One frosty morning in March, as I slid out of bed before sunrise and began squeezing into a thick, damp-at-the-edges wet suit and heavy boots that smelled of death, I wondered, “How did I end up here?” Of course, I know how I ended up, at 50, in a tiny, land’s-end bungalow living a life I wouldn’t have predicted or recognized just five years ago — even if I’m not completely sure why. But it still surprises me sometimes that I threw over the kaleidoscope of homegrown boutiques, Victorian streetscapes, wine bars and artisanal pickles that is Brooklyn for surfing in Rockaway Beach.
But then, on a reporting assignment, I happened upon Ditch Plains in Montauk one sunny afternoon five years ago and was mesmerized by what I saw: dozens of men and women sliding lazily through knee-high waves, practically dancing the length of their surfboards. I watched for an hour, leaving the sand with the beginnings of a sunburn and an inkling that I might want to do that, too.
That first stirring would have probably never led anywhere — as with so many potential pursuits I kept at bay over the years — except for the little yellow house I saw as I left the beach, the handwritten “For Rent” sign in the window jumping out at me as if it were flashing neon.
“Kismet!” I thought, a sense that grew stronger when the house turned out to be surprisingly affordable and free the week I had off. I was divorced and childless and still trying to figure out, among many things, how to vacation on my own, and this struck me as ideal — especially once I roped in an also-divorced friend to share the expenses and the adventure.
Two months later, I was back, waist-deep in cold water with an instructor, wrestling with a gigantic soft-top surfboard and the dawning understanding of just how far I was from being like those wave dancers I’d seen. Sore and exhausted, I tried over and over to haul my lumbering body from a prone position into something approximating a surfing stance, only to land in the water. And yet, from the fleeting instants I managed to get to my feet, I was in love with that feeling of grace and speed and power and freedom, like tapping some force of the universe.
My progression from flapping neophyte to fully fledged — though often still-flapping — member of the city’s surfing community was hardly linear, even though, like so many of life’s chapters, it can seem that way now. I had been chafing at the edges of an ostensibly successful but conventional life for years, feeling vaguely dissatisfied but not sure with what, and, I can see now, unconsciously laying the groundwork for a breakout.
But what started as a diversion, a leisure activity to help fill my empty hours, became a kind of organizing principle, one that would guide my choices and ultimately bring me much more — strength, joy, anguish, understanding, community, disaster, even love — than I could have ever imagined.
“Hey, how you doing?” a man in a black wet suit called out as he crested the dune and hustled toward me on a cold, gray, windswept morning in 2010. He was neither young nor tremendously athletic-looking, and he spoke in a rapid-fire staccato redolent of old Brooklyn, directing me down to the beach. There I found the other student who had made it out that day and an instructor, a wiry, no-nonsense fellow who had been in the Army but was getting a graduate degree in theater, standing near the boards and a pile of neoprene gear.
I didn’t know a thing about New York surfing — that Rockaway had been home to a vibrant, if outlaw, scene in the 1960s, with talented riders who drew sponsorships from coveted California brands like Hobie. Or that the sport exploded there in the 1940s as World War II veterans returned from being stationed in California or Hawaii with the heavy longboards they picked up there. Or that all the way back in the early 1900s, Duke Kahanamoku, the legendary Hawaiian who was a three-time Olympic swimming champion and is considered the father of modern surfing, put on an exhibition in the waters of Rockaway Beach.
But after my time in Montauk, I figured there had to be someplace closer to the city where I could take lessons, and tooling around online one night, I came across an outfit called New York Surf School, which taught near the Beach 67th Street stop of the A train.
It had just stopped raining by the time I arrived that first morning. The summer season had ended, and there were no concessions or bathrooms there in the shadow of a partly completed housing development called Arverne by the Sea. That long-delayed urban renewal project plopped clusters of New Urbanist homes reminiscent of “The Truman Show” on the once-vacant lots snaking between the elevated train trestle and the boardwalk that hugged the coastline.
We suited up in the sand and headed in, me on an 11-foot soft-top surfboard that I came to think of as the big green monster. It would take almost a year of riding the A from my apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant out to Rockaway on weekends to step down to the school’s 10-foot board, but that day I actually stood up and surfed a few real waves.
I had never been particularly athletic, and it was becoming clear that if I was going to try to shoehorn my long femurs, skinny ankles and relatively weak upper body into a sport to which they weren’t well suited, I needed to get stronger and more flexible.
So I started working out with a trainer twice a week, every week, an intensity I had never maintained before. By the time spring rolled round, I was feeling as fit as I ever had.
My weekends, which, after the divorce, had often seemed to stretch out before me, empty and treacherous as a chasm, now had a structure. I’d awaken, pack up coffee, water, a towel and something to read or work on, and head to the subway. Occasionally there would be a guy with a surfboard waiting with me on the platform, but more often it was health care workers and airport employees on their way to Kennedy Airport.
“Ride the wave, not the board!” an instructor named Simon Chardiet yelled at me as I stood in a rigid squat known as the stink bug, looking intently at my feet. Short, bald and enthusiastic, he was just as likely to be on the beach in cutoffs and a sleeveless T-shirt playing upright bass as cross-stepping a longboard through the crowded waters.
“It’s simple, but not easy,” another teacher, who had grown up in Brooklyn spending summers in Rockaway, was fond of saying. But mostly, what they said was, “Up, up, up, up, up, up!” as they pushed me into the waves. I’d still hear them as I drifted off to sleep at night.
A few other women came out regularly for lessons. As spring gave way to summer, and the boardwalk concessions opened, we’d walk uptown for lunch or a beer together, making our way along the beach or on the boulevard, past the abandoned homes taken over by feral cat colonies and assisted-living facilities.
I had reconnected with a friend who lived in an enormous house in Rockaway with a wraparound porch overlooking the ocean. I spent many an afternoon there with a group of friends, drinking prosecco or rosé and watching the play of light on the water as the sun set somewhere behind us, acutely aware that I actually felt happy again, with a new life that was starting to take shape.
It was no longer just about the surfing. Without leaving the city, I had found an escape: an urban beach town on the edge of a natural wilderness that offered up egrets and ospreys, dolphins and whales. Sure, there was the fun, endless summer ethos, but it was also that rare place where you could get to know people simply by being there.
In the meantime, my surfing was progressing, but not consistently enough. A couple I’d met in surf school told me they’d been to an intensive training program in Costa Rica, Surf Simply, that they thought was small and friendly enough for a singleton like me.
So I went. The trip in November 2011 was perfect: a journey on my own without having to be alone, and with just enough structure that I didn’t have to worry about how to fill the time.
All week, I struggled, even in the white water, to get smoothly to my feet and stay on the board, but I was beginning to grasp the physics. On our last day, the teachers decided that it was time for a go “out the back,” to the point past where the waves were breaking.
After a tough fight through chest-high waves, I arrived. The flames shooting through my arms and shoulders had barely subsided when my instructor told me to turn and start paddling. I did, and suddenly found myself climbing awkwardly to my feet as the board slid down the face of the wave for what felt like an eternity. Somehow, I turned and there I was, in the pocket — the curled part of a breaking wave, which holds the most power — shooting across the break as I rode toward the shore, all other sounds drowned out by the roar of the water crashing behind me.
It would be years before I managed another ride like that, but it was just what I needed to keep going, to turn my suspicion that I could become a decent surfer some day — despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary — into a conviction.
I knew I wanted to commit to the sport and the Rockaway Peninsula, but it took some time to wrap my head around leaving Brooklyn, where I’d lived first in the late 1980s and then consistently since 1997. When I finally did, I found a tiny cottage near the ocean.
Even though I’d worried about how I would square a roll-with-the-swells surfer’s life with a demanding job in Midtown Manhattan 20 miles away, I was thrilled with the move. I’d get up early in the mornings and walk with my coffee to the boardwalk to check the conditions and more often than not run into one of my new neighbors.
Slowly, I began getting over my usual reticence with strangers and, armed with the surfboard I’d bought, became accustomed to heading in on my own, taking tips from the more experienced surfers, some of whom would let me take a wave that was rightfully theirs, shouting encouragement and advice along the way. I even found a way to pass part of the long commute: riding a few stops in my surfing stance, trying to balance as the train lurched along.
In the meantime, I was renovating and had workmen showing up every morning to pull down walls, replace cabinetry and put in new floors. They finished in October 2012, bringing my reality in line with my imagination.
Two weeks later, I was standing in the community garden behind my house with a bunch of my neighbors, warming up around the fire they would keep going during the days after Hurricane Sandy overran the neighborhood.
“Still smiling,” my neighbor Brandon d’Leo said to me as he passed by on his way to the Rockaway Beach Surf Club, which he and his girlfriend helped turn into a hub for the relief effort after the flood.
He was right. I was in a fugue state, to be sure — my basement held six feet of water, and I had no heat, hot water or electricity — but I still felt lucky. I’d lived though the storm, my house, propped up by tree trunks, still stood, and I was surrounded by people trying to make sure I was O.K.
I’ve kept that feeling in the years since, as the community, as it ever has, changes with the reconstruction and tides of newcomers. Those include my boyfriend, not a surfer — yet — but a lifelong athlete who was attracted to the picture I’d posted last year on a dating website of myself on a wave. That more cool little bars and restaurants continue to open and that the rebuilding has come in fits and starts is a source of excitement for many, but for others only adds to the aggrieved feeling that defines the place, the sense that things used to be better and that Rockaway will never get its due.
There’s a running joke among some of the surfers — “It was epic 15 minutes ago,” they’ll say to someone just paddling out, a nod to both the fierce nostalgia among the old-timers and the general lack of esteem for Rockaway’s fickle, grumpy waves.
Even the sand brought in to stand as a bulwark against future flooding came in for its share of opprobrium. “It’s killed the wave,” many said, and for a long while that was true. But my neighbor, a former lifeguard and surfer who lives in the house he grew up in and according to some, was once king of the break, had a different complaint. “The sand here, it used to be like sugar,” he said. “You go to the beach, and it would just roll off you. Now you come back and you’re all dirty.”
The other day, as I walked down my block, I passed Simon, wet suit on and a board under his arm. “Hey, let’s go surfing,” he called across the street. “It’s mediocre out — you don’t want to miss it!”
I didn’t surf that day but went out early the next morning. The air was heavy and moist, and the beach was shrouded in fog, but I could just make out that the waves were clean and glassy, clear lines of energy rippling through molten silver. I walked out a few yards, then lay on the board and paddled beyond the jetty.
I stopped, sat up and spun toward the shore, catching a glimpse of the projects of Far Rockaway peeking through the mist and the cranes looming over the stretches of metal fencing, piles of I-beams and blocks of concrete, part of the snail’s-pace reconstruction of the boardwalk. I looked back and spotted a wave gathering behind a cluster of ducks bobbing in the water. I hit the deck, feeling the board catch and lift as it hydroplaned. Miraculously, I sprung to my feet and coasted for a few seconds before the wave suddenly broke, heaving me off and under, like a liquid bronco.
I surfaced, grabbed a hold of the board and began paddling back out again. If I’d known all I was getting into, I might not have ended up here, I remember thinking. But I’m awfully glad I did.