On a recent afternoon I'm sitting at my desk and my phone lights up with the text: "Let's go surf!"
"When?", I reply.
"Now!", my friend Jake responds.
I get these urgent messages pretty frequently this time of year from a small group of friends and they usually arrive inconveniently while I'm at work.
Jake McGee, a Williamsburg based cinematographer, begins most days by checking the surf cam and forecast on Surfline.com. Jake has spotted a fleeting window of waves that on this Tuesday afternoon must be jumped on immediately. I open the same site and click through to a webcam that reveals a view of the water facing 90th Street in Rockaway, Queens. There are waves, modest ones, but people are surfing.
One hour later I meet Jake at the A train connection at Broadway Junction. Thirty minutes later we are taking in the salt air by the beach.
The ten miles of beach on Rockaway Peninsula, much to the gratitude of locals, had been until recently, off the national surf radar. The gig is up however. In the past decade the sport and urban seaside lifestyle has exploded in popularity here in New York City. Whether it's novices learning how to stand up on a board or ex-pats from surf towns like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Lima, the crowd at Rock has matured into a real scene.
Despite the love, visitors to the neighborhood are seasonal. Rockaway Taco shuts down in the fall and the Tiki Disco guys move inside. When the cold weather arrives, the crowds depart. Now enter die-hards and obsessives like Jake.
"I surf in the winter to get away from the late summer crowds. To be with people who value the cold as part of the whole experience of surfing here. Not to mention... overall better waves. But I didn't tell you that... It's cold and miserable."
It's unusually mild on this December afternoon and the beach is quiet and almost empty. As daylight fades, a few surfers fresh from the A train race to slip on their wetsuits and hit the water.
I meet photographer and bike mechanic, Aaron Beasley, 24. He is getting dressed on top of a chunk of post-Sandy wrecked boardwalk. Aaron grew up surfing near St. Augustine, Florida. He now lives in Crown Heights. I ask him what he thinks of all of this cold. He offers a zen outlook. "Surfing in 40 degree water is better than not surfing at all."
Aaron jumped off the concrete and joined Jake and a few others out in the water.
It's not just dudes with boards out here. Remel walks down the beach with a fishing rod looking for an undisturbed spot to throw a line. He's 40 years old and has lived his whole life here in Rockaway. Remel tells me he is chasing striped bass today. He's been fishing since he was a kid. "Surfers are everywhere this year." He's diplomatic and refrains from saying they were bad for fishing.
East Coast surfing is all about waiting. Surfers wait for swell to arrive, when it finally does, they wait on a train or in traffic to get to the waves. The guys bobbing right now in the water are waiting. After a short period of texture, the waves have turned off. Patience is part of the program.
The recent rush to Rockaway these past years isn't just made up of Brooklyn's La Boheme set seeking cheap bungalows and a new frontier to eat, party and look good, it's become a place to start a new chapter of life. I meet Angel and his wife Waleska who recently moved here from the Upper West Side to be by the ocean. Angel retired from a career working as concierge for Mets' owner Fred Wilpon. He reaches into a plastic bag and shows me a handful of shells and stones just collected on the beach. They are for their artwork Angels says. He calls himself Waleska's "guardian Angel" and beams when he boasts they have been married for 35 years.
"I'm just walking on the beach with my wife. The best thing to do is to walk on sand. We are enjoying life."
As I head back to the train I look back at the lineup to spot Jake. By the time he gets back home to Williamsburg he will have spent over 2 hours on the subway for what will be just a handful of waves.
When I eventually get home myself, I look at my phone. It was Jake. Just before dark, the wind died and his dedication paid off. "Evening glass. Got some little peelerz."
[Images by Ben Pomeroy]