The Surfers of Rockaway
When there are waves, Johnny Knapp is in the water by first light, often surfing for two hours before work at Mollusk Surf Shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He checks the weather report on the television the night before to determine weather conditions for the morning to come. Knapp is one of a rare breed of surfers who dare to ride New York’s winter waves.
“New York has some of the best surf on the East Coast,” said Knapp, 25. “But it doesn’t cross people’s minds. Surfing is in California. That’s it.”
Knapp surfs all over Long Island, but like many New York City residents, he also surfs at Rockaway Beach, Queens, a popular and dependable surf destination because of its accessibility by the subway and consistent wave breaks.
As popular as it is, surfing in Rockaway is a new trend. In 2005, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation designated the beach between Beach 87 and 91 Streets as a surfing beach, the first of its kind for the city. Prior to 2005, surfers were fined for being in the water.
“Surfing in New York City is non-conventional,” Knapp said. Compared to more established surf spots, the city lacks ideal surf conditions as well as a surf culture. Knapp said that because of this, surfing is that much more fulfilling and even mischievous. “It’s so wrong, but so right,” he added.Many surfers pointed out that winter is the best time to surf in New York. Northeasterly storms swing down from Canada and create large swells along the coast, particularly along the Rockaway shorline and jetty rocks. Winter brings a drop in temperature, stronger winds, and less sun, all of which draw fewer surfers to the water. “[Winter] separates the people who are willing to do anything to surf from the fair weathered,” said Steve Stathis, 66, owner of Boarders Surf Shop on Beach 92 Street in Rockaway. “In a couple months we’ll be surfing in the snow.” Stathis said that surfers have to get in the water when there are waves and that New York winter brings waves.
Rockaway conditions can be dangerous. “I’ve surfed a lot of places in the world and there is weird current at Rockaway,” Knapp said. On November 12, a 36-year-old beginner died alone at Rockaway after getting his leg caught around the strap on his surfboard and pushed towards the rock jetties. Knapp said that more people should be educated about the conditions at Rockaway. He said that surfers should always know what direction the wind is blowing before they even get in the water. “You’ve got to know the direction of the wind when you’re changing on the street,” he said.
Some outlets provide information to help surfers gauge weather conditions before getting in. Surfline.com helps provide information through written and video updates. Surfline keeps one of its New York cameras at Beach 90 Street to stream live coverage of wave conditions for local surfers. The site, which began as a call line in 1985 for surfers to check weather reports, has since become an online-only source for weather forecasts, surf reports and surfing news worldwide.According to Dennis Murphy, one of Surfline’s writers, Rockaway is one of the site’s most popular New York cameras. Murphy says he has seen an increasing number of year-round surfers at Rockaway over the past few years. One reason he suggests more people may be surfing in the winter is that wetsuit technology has improved and costs have dropped. More people may be able to afford them and embrace surfing during the winter season.
Steve Stathis said that Rockaway has become a more popular surf spot since his childhood in the 1970s. Now, over 120 surfers from around New York City keep their gear in Boarders Surf Shop’s lockers all year. “It’s a mixed bag,” Stathis said, ranging from “blue collared guys” to criminology lecturers.
Knapp said that this diversity is what makes surfing in New York unique. He prefers the city to a place where the “board, beach, scene culture” is a reinforced stereotype. Waves in New York aren’t as large as those on the west coast, but New York surfers have embraced the salty Atlantic, appreciating it for what it is and what it continues to bring them. “I feel like we’re slowly realizing what we have,” Knapp said.