It all went wrong on the first wave I caught at Rockaway Beach 90th. The thick rounded rail of my rented fish failed to grip the steep face of the chest-high wave. The surfboard was pulled up and over the falls just after I got to my feet.
I tumbled off backward and the same rail hit me hard in the shins before I somersaulted across the sandy bottom.
My surf day began two hours earlier, on the upper Upper East Side of Manhattan. Under warm sunshine, I walked two blocks north of my brother’s 41st floor apartment and descended well-worn concrete steps into the grimy and bustling subway, where I caught the first of four trains that would take me to New York City’s surfing mecca, Rockaway Beach.
At the second station, the journey became confusing. Not for the first time, Google Maps told me to head toward “Someplace” but the signs on the trains and platform listed only “Somewhere” and “Somewhere Else.” And not for the last time, I asked the nearest random stranger which train went to “Someplace.”
Contrary to rumour, not only are New Yorkers not rude and not unfriendly, they are generally quite helpful. Everyone I asked to point me in the right direction did so nicely, and a few even struck up a friendly conversation afterward. With their assistance and for only USD $2.75, I rode the 6 to the 4 to the A to the S.
On the A train, which rose from underground into daylight to cross Jamaica Bay, I spotted a surfboard at the other end of a mostly-empty car. It belonged to a girl named Tom who was travelling with her mother and two younger brothers to take a surf lesson in another part of Rockaway. She started surfing in the warm sea off Israel before her family moved to New York.
The trek to the Atlantic Ocean and the bother of carrying her surfboard on the subway weren’t enough to deter her from continuing the sport.
An hour and a half after leaving New York City, I arrived in Rockaway. Although I’d been forewarned, the town’s urban-ness still surprised me. The train station was tucked underneath an elevated freeway that blocked out the sun.
On the street, lined with red-brick shops, apartments, and odd bits of trash, a blond woman carrying a shortboard asked if I knew where to find a surf shop. We walked together to Boarders where I would rent a surfboard and Gentry could buy a leash.
I left her at the shop to walk the last two blocks for a surf check. The waves were waist- to chest-high, breaking steep and shallow, mostly closed out but with occasional shoulders. If I’d had the pick of my quiver, and if it wouldn’t have cost nearly as much as the airfare to bring my surfboard, I would’ve taken out my 5’4” shortboard. Alas, back at Boarders, the best rental they could offer was a 6’4” NSP fish.
After putting on my thin neoprene leggings and rashguard in one of Boarder’s outside changing rooms, I stowed my gear bag in the community locker. The shop also offers individual locker rentals to city surfers who don’t want to schlep their boards and gear on public transit. I walked back to the beach with a female bodyboarder who shared one of those lockers with friends.
When we reached the sand, she pointed at a short rock groin where a tight pack of surfers vied for a left-breaking wave. “Everyone surfs at the rocks because that’s the best wave,” she said.
Until I got used to the rental board, I stayed away from the thickest part of the crowd, which numbered about thirty. After that inauspicious first wave, I got the fish under better control and crept closer to the main peak in search of better rides.
Gentry was boldly surfing the 21ºC water in a bikini. She lamented the crowd, which was a mix of all abilities and ages, from old dudes on longboards to twenty-something rippers to beginners on ubiquitous Wavestorms.
Between waves, I waited in murky brown-green water and looked back at the shore. Mid-rise brick apartment buildings stood behind the street that ran alongside the beach. A concrete “boardwalk” snaked between the road and low sand dunes bordered by a fence that appeared to be designed to keep sand and perhaps snow from drifting.
The boardwalk and signage were fresh, newly built after Hurricane Sandy, with minor construction still underway. Fortunately, the noises of heavy machinery were doused by the sound of waves breaking on the beach.
Although I didn’t charge the main peak (maybe next time), after several fun rides, I decided to take a wave in and get something to eat. I rinsed in the outdoor shower at Boarders and tried to imagine repeating the session in January, with air and water temperatures near freezing.
I’m not sure I could do it. New York’s winter surfers have my great respect.
The brightly-colored and cheery Rockaway Beach Surf Club was a short walk away, almost under the elevated freeway and subway tracks. I ordered fresh pineapple juice and plantain chips at cleverly-named Tacoway Beach and sat at an outdoor picnic table.
The Club also includes a bar festooned with surfboards and a bank of surf lockers. It’s a great hangout for the local surfing tribe.
My hair had almost dried by the time I boarded the S train for the start of my return trip to New York City. This time I navigated the subway system like a pro, smoothly connecting to the A and the 4.
But I decided to walk the last ten blocks to my brother’s apartment, and felt like a complete tourist when New Yorkers swarmed past as I waited at a street corner for the “walk” sign. Apparently “don’t walk” doesn’t hold much sway for natives.
I arrived at the apartment in plenty of time to watch a lovely sunset over Central Park, with a new appreciation for the dedicated surfers of New York City.
A New Yorker’s favourite spot? Rockaway Beach of course