Hot, humid and overwhelmingly muggy: the only way to survive summer in New York is with a good Frappuccino from Starbucks and a small, portable fan. On hotter days, training outside becomes impossible and therefore you are often forced to close yourself up in a gym.
So, I asked myself what could be a valid alternative to running along the East River, and risking that I pass out?
Well, I was surprised to discover the existence of a prolific and enthusiastic community of surfers right on the outskirts of Manhattan. Of course, we’re not talking about the spots that they have in Hawaii with its high waves, or the classic “surf trip” along the golden coasts of California, but the truth is that New Yorkers can choose to catch some waves while enjoying the sunrise or take the pressure off from the work day while sipping a beer at sunset. In other words, it’s the “briefcase and suit” version of the California dream.
The place we chose to test our skills could not be any other than Rockaway Beach, the beach known also by the Ramones, and that in 1977 sang, “It’s not hard, not far to reach/ we can hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach”.
In fact, you can reach this location in about an hour from Manhattan for the cost of a subway ride.
Located in Queens, it has recently become a very popular destination, especially by those who seek an escape from the frenetic pace of city life. In the last two years, industry newspapers and magazines have dedicated themselves to the expansion of the surfing community in this borough.
Of course, don’t imagine the sunsets of Costa Rica or the sparkling sunrises of Bali — we are far from the peaceful oases of Central America or Indonesia. But the will of New York surfers manages to go beyond the scenery of the outskirts — on the other hand, we are talking about the citizens of one of the most eclectic and tough metropolises in the world.
To learn more about Rockaway’s history, we relied on Frank Cullen, one of the first people to open up a school on this beach, the New York Surf School. Frank is the symbol of how varied a group of surf lovers can be: a real estate agent in the area, his childhood memories are all tied to the excursions along the coast. His words take us back to the 1950s, when only the locals knew of this little oasis of serenity. For Frank, Rockaway means home: “We would get out of school and immediately we’d head here, to enjoy a few hours of freedom”.
But it’s Danny – his right hand – who talks to us about what it means to surf just outside the City: “I was born in Colombia but raised in Florida. About 13 years ago, I moved to New York and almost by chance I began working for Frank. Each season has its own characteristics – in the summer the waves are smaller, three feet at the most; in the fall it’s more fun: the water is still warm, but the waves are slightly higher. But if you really love this sport, you have to come in winter: the waves are much higher, and the beach is covered in snow. It’s really something incredible”.
According to local legend, surfing at Rockaway began when Duke Kahanamoku, the Hawaiian swimming Olympian and father of modern surf, found himself on the beach. From that moment on, this sport began to gain a large following amongst the very young residents in the area, and around 1960, the first permanent surf schools were opened.
Unfortunately, the glory days of the beach and consequently that of surfing in New York began to decline around the 1970s due to senseless social policies and urban planning, which turned the area into a type of ghetto, and where it was easy to score some heroine and find company for a few dollars on the subway. And just like that, there remained very little of the surfers who were once trendy, and the carefreeness that followed them. Rockaway’s glory days had been forgotten, and that’s how it would remain for years.
But if there’s something that we can only learn from the Americans, it is resilience, or rather, the capacity to lift themselves up from any situation, independently of how desperate it may seem.
Just like the waves along the coast in winter that they are so proud of, Rockaway has come back to assert itself — at first softly, just like the gentle winds that lightly brush its coast in the morning, becoming always stronger — emblematic of a city’s will to take back a little gem that for so long has been neglected. We are far from the luxury of the Hamptons or some of the curated beaches on Long Island, but perhaps the beauty of Rockaway can be found right in its being an extension of Manhattan, a small, battered mecca for all those who want to savor a bit of freedom.
Surfing is just that: it’s multiculturalism, it is strength and gentleness, it’s waiting and adrenaline; you can be a banker or a taxi driver – the ocean does not make a distinction. Surfing is spirituality, whether it is practiced in the midst of polluted wilderness, or whether riding a wave means arriving by subway or leaving your patent leather shoes in the car.
“Surfing means making contact with yourself. You forget about everything. At any moment you can grab your board and be face-to-face with nature”, Danny tells us.
Perhaps it’s not enough to simply venture out on less touristy paths to get to know New York. Perhaps you have to dedicate some time in getting know its more authentic part – not too old to seem ancient, but not that young to be only trendy. After all, when the winds blow a little bit stronger, you can hear the gentle call of the ocean even on 5thAvenue. And so, all you need to do is put down that camera and take off for a little adventure.
Translation by Emmelina De Feo