24 September 2015

The Other Rockaway

I've surfed the west coast Rockaway; a trip to visit my big brother in New York City gave me the chance to surf the east coast one.
The view from my brother's apartment
After Michael left for work, I planned my route on the subway: the 6 to the 4 to the A to the S, getting off at Beach 90, where I could walk to a surf shop to rent a board. (Because American Airlines would've charged me $300 – three hundred dollars!! – to fly my board across the country and back. Robbery!)

I wasn't feeling brave nor bold, being at a low point in my life in the midst of a painful divorce, but I put on my backpack and left my brother's 41st floor apartment to head out into the Big Apple after taking reassurance from my new bracelet. It's engraved with a Shakespeare quote: "though she be but little she is fierce."

After stopping at the corner Starbucks for a familiar soy peppermint mocha, I descended the stairs into the grimy and bustling subway. A few minutes later, I shuffled aboard the #6 train for a quick ride to my first connection. Not for the first time, Google Maps told me to head toward "Someplace" but the signs on the trains and on the platform didn't list "Someplace," only "Somewhere" and "Somewhere Else." And not for the last time, I asked the nearest random stranger which train to board to get to the "Someplace" where I wanted to go. Contrary to rumor, 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.
Love that pink hair
With the guidance of strangers, I made it onto the A train, which rose from underground into the sunshine to cross Jamaica Bay. I saw a surfboard at the far end of the car, and went over the make the acquaintance of a girl named Tom. She was traveling to a different part of Rockaway with her mother and two younger brothers for a surf lesson.
A girl named Tom, heading to Rockaway on the A train
I wished her good waves and disembarked at an above-ground platform to make my last connection to the S train. After an hour and a half on public transit and for only $2.75, the train let me off in a gritty urban area. I followed a young woman carrying a shortboard toward the beach, catching up to her when she paused at a shop.
Gentry leaving the Rockaway station with her shortboard
As she fell in beside me, she asked if I knew where there was a surf shop. Indeed I did! Her name was Gentry and she'd recently moved back to NYC, reclaiming the surfboard she'd left with a friend. But she needed a leash, so we went together to Boarders surf shop. I left her there and walked the last couple of blocks for my first view of the Atlantic Ocean in years.
There was surf! It was waist- to chest-high, steep and breaking close to the beach. If I'd had the pick of my quiver, I'd have taken out my 5'4" shortboard.
Alas, back at Boarders, the best rental they could offer me was a thick 6'4" NSP fish.
Not the best board but perhaps good enough
I put on my 2-mil leggings and 1-mil rashguard in one of the shop's outdoor changing rooms, then stored my backpack in the community locker. The shop 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. "Everyone surfs at the rocks because that's the best wave," she told me.

Until I got used to the not-really-right-for-conditions rental board, I wasn't going near the pack at the main peak by the rock groin. I parted ways with the sponger and paddled out farther west. (The beach faces primarily south.) On the first wave I caught, the thick rail failed to grip the steep face and the NSP (Not Surfing Pretty) board got pulled up and over the falls, sending me tumbling before the same rail whacked me hard in the shins and I summersaulted over the sandy bottom. On the next wave. I sorted it out for a respectable ride that was necessarily short given how shallow they were breaking. It paid to be picky since there were only occasional shoulders amidst closeouts.
Between waves, I counted thirty surfers at the break, most dense near the groin, where the shape did indeed look better. Gradually I crept closer to the rocks, eventually finding Gentry, who was boldly surfing in a bikini when the water was only about 70ยบ. "It's so crowded!" she complained, and we ended up passing each other as she moved toward more open water while I was pulled toward better waves nearer to the groin.

I got a couple more pretty good rides, and realized that what I wanted more than fighting a crowd over beach break in murky brown-green warmish water was lunch. So I rode a wave in and headed back to Boarders, where I rinsed in a shower controlled by a knob that was nearly out of my reach.

After I changed and paid for my board rental, I chatted a bit with the surf shop guy. In winter, he said, the ocean temperature is in the 30s, and most people wear 6 mil wetsuits. I tried to imagine repeating my day in freezing air and icy water, with snow on the beach. That's hardcore. I'm not sure I could do it. Might rather save up for a tropical surf vacation. But then again, New York is a nice place to visit, but I'd never want to live there; California's in my blood.
Cool mural. Lots of trash.
Before starting my long journey back to the city, I walked through town to the Rockaway Beach Surf Club.
Right by the train
It's got a tiny eatery cleverly named Tacoway Beach, a bar, surfboard locker space, and great surfing decor. I opted for plantain chips (tasty but greasy) and fresh pineapple juice.
They didn't understand "reusable glass instead of plastic cup"
Then it was back to the subway, the S to the A to the 4, this time walking through New York City instead of riding in the dark on the 6 for the last ten or so blocks. I dug sand out of my ear as people flowed around me on the sidewalk while I waited for a walk sign before crossing the street. (Apparently only tourists do that in NYC.)
Back on the 41st floor, I watched the sun go down in a blaze of glory, making its way toward my home in San Diego. The surfers of Rockaway are an admirably dedicated group, but I'm glad to live only eight blocks from the beach.

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