The Best Damn Wave in New York City

A hurricane-fed swell and a car called Malibu. Let’s ride.

Frances Tulk-Hart

Not many people think of the Big Apple as a surf town, and for good reason. It’s difficult to escape the urban tangle and make a dash for the not-too-distant beach. Also, the U.S. has places like, oh, California and Hawaii, to name just a couple, where waves—and not the Yankees, Broadway or a $12 million TriBeCa loft—are the draw. And then there's New York’s brutal winter cold.

But for those willing to endure traffic, biting breezes and long, long flat spells, there are fun waves to be scored in old New York. All you need are a promising weather report, a surfboard, a car and a place where they all can converge. Sounds simple, right? Not so fast, Frothy McGee.

My friend Bill and I took an early morning trip as the leftovers of Hurricane Joaquín swept by, and managed to grab some waves that were not perfect, but were plenty big. But it took a little searching to find a spot that worked.

Frances Tulk-Hart

To score the best waves—indeed, the best damn waves—there's one thing you must have that not many people in America's most populous city do: a flexible schedule. Solid ocean swells marching up the coast from whatever tropical maelstrom they call home don't care when your next staff meeting is, or whether it's your turn to pick up Junior from his transcendental meditation class. They come when they come; “no friends on a swell day,” and all that.

There's a reason why construction jobs in Santa Cruz grind to a halt whenever a big Pacific swell kicks up. You can find the answer to your question—Where did all the workers go?—parked in a big line along the coast road: Construction vehicles, dozens of 'em.

On the East Coast, where surfing is still, somehow, after all these years, more of an underground thing than out West, construction workers offer little more than puzzled stares when they see people drive by on cold autumn mornings with surfboards strapped to their cars’ roofs. And in New York City, where surfers can, if they so choose, hop on the subway to get to the beach, strapping a surfboard to the car isn't even necessary. (NYC is also under perpetual construction, and is therefore filled with quizzical laborers year ‘round.)

Frances Tulk-Hart

But driving is the way to go. Why? Have you ever been to a beach where conditions are exactly the same every day of the year? Heading to the coast in a car means you have the freedom to check different spots, a process known, appropriately enough, as "spot-checking," to find out which ones offer the best of Neptune's bounty.

So in New York City, where the roads are terrible, the traffic worse and the wave conditions as fickle as a rent-jacking Brooklyn landlord, what's the best car to get the job done? The days of woodie wagons and Volkswagen Microbuses lining the streets of coastal towns are largely gone. Those practical conveyances were once dirt cheap and plentiful, but no longer are, having moved into the realm of "collector classics." What you need is something comfortable with a good heater, because if you surf in New York, you're going to spend time sitting in traffic. From November until June, it's going to be cold. (The water in June sometimes doesn’t leave the 50s.)

Frances Tulk-Hart
Frances Tulk-Hart
Frances Tulk-Hart
Frances Tulk-Hart
Frances Tulk-Hart
Frances Tulk-Hart

Personally, I like something cruisey with plenty of room on the roof for long surfboards and a filthy hole of a trunk for smelly wetsuits. That's why my 1965 Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu sedan is perfect for urban surf trips. Its seats are like couches, and are comfy for lengthy traffic sits on the Belt Parkway. The trunk is huge and already rusted, a good repository for salty wetsuits and reeking neoprene boots. It its day, it was considered a compact car. Even now, it fits into small parallel parking spots with relative ease. It's no Smart Fortwo, but there’s probably a reason why surfers don’t show up in those.

News that Joaquin was about to pummel the city with high winds and flooding may have alarmed many New Yorkers, but languishing surfers in the area caught a tingle. It had been a long summer of flat ocean. Joaquin’s prospect of not just waves, but big ones, came with good tidings indeed.

Frances Tulk-Hart

When conditions are thus, the best thing to do is point the nose of your trusty surfmobile eastward and head out to Montauk. There are lots of different things for waves to break upon out that way—sand, rocks, idiot-driven trucks buried nose first in the surf—and the scenery is stunning. It's not far enough from the city to escape the madness of over-aggressive drivers, but the flower-capped, rock-footed bluffs look more like the backdrop for a SoCal beach scene than for a Northeast hamlet. Plus, the post-summer season crowd is more mellow than the city folk that crowd beaches closer to New York.

Unfortunately, most of us don't have time to go to Montauk when good waves are due. Flexible schedule or not, it takes about three hours to drive there (without traffic, which is impossible to avoid on Long Island). Your time investment for travel is bound to be more than six hours. Who has time for that?

So the most logical choice is Rockaway Beach. It's in Queens, right in our own syringe-strewn backyard. The wind and waves carry most of the trash away, so it looks clean compared with the rest of the city—if you ignore the derelict buildings on your drive in. And there are actually some pretty decent places to surf.

Bill and I drove all over the Rockaways to find a spot that had surfable water. I can’t—won’t—tell you where it was, because it's every man and woman for him/herself out there. Suffice to say that the only place where the waves weren't pounding directly onto beach happened to be near one of the beach’s only public access points this year, while the city builds a new boardwalk. I parked the Chevy between a work van and a surf rack-topped Hyundai, and we headed out.

By gum, it was crowded, but the waves were big and plentiful. Here in New York, where the rhythm of life can be dictated by subway rides and Fitbits, it was about as good as we could have hoped for. Our home may not have the best waves or the most polite crowd, but sometimes, you just need to get in the water.

And as the song goes, if you can ride ‘em here, you can ride 'em anywhere.