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.