.

But Mrs. Frawley looks as if she may be worse for wear. She grips the camera with one hand and my shoulder with the other, tensing as Moore pushes her daughter up and over a breaking wave, nose of the board rising to an almost vertical position. Frawley slips, plunging under, but resurfaces and scrambles back up on the board in moments. Still, to a mother, this is torture.

"Oh, Rosa," Mrs. Frawley groans, camcorder tilted at half-mast, "I can't watch this. I'm going to have a heart attack." She turns back to the water. "Bill-eee!" she tries again. Nothing.

But when the wave comes, both Moore and Frawley are ready. Instructing his charge with words inaudible, Moore instills in his niece one final piece of advice before shoving the board full-force forward. The timing is perfect. The wave launches the board -- and Frawley -- toward the shore, and the youngster takes it in on her stomach, skidding along effortlessly. The ride, by my standards, is a long one, taking her right up to the sand, after which she stands and looks proud, if not a touch surprised.

"How was it?" I have to ask, after her cheering section -- a few neighbors, on a beachside walk, have joined our group -- gives her appropriate applause.

And Frawley, the picture of nonchalance, gives an airy response. "Cool," she replies, walking toward the board and her uncle, who has come in to offer his congratulations.

"The lifeguards know," Adam "Two-Dog" Sand tells me, "you do not whistle Two-Dog out of the water."

Sitting at his dining table, Sand toys with a Marlboro. He does not look like a smoker. He is small but muscular, well tanned and bright-eyed. A tattoo of a puff-cheeked Zeus blowing a jet of air into a riotous sea adorns his left arm, and a bear claw charm -- a testament to his interest in Native American art -- hangs from his neck. He lights the Marlboro and tells me that, just months ago, his doctors were astounded to find that he is, indeed, a pack-a-day smoker. His doctors were also, in fact, astounded to find that he was alive.

Sand arrived in Rockaway in 1999, settling into his modest property just across the main drag from the water, and quickly and seamlessly entered local life -- despite the odds, as he paints a picture of a very different Rockaway of yore. "I've been coming out here since I had my first motorcycle when I was a kid," he says, "and back then it didn't matter what color you were or anything. If you weren't from the neighborhood, they didn't want you out here. Even socializing amongst ANYBODY. Bars or anything. This was a tough, TOUGH Irish neighborhood, and they didn't want ANY outsiders." But Sand, who is personable and outgoing, managed it and then some. Known by friends as "Two-Dog," an identifying moniker taken from his constant companions, two big, ruddy lab/rottweiler mixes, Sand was somewhat of a surfing latecomer and subsequent wave-riding prodigy. An avid fisherman all his life, he knew the ins and outs of the New York tides before he even set foot on a surfboard. An active guy both mentally and physically, Sand was popular and well known, as he is today on the beach. King of his crew in inner Queens, he grew restless with his home and set his sights on escape. This need drew him to Rockaway, which, in turn, drew him to surfing.

Six years ago, at age 32, Sand took his first wave and, he reports, did swimmingly. A veteran of the Queens College swim team, he was already well versed in the basics. "Some of the guys that taught me I was able to surpass," he says, without a trace of bravado. "Not to toot my own horn, but I am a fish in the water. This is what I'm meant to do." He found himself hooked and, along with a team of buddies, tackled the winter storms with zeal. Covered from head to toe in neoprene, the friends made it past the crushing shore break to the lineup, leaving brave but less adept souls to be "denied" by the oncoming waves and forced to watch from the ice-covered sand. "There are days when they get to be 25 feet out here," Sand says. "You can see it carves out sections of the beach to where there's, like, a 7-foot cliff drop-off." But the size and power -- not to mention the cold -- of the water did not deter him. "I have been pounded by 15 footers, 18 footers," he tells me nonchalantly, "pummeled, face first, right through the water into the sand below. You have to know to take your breath and then take your lumps."

And lumps they have taken. Surfing Rockaway once put wave riders in serious legal danger. "They'd actually send the chopper in once in a while," Sand recalls, referring to the open-hatch helicopters the NYPD periodically flies over the shoreline. "[They'd say,] 'You guys have to get out of the water.' Two of my friends had their boards absconded and got tickets, which they fought in court and really didn't have to pay much.... Even the local newspaper got behind us, and they were on our side. Even the guy that owns the bar uptown made T-shirts with Felix the Cat or somebody surfing on it that says -- with a question -- 'Surfing is a crime?' You know, like, 'How dare you!'"

But the energetic "Two-Dog" has not ridden his board, a single-fin Phoenix custom, in months. While riding his Harley with friends in early May, he hit one of the crater-sized potholes New York is known for and took a major header, one that left him with skull fractures, spinal damage, and profound memory loss. "I don't know how deep the pothole was, but it was very deep," he describes, pulling what he can from his dim recollections, "and the bike just stopped -- I was doing maybe 25 miles an hour, 20 miles an hour, not going fast and, due to the fact that I was wearing the helmet doesn't matter, my head struck the handlebars and the bike just stopped where it was and I was launched, apparently, 40 feet or so, landing on my skull. And my tailbone...The bike, apparently, had righted itself up almost as if a ghost rider was on it, and it ran into a pole or a no-parking sign, I don't remember 'cause it's a black hole in my memory." The impact was so bad EMS actually lost him for a few minutes, Sand's heart in flatline, leaving him legally dead. Before reviving, he had what he describes as an experience "upstairs," recalling a heavenly scene in which he was told, simply, that it wasn't his time. "I ended up in a coma, in the hospital," he says soberly, "and I somehow made it through." He pauses. "I tell people, 'I'm not upset. I'll be back in the lineup before you know it.'"

In the aftermath of the accident, Sand has had to put a lot of his life on hold. With a strict regimen of physical therapy, he is allowed minimal time to swim and no time to surf. His ultimate goal, a Mavericks or Jaws tow-in session, will have to wait, as well as his plan to paddleboard to New Jersey for charity. "It's about a 13-nautical-mile paddle," he says. "I will have a big paddleboard, maybe 16 or 17 feet, made, and I have a friend who will be able to clear it with the Coast Guard -- or not, he knows no matter what I'm doing this -- 'cause it does cut across the shipping lanes. He owns several boats that will form a U shape around the people that will be with me that want to do this for whatever good cause we deem. We're going to figure this out. And it was my idea; I asked him, he's a local guy from here, lived here his whole life, I said, 'Has anybody ever done that?' He says, 'No, I've never even thought about it.' I said, 'Well, you know I'm going to do [it].' He goes, 'I know you're going to do it, I know you're capable.' He's a well-to-do guy, he's all behind me. I said, 'You start making your calls.'"

Katrina Del Mar's beach encampment is not hard to find. A cluster of short-haired, well-tanned girls loll on a beach blanket while a bikini-clad duo wrestle with lawn chairs. Tattoos peek out from under shoulder straps and waistbands. Books ranging from Geek Love to how-to books on chakra healing sit spine-up beside their tanning owners. And two surfboards, one yellow with age, the other bright white and new, lie side by side in the sand.

They notice me at the same time I notice them. Sarah Greenwood, lead singer and guitarist for New York punk band GSX and Del Mar's girlfriend, waves her hand aloft. "Rosah-h-h-h-h-h!" she calls, fist raised in the universal symbol for "rock on."

Del Mar is crouched in the sand, sanding epoxy ding-all from the bottom of her baby, the yellowed, ancient but venerable Ron Jon. She gives a wave and "Hello" and continues sanding as I "ooooh" over the board.

Del Mar, a longtime New York photographer and filmmaker, turned her sights -- and her camera -- on surfing two years ago. "I was hanging out [on the beach] with a couple photographer/surfers, and they suggested I film them surfing," she explains, and the idea for Surf Gang came to her. Her 2000 feature, Gang Girls 2000, was, in part, the inspiration. "It was kind of an experiment to try to make a film," she explains. "[I] shot it all on super 8; it's about the antics of the four major girl gangs of New York City. It's fiction, though I showed it in Europe and the people were, like, 'So, these gangs, you were friends with them?'" She grins.

Surf Gang has a similar premise, following a ragtag bunch of board-riding street toughs -- all girls -- who find themselves in trouble when they beat up the wrong guy. Forced to flee their home break to evade the law, they take off in search of surf and shelter and find themselves on the ritzy shores of East Hampton, where they must do battle with a rival troupe of rich-bitch riders. The film will feature a heavily punk rock soundtrack, including original songs by Greenwood's GSX. The movie promises to be a wild ride. Think Endless Summer meets a much cooler Xena: Warrior Princess. Watch out, because Gidget's pierced her nose and dyed her hair purple.

Somewhere during the filming of the movie, Del Mar picked up the sport herself.

"I was hanging out with this guy Dennis [Murphy] in East Hampton, and he said...I don't know. I was watching him surf, and he said, 'Wanna try?' and I said 'Yeah,' and he let me use his board and I just paddled right out, and as soon as I came out of the water, he said, 'Oh, you're a lifer.' I thought he was joking." But one diehard knows another. A year later, Del Mar has set up her own beachside digs along with fellow female surf buddies and is a regular in the Rockaway lineup.

While Del Mar sands her board, the rest of us hit the water. In the group is Adrian, the owner of the recording studio where Greenwood recently finished cutting her album, riding an eight-foot fun board, and pal Janine, an avid surfer Del Mar met while working on Surf Gang, who's got a blue tri-fin longboard tucked under her arm. We push past the whitewash, dodge a few small but powerful waves, and make it to the lineup. Sitting on our boards, we float and wait, watching as Del Mar paddles up on the Ron Jon, grinning.

It's a long wait, during which there are many false starts and mini wipeouts. Adrian, who has surfed in Costa Rica and other exotic locales, moves toward the jetty to get a better ride. We spot him standing aloft, coasting down a few decent peaks. Back at our spot, we paddle for waves that peter out or carry us only a few feet before rolling sneakily away. "Mushballs!" Janine shouts at them, but soon she catches a nice ride in and comes back triumphant. "I caught that one!" she says. "And I nailed the turn too! I am so stoked!" Later, as I slide in on my body board, I turn to see her beside me, crouched low with a look of intense concentration on her face, skimming in like a pro.

Del Mar takes the next one, returning with a positive report. Greenwood, standing at the shoreline with some of the other landlubbers, witnessed the ride and gave her long-distance approval. "I'm so glad she got to see me catch one," Del Mar beams, sitting back on the Ron Jon, glowing from sun and success. Greenwood and the gang wave.

When the surf goes flat, we head in to throw ourselves on the sand in exhaustion. After a break for smooching (Del Mar) and sunblock (Janine), the two hit the water again. The tide has shifted, providing a decent few sets, and Del Mar is all over them. On the first big wave she catches, she is up on her feet, taking a good ride before the wave drops out. Undeterred, she grabs another one, hopping up yet again. She has, without a doubt, landed the waves of the day.

As the sun sets over the water, we finally call it quits, taking our last rides in. Del Mar and Janine carry their dripping boards over to the embankment where Greenwood holds court from her chair. We laze about for a while in the waning light before walking the three blocks to Del Mar's apartment under a spectacular sky.

The beach pad is a cozy little spot, walls painted a soft, comforting blue. Simply furnished with a single table, futon couch, and several sleeping pallets, it exudes an atmosphere of relaxation. A handmade shell mobile clunks in a sweetly tuneless way, keeping odd time with the slow strains of guitar emanating from the DVD player, the soundtrack to a super 8 surf movie titled, ironically, Surf Movie, which Del Mar has put on for us to watch while she rinses off. By the television are a few swatches of painted canvas depicting beach and beachside scenes in muted tones of green, brown, blue, and gray; by the door is a gallery of surf and hang-out photos pasted up in rows.

The sun sets out the window, and we pile into the car for dinner at an Italian clam bar, a real treat. After a last bite of shrimp and linguini, Del Mar turns to Greenwood. "You're going to have to drive home, honey. I'm zombified." "Food coma," I suggest, then amend. "Food and surf coma." Del Mar nods; we are, so to speak, on the same wavelength.

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