New York and New Jersey Surfers Face a Cold Reality
© Justin Burkle (@41degreesnorth)
Meet five determined amateur surfers who fit wintry waves into busy lives, for the love of the sport.
We often see images of surfing–on television or in movies, cartoons and books–as the picture of pure pleasure in paradise. The exhilaration and carefree spirit are often portrayed in the comfort of the warm sun and water.
Few know about the reality of what it takes to catch waves all year round on the New York and New Jersey coastlines.
Surfing fairytales never include a wetsuit that has frozen overnight on the railing where it was hung to dry. Travel websites don’t describe a murky brown overhead set dragging you down to the depths in 38-degree water. When we happen upon a surf contest on TV, the beach is teeming with tanned bodies, not snow and salty slush.
But for any surfer on the storied coastline of the New York/New Jersey area, the reality is quite different. If you’re going to get waves and progress as a surfer, it will mean getting into an ocean that is (in every sense) the polar opposite of what many people believe are regular surfing conditions.
While millions visit these beach towns from June to September, surfers fully committed to catching waves know that the days of true glory come when the boardwalk is empty, and the only sound you can hear is the rushing wind over the dull roar of a gray ocean.
During the winter, big nor’easters come crushing up the coast or powerful low-pressure systems deepen inland, meeting the ocean and pulling hefty south swells to these sandbars for notoriously powerful waves during these freezing months. Which means if you want to catch epic waves in these parts, you better be able to brave the cold.
However, nothing worth doing comes without some discomfort. When roaring swell, whipping winds, extreme tides and shallow sandbars come together, the thrill is greater than the chill. To close out the winter on the east coast, we put the spotlight on these shivering souls, those who thrive in the frostiest conditions.
Nick Rossi, Long Beach Island, NJ
Nick Rossi is a true winter waterman. Heavy seas and cold are part of the winter surf experience in New Jersey, but they’re also elements of this Long Beach Island surfer’s day job as well. Rossi, 32, is a scallop fisherman currently transitioning to commercial clamming. A winter surfer from the start, the hardcore nature of his profession has only hardened him to take the throbbing discomfort of cold duck dives.
Rossi did some surf competitions in his grommet years (although his thing has always been tubes).
While still attending Richard Stockton State University, Rossi made the switch from working on a recreational fishing boat to a commercial vessel. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree, Rossi decided to stick to life on the sea and started a career as a scallop fisherman, which meant grueling eight hours-on and four hours-off shifts on the 97-foot Kathy Ann. It also meant long blocks of time off from work when the waves are best in the fall and winter.
At that point, Rossi was beginning to gain a reputation as a very powerful surfer and barrel rider, one of the few regularfoot standouts in a land of heavy left waves. Winter surfing played a huge part in that.
“Those cold, overhead, offshore days are what I live for. I have traveled all over the world to surf and not much compares to a good day in Jersey. Albeit it is usually always frustrating, and we usually get shafted, those handful of days every year when it all comes together nothing else compares.”
Not every cold swell has a winter wonderland ending. On one such blizzard, Rossi and a friend were hustling to get in the water as the wind switched and cleaned up the surf before the early dark.
“A buddy of mine got his truck stuck in the snow so we shoveled him out in our suits, rushed up over the eroded dunes that had become a cliff over the beach and jumped down.”
But with so much accumulation, Rossi didn’t see the snow-covered dune fence below.
“I basically hung myself upside-down, with my foot stuck in the fence,” he remembers.
The mishap left him with a broken ankle, limping in the frigid wind, three beaches down to where the storm hadn’t eaten away at the dune as much. He had to climb up injured and hobble back to his truck before he could even get to the hospital.
And even with all the hardships, when blustery nor’easters churn up the surf at his local breaks, Rossi’s motivation is certainly not lacking.
Ryan McGrath, Manasquan, NJ
All her life, Ryan McGrath has had to balance multiple activities and priorities. Her passion for surfing is proven by the fact that she finds time to catch waves despite juggling work, family and other sports.
McGrath teaches Language Arts at Belmar middle school, coaches basketball and lacrosse at Manasquan high school, and is a surf instructor in the summer. Still a force in the water, Ryan surfs when she can, which often means the frostiest days.
“As I’ve gotten older I’ve had to make sacrifices and give up certain things. I loved competition. I loved being part of a team,” says the 31-year-old former high school soccer-basketball-lacrosse standout from the legendary NJ surf town of Manasquan. “But there was always something about surfing that made me want to do it every day. It was such a release from all the other pressures in life. So when I had to choose, it was really hard for me.”
“My freshman year was the first year our high school created a surf club. Since it was a club, I was able to surf while I played varsity soccer. That year the surf team went to California for the NSSA Nationals, and I got second, which was a huge accomplishment. I loved being on the team and being able to do what I loved with my friends, both soccer and surfing.”
Unfortunately, she was forced to choose between the two for her sophomore year. “I was devastated. It was such a hard decision, but I chose soccer because I knew I would still be able to surf on my own time.” Add in hoops and lacrosse and it all cut into water time. During the winter, it was dark before school and after practice. Weekends were games and tournaments.
“I would get pressured by my friends saying I should quit everything, just surf and be pro. But it wasn’t as easy as that. I knew I wanted to go to college. And basketball or lacrosse would help me get there.”
By her senior year, however, she felt she needed to be back in the water.
“I decided to give up soccer my senior year and rejoin the surf team. It was a really hard decision for me and the first time I ever felt I let people down. I learned I was happier in the water surrounded by my friends.”
She went on to attend Georgian Court University where she continued to excel at basketball and lacrosse. She had to drop her sponsors and turn down prize money because of NCAA eligibility rules but she would schedule night classes to surf during the day. That’s when she started surfing in the winter.
“There’s nothing worse than getting stuck inside, trying to paddle with all that suit, taking wave after wave on the head, while getting flushed each time you go under. Your head is pounding and your lungs are trying to catch their breath not only from being under water but from the freezing temperatures,” McGrath adds. “But then you get that one wave with only you and your closest friends out, that makes it all worth it. Being in your hood, with all the sounds muffled makes you really present in what you are doing, which is rare with so many distractions in life these days.”
She finds the hardest part getting in and out of her wetsuit.
“You literally can't feel your wetsuit and it’s impossible to get a good grip. After you surf, the hot water burns in the shower. And for any other girl with long hair, the knots after a session in a wetsuit hood take a solid hour to brush out,” she laughs, “Half the time your hands are numb so it hurts to hold the brush.”
Winters are long and she adds that the winds in March and April add even more of a chill, even as the temperature starts to warm.
Manasquan is a classic surf town, known mostly for Manasquan Inlet, a bustling sandbar that breaks year-round, protected by the north jetty of the inlet.
“I grew up surrounded by the surf culture and wanted to be a part of it. My mom used to bring me to an end of summer surf party that brought the whole surf community together. We would eat, run around, and watch surf videos from the summer to kind of wrap up the year. It didn’t matter what age you were or what family you were from. It made you want to learn and be a part of it.”
She would surf the inlet from morning to sundown. “Before cell phones, you would just ride your bike knowing your friends would be there. I was in the water 90 percent of the time trying to earn my spot at the Inlet as well as improve my surfing. Being one of the few girls at the time was intimidating but we still pushed each other and had fun, just sharing a joy for something so pure.”
In addition to her second-place finish at the 2004 NSSA Nationals, she was a Semi-finalist at the 2007 NSSA High School National Championships, took first at the Belmar Women’s Pro in 2007, second at Belmar in 2009, and won the 2006 Brave New World Pro-Am. She was also an integral part of the Red Bull Carissa and Maya Project in 2009 where a group of seven women surfers from the East Coast surfed and traveled with Carissa Moore and Maya Gabeira for two weeks.
Today, McGrath and her husband (also named Ryan) have even more to balance as their first-born Penelope "Penny" Jane turns one in April.
Winter waves make her a better surfer and stronger paddler. So when the suit comes off in the summer, she is able to bust loose. McGrath feels it takes a special kind of person to hit the waves twelve months of the year.
“I’m impressed by how many more women and young girls are in the water during the winter now. I see this younger generation charging which makes me so excited, especially with having a daughter myself.”
Quest Solimon, Far Rockaway, NY
When Quest Solimon was a kid growing up in Fort Green, his mother gave him two important things, a love of travel and a skateboard. He immediately took to skateboarding and his introduction to the sport coincided with the opening of Skatepark Pier 62 in Chelsea in 2010, the only transition park in NYC.
Quest would go on to translate his skating skills to the waves in an interesting way.
“I would try to do the Bert slide (named for famed ’70s Hawaiian surfer, Larry Bertlemann) every day after school. The funny thing is, I never knew that trick had anything to do with surfing,” says Solimon, 25.
New York had played such a huge role in street skating, but Pier 62 brought a new way of thinking – a style of riding that reflected skating’s West Coast surf history mixed with NYC style.
“That park has birthed a whole generation of vert and pool skaters in New York. We never had any access to that, so when we finally got our hands on it, we naturally adapted.”
He became a skate instructor at Substance Skatepark in Bushwick. Then in 2019, he surfed for the first time.
“I sucked at surfing, so to make up for it, I would skate Pier 62 like I wanted to surf.”
He made rapid progress. Marley was immediately hooked and started taking the train to Far Rockaway three times a week, answering questions from New Yorkers who had no idea that there were waves within the boroughs. He would return to Brooklyn, fully satisfied, to friends that couldn’t comprehend that he’d surfed all day. Fully motivated to improve, he moved to Far Rockaway to be closer to the surf and became one of the regular faces in the water at Beach 90th St.
“The media might not portray people of color or mixed backgrounds surfing, but we’re here and have been here for a while. I found people like (South African pro) Mikey February and before him, (Hawaiians) Bertlemann and Buttons. I'm just trying to surf and have fun. Seeing young kids surf that are my color is good enough for me. That always brings joy to my day.”
Solimon later traveled to Australia, which motivated him to take to the waves all year-round.
“I would hear all these stories about how good Rockaway gets in the winter. But all I could think of was how cold it was going to be. When I tried surfing in the winter for the first time, I was amazed at how surreal it was. When you're surfing in freezing, snowy conditions you know there's something special about it.”
One surreal experience was surfing in a snowstorm when a whale breach offshore.
This winter, he experienced Puerto Rico for the first time, a rite of passage for East Coasters. Marley continues to work as a skate instructor and will double up teaching surf lessons this summer. He also dabbles as an independent stock trader.
His mother, the one who sparked his love of skateboarding that led to his love of surf, came out to Rockaway to watch him catch waves on her birthday last hurricane season.
“Before I started surfing, I didn't have much direction in my life. Surfing taught me a lot of discipline and respect. My friends and family are super proud of me.”
Zach and Ethan Dayton, Long Island, NY
The East End of Long Island is known as a summer playground for New York’s wealthy, but the breaks just off these beaches in the winter can offer up the kind of cold energy that also makes it hallowed ground for East Coast surfers.
“When a big winter storm is in the forecast that usually means some solid waves are on the way. There’s nothing that compares to surfing in a big snowstorm when the winds are howling offshore and it’s dumping snow,” says Ethan Dayton.
The Dayton brothers, Zacharia, 29 and Ethan, 30, each have a foot in both worlds. They have successfully navigated the Hampton’s real estate landscape, but are also among the most respected salty watermen. Both worlds require the kind of relationships that come from being part of the East End community their entire lives.
“Growing up on the eastern end of Long Island with the ocean right around the corner, it was only natural for my brothers and I to gravitate towards the water,” says Zach.
Their father, a builder in town and surfer, had the boys bodysurfing and bodyboarding at a young age, eventually standing up on a beat-up old kneeboard that hung in the garage.
“Summers of early gromhood were when our surfing really started to progress, battling it out with friends at the local beach break,” Zach adds, “Our delinquent grom pack surfed all day, terrorizing the beach, subsisting on chicken nuggets. Our parents would drop us off early morning in our wetsuits and we would stay in them until dinner. Our squad thought we were competing for king of the beach. Best wetsuit tan would have been more suitable.”
But things took a change when their father outfitted them in oversized 4 mils, scuba diving gloves and ripped boots for a December swell. They were winter surfers now and that meant bigger days and heavier waves.
“I am not sure if we were in more shocked from the brutally cold water or more surprised that it was possible to surf year-round. The wetsuits sucked then but eventually got better overtime,” says Zach.
Today, the brothers comprise The Dayton Team, realtors for Sotheby’s International Realty, highly sought after for their knowledge of the villages, community and often historical nature of the properties.
They balance their professional responsibilities with chasing cold, hefty swell.
Zach talks about chasing a February snowstorm to Long Beach, NY and arriving to a closed parking lot with a foot of snow on the ground.
“We found parking a half of mile or so from the beach, suited up, and trudged through the snow drifts. When we finally got to the right zone, it was pumping, proper ‘A’ frames scattered up and down the beach.”
They traded huge peaks with the locals for four blustery hours.