A couple of years ago, Holly Li of Amagansett and Beth Feit of Montauk challenged themselves to surf 50 days in a row. In addition to being fun, of course, the consistent practice not only turned them into real, live surfers, it exposed them to that part of the South Fork naturescape that exists beyond the land.
“It’s very empowering to conquer some major fears at this stage of the game,” said Li. “I have met so many awesome people, and it’s always nice to be in the water. Best way to start any day.”
Li and Feit aren’t alone in their pursuit to become wave warriors—the South Fork of Long Island is a popular place to surf. Surfboard making pioneer Richard Lisiewski rode Montauk waves as far back as the 1940s, according to local storyteller and surfer Russel Drumm. In The Lost Boys of Montauk author Amanda Fairbanks tells the fishing tragedy tale of four Montauk fishermen whose boat disappeared in a storm in 1984; several of these young men came to the area as surfers and grew up into fishers. As artist Peter Spacek illustrates in his cartoon work, the East End’s shoreline is at times a conflict between people who cast into the waves and surfers who paddle around the waves.
Today, Montauk is one of the most recognized surf spots on the East Coast, with other Long Island surf spots stretching all the way to Westhampton and beyond to the Rockaways and Brooklyn.
The popularity is something of a double-edged sword. It means the lineup of surfers floating in the water together, waiting for the next set of waves, can sometimes number in the dozens, creating an ocean-bound waiting room of sorts. But more surfers also means more surf infrastructure that makes getting a board and wetsuit and getting in the water that much more doable.
Montauk, in particular, is a surf town through and through, with residents more likely to be barefoot heading to or from the sand in the summer. There’s a whole surf ecosystem that outfits and sustains the surfing set, including places to get outfitted (Air & Speed Surf Shop, Adam Mar, Sunset Surf Shack, Montauk Surf and Sport) and surf-related places to stay, eat, drink and visit (the Skatepark Montauk Surf Museum, Montauk Brewing Company, Montauk Seafood Co, the Montaukett, Surf Lodge, the Surf Club, Below the Blue, Left Hand Coffee, Jonis, Ditch Witch, Happy Bowls and Naturally Good). Montauk even has a full day surf competition, the Rell Sunn Surf Competition and Benefit, which has been held every summer for more than two decades. If you think you want to surf, Montauk is still 100% the board-ready place to be.
When my son and I set out to learn how to surf, it was prompted by a few things. First, we both know many people in our community who surf. If we learned to surf, we could spend time on the water with our friends, respectively. As the eldest, my daughter is already a proficient surfer, having taken a lesson and then just put in a ton of time practicing with her friends at Ditch Plains day after day. My son and I had both made attempts to surf before without much experience (or luck) and gotten tossed by some unexpectedly big waves. So lessons seemed in order—it made us both feel good to find a teacher who could show us the ropes, so to speak.
So how do you get started? For more advanced surfers, Montauk offers literally dozens of challenging spots east of Ditch Plains – Warhol’s, Turtle Cove, North Bar – and then around Montauk point to the north, as well as nearby Block Island.
But there’s a place for beginners, too.
“Surfing small waves in small, beginner surf conditions with help from an experienced surf instructor is the fastest and safest way to get a leg-up in learning to surf,” says Corey Senese of CoreysWave. Part of the goal, Corey says, is that “the student surfer can glimpse what it feels like to be a competent surfer, and imagine what it takes to become a surfer.”
Paddling with a Pro
When my 10 year old son and I set out to learn to surf a few summers ago, we took lessons with local waterman Jeremy Grosvenor. After we put on our wetsuits in the parking lot, Grosvenor started us out in the parking lot with a briefing on some vital aspects of surfing that go beyond the board, like reading water conditions and safety around other surfers.
“Specializing in beginners and cowards,” is how Grosvenor describes his water activity teaching model. A rider of waves in many forms, including surfing, windsurfing, wingfoiling, open water swimming, bodysurfing, prone paddleboarding, outrigger canoeing, downwind sup foiling and more, he calls it all “exceptionally fun and highly saturated with endorphins.” (As evidence you can find a video online of Grosvenor outrigger canoe-surfing at Ditch in 2015, smiling ear to ear most of the time.)
We carried our boards down the beach from Ditch Plains, to the spot called Poles, a less crowded (fewer surfers) and typically smaller (wave height) spot than Ditch. And then we sat and watched the waves and the surfers on the waves.
Every once in a while, Jeremy would comment on what he saw, pointing out the set of waves that was starting to roll in, the point in the water where the waves peaked and crested and where the waves ended. He pointed out safe surfing behavior and risky surfing behavior (like when too many people, too close together, try to catch the same wave).
Then, we get down on our bellies, rehearsing the position we’d be in when we were lying on top of our boards in the water. We mimed paddling and then, in one smooth, intentional movement, he used his arms to spring himself up one foot in front of the other, one arm in front and one arm behind: what you might call surfing’s first position, also similar to Warrior Two in yoga. We did this a number times, until we were sandy and a bit sweaty, and then we headed into the water.
Some additional background in the water is certainly helpful to the surfing plight. I’m an experienced ocean swimmer and my son is, too. He completed three years of the East Hampton Junior Lifeguard program, an incredible beach-based program in water safety and ocean rescue that is offered to kids with the goal of “water-proofing” the region’s population. (It also produces the next crop of lifeguards who staff our beaches.)
We surfed two days in a row. One of the days was particularly small and slow, meaning the waves were just a foot or two in height and they rolled in every once in a while. That meant we were bobbing on our boards much of the time, watching for the approaching waves. It also gave us plenty of time to prepare and reset after trying to ride a wave. I think I stood up and rode a wave (at least briefly) twice in a 90 minute span. My son, a natural, probably rode a couple dozen waves in the same time. “Micro wave riding,” is the way Grosvenor describes the strategy for exposing beginners to caring for their boards and bodies in the new liquid environment.
By day two, the weather had shifted. There was an approaching storm far out at sea which brought in a strong wind that made the water angrier, producing waves that were 3 to 4 feet in height. This time, paddling out from shore to get in position to catch a wave was a challenge in and of itself. My son caught fewer waves that day, but got the experience of jumping out amidst faster moving waves and all the fine motor coordination that comes with staying on the board while the wave’s force propels you to the beach.
I may have caught one, but certainly got my share of attempts and failures and nostrils full of seawater. My arms and shoulders ached. It was exhausting but also exhilarating and joyful, as a bonding experience between father and son, with many fist pumps and calls of “Nice one!” back and forth after a successful ride or a spectacular wipe-out.
Tides, time and seaside sightseeing
“The waves in the summer are typically gentle and perfect for beginners,” says Corey. Not to mention the water is more balmy. “The shoulder seasons in May, June and October can be great for scoring some emptier days [with fewer surfers] in the lineup,” he says. By “emptier days,” he means the ones when Montauk’s fair population of more seasoned year-round surfers, ever-willing to make the cold plunge for wild winter swells, take some days off.
Surf instructors all have their own teaching style of course.
“If you are a complete beginner go for a swim at a lifeguarded beach and body surf,” says Grosvenor. “Next step, rent a boogie board and catch the white water at a lifeguarded beach. When you witness someone surfing focus on their every move and location.”
Beyond developing swimming skills, Grosvenor also encourages students to absorb surf history and culture. He recommends “Waterman,” the biography of Duke Kahanamoku by David Davis.
Jesse Spooner, a professional surfer, science teacher and long time Southampton resident, likes to include marine biology factoids and some opportunistic sea life identification in his surf lessons. You are likely to see all sorts of seabirds, species of seaweed, and, if you’re lucky, seals, dolphins and even whales.
And then there’s the question of what gear to get. Not too long ago, there was a technological shift that lowered the hurdles to riding your first wave. Wetsuits have gotten better (thinner, more flexible, less expensive). There are also surf boards designed more for learning and practice — so called “soft boards” made from foam that are considerably lighter than a hard board, while still being buoyant and stiff enough to get a good ride. They are also much less expensive to buy and rent, further lowering the hurdles to getting started. (When you bang into your soft board while attempting to catch a wave you will also endure less pain and bruising than with a hard board.)
By most accounts, surfing in Montauk is more open to outsiders than it used to be. The beginners, the younger surfers. Women, too, were not always welcome regulars to the sport, but that’s changed for the better, too. “There have always been women surfing in Montauk, but women were in the minority in the lineup when we were kids in the late 80’s,” says Kristen Senese, who runs CoreyWave with her husband. “Now it’s not even a question–there is no longer any hesitation about women of all ages being in the lineup. I think now there may be more women who didn’t start when they were kids, wanting to get into surfing now, but that goes for men, too.”
Indeed, approaching a new surf spot, wherever you are on the planet, can be intimidating. Not just because the territory is unfamiliar but because locals don’t always take kindly to interlopers.
“There was a time when surfing was more macho and localized out here in the early ‘80s,” says Spooner who moved from California to Southampton as a kid, and learned to surf on the South Fork. “It was very hard to get waves at top breaks due to the pecking order.” Translation: locals might even prevent you – verbally or physically – from paddling into position at a popular surf spot (“break”) and then paddling into a wave.
Montauk has perhaps become more open, at a time when the world’s evolving surfing style has become more appropriate for Montauk. Spooner points to the World Surf League, which has started holding competitions in New York, including a longboarding championship. It was perhaps a watershed moment when a wave of newcomers descended on Montauk and other points along the South Fork’s Atlantic shore.
In fact, longboarding — riding longer boards (usually more than 9 feet long) — is a style of surfing that works well in our waters. Spooner says, the “long, peeling, slower moving” waves that Ditch Plains produces are also perfectly geared towards longboarding and “traditional noseriding” — walking towards the front or nose of the board and balancing there as you fly over the wave “That’s a style that is more suited to lifelong surfing.”
I’m glad to report that my son quickly grew into a talented surfer and, during the summer, wakes up early, heads to the beach and rides with his friends for hours. As for me, after dozens of days of practice, I can consistently catch waves on smaller days, and to keep up with my kids when they are up for a pre-dinner family surf session. Whether noseriding or longboarding or simply sitting in the sand and watching the surfers at sunset, it is a sport that doesn’t only saturate your skin, it gets under it.
Surf Lesson Resources: CoreysWave, 631-668-WAVE, www.coreyswave.com; Jeremy Grosvenor, 917-613-2662; Jesse Spooner, 631-903-4349, www.SpoonSurf.com; East End Surf Club, www.eastendsurfclub.com; Engstrom Surf, 631-933-5533, www.engstromsurf.com.