It’s Saturday afternoon and the beach is packed with sun worshippers. Waves break so high that lifeguards call swimmers to shore, while surfers carve the water with ease.
It could be a scene ripped right off a post-card sent from sunny California — only this beach is just a 20-minute car-ride down Cross Bay Boulevard.
Welcome to the Rockaways, Queens’ own Surf City, U.S.A.
In the past 50 years, the surfing scene at Rockaway Beach has grown from a small 60s fringe movement, to a community of Rockaway natives, expats from the five boroughs and farflung visitors who flock to the only New York City beach with ocean wave crests ideal for surfing.
“Five years ago, you could usually name the people who came out here,” said Steve Stahis, owner of Boarders on Beach 92nd Street, one of two surf shops in the Rockaways. "Recently, it’s gotten much bigger and also we’ve got a very diverse group of surfers. I’ve got Russians, Japanese and Australians, who are always better surfers, coming into my shop."
Alex Karinsky, who was born in New York but grew up surfing Sydney’s Bondi Beach, is one of those experienced Australian surfers. An integral part of the Rockaway’s surfing community, Karinsky started coming here in 2001. He even started a television show, NYC Wipeout! in 1996 and founded the Gotham Surf Club as a congregational space for New York surfers in 1997.
"In 2001, it was a small scene of … maybe a dozen surfers all year round, a small community of people devoted to the lifestyle," Karinsky said. "Why would you spend three to four hours commuting from Manhattan and one hour surfing? They thought, this equation is wrong, and they started moving here."
Manhattan resident Sonia Price said the convenience of the subway and the friendliness of Boarders kept her coming back to Rockaway.
"I learned about a year ago — it’s easy to learn here," Price said, wearing a wetsuit from Boarders’ surf shop, fresh from a bout with the waves. "There are big and small waves, a variety for all skill levels."
Greg Thompson from Brooklyn has been playing in Rockaway waters since he was a kid. "People from Brooklyn, our local contingent, grew up surfing in Rockaway," he said. "I come here because it’s close, I like the people and it’s a good vibe."
But things haven’t always been so idyllic for surfers in the Rockaways.
During the summer of 2003, some maverick surfers started getting ticketed by officers from the 100th Precinct, receiving summonses for surfing after lifeguards had left at 6 p.m, violating an obscure state health code dating back to 1850.
"Years ago, you used to get arrested," said Buddy Sammis, a Rockaway nativeand surfer for 46 years. "They would take your surfboard away in the ‘60s. What are you supposed to do, surf in your bathtub?"
Queens Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer (D-Ozone Park) and Queens Councilman Joseph Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) worked recently with surfers to fight for designated surfing areas on the beach.
City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe eventually agreed to establish a surfing area where no swimming or bathing would be allowed for the safety of both surfers and non-surfers. Accidents between surfers and swimmers usually occur when someone fails to give the other “right of way.”
The first legal Rockaway surfing area, opened on April 22, 2005, is on Beach 88th to Beach 90th streets and has remained a favorite forits large waves. The second Rockaway surfing beach opened at Beach 67th to Beach 69th streets last summer to accommodate the large crowds of surfers overflowing from the first beach.
The emergence of surfing as a top-draw for Rockaway visitors coincided with the beginning of gentrification, unpopular with both the surfing and local communities.
“This building here represents a generation moving here that can knock down $4000 to buy a surfboard,” said Karinsky outside a large condominium development going up near Beach 91st Street. “It’s intense what locals have to do to maintain their space.”
And somesurfers complain that the swells have become too crowded. "I hate it now," Sammis said. "There are too many kooks out there who don’t know how to surf."
Even though the secret seems to be out on this slice of Laguna, Waikiki and Bondi Beach in Queens, the love of surfing keeps locals and visitors alike coming back for more.
"There’s no sport harder than surfing," Sammis said. "It’s the best.”