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Searching for Surf in NYC

HOST INTRO: The Beach Boys’ song Surfin’ U.S.A. begins: “If everybody had an ocean/across the U.S.A/then everybody’d be surfing/like Californi-a.” This week, Katie Ferguson headed out to the Rockaways with one California surfer in search of the waves of…New York City?

FERGUSON 1: When Chrisman Payne moved to New York in January, he thought he was leaving behind one of his favorite California pastimes: surfing. In Ventura, where Payne grew up, getting to the beach was as simple as walking just past his own backyard. (0:12)


I live on the beach sort of. It’s like…I walk down my lane, and it ends in sand. (0:06)

FERGUSON 2: His street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan? Significantly further from the sand. (0:04)


We’re on the A train, going to the beach. [FERGUSON: Which beach?] Uh, the Rockaways. Yeah, so we’re towards the end of the line here, I think. I think we’re towards the end of the line. Honestly, we’ve been on the subway for a while, so I don’t really know. (0:15)

FERGUSON 3: This is Payne’s day off, and he’s never seen an east coast beach. We’re going to see if it can hold its own against California. Eventually, our train comes above ground, but we’ve still got a ways to go. And we’ve already been on the train for forty five minutes. (0:11)


I think it gets kind of inconvenient to go this far, at some point. [FERGUSON: Can you imagine making this trip with a surfboard?] No, I can’t. That would be really annoying, actually. (0:12)

FERGUSON 4: Especially annoying because our trip doesn’t end with the A train. Next, we hop onto a bus. How long does it take us to get to the beach? I’m not sure. We got lost, and I stopped counting. But when we do finally make it, Payne is able to classify the waves immediately. (0:15)


We’re looking at some double over ankle sets coming in. [FERGUSON: What’s that?] It’s just a joke, like double over ankle is like exactly what it sounds like. A wave that’s double over your ankle. (0:11)

FERGUSON 5: So really, really small. I think this is what surfers would call a bummer. The waves are unsurfable. Or so we think. (0:07)


There’s actually some surfers over there. I don’t know what they’re surfing, but…looks fun. (0:06)

FERGUSON 6: For surfers in New York City, sometimes you’ve got to take what you can get. And often, that’s not much, according to veteran city surfer Toddy Stewart. (0:08)


It’s harder to surf. Absolutely. It’s more fickle. The waves have to come in at exactly the right angle to make a surfable wave. (0:06)

FERGUSON 7: Stewart is a filmmaker, and I meet him at his studio in Greenpoint, where there are not one but two surfboards hanging from the ceiling. He also grew up on the west coast, but he’s been surfing in New York for almost twenty years. For the last eight, Stewart has been writing about it too — on his blog, the aptly titled Endless Bummer. But he says he’s had his share of magic moments here, where one New Yorker’s natural disaster is another New Yorker’s perfect beach day. (0:23)


The best days are always the hurricane days. A couple years ago, I went out and just got these amazing, big, rolling…way overhead waves, and there wasn’t anybody else around, no one was in the water. I don’t even remember the hurricane. I don’t think it was Sandy. Sandy was too gnarly. (0:18)

FERGUSON 8: Well, that’s one word for it. And while some hurricanes wind up being too gnarly, regular days aren’t much more predictable. But if anyone could give you some informed guesses about the New York swell, it’s Tyler Bruer. He’s a native Long Islander whose family’s surf shop in Levittown is turning fifty this year. He’s surfed all over New York since he was a kid. But over a beer in Gowanus, he tells me that even he isn’t sure when the waves are going to be good. (0:21)


You can miss it by an hour. You know, you can go down and look at the conditions, it looks great, get suited up, dive into the water, and all the sudden, the wind switches, or the tide comes up, and then all the sudden, it just went to crap really quickly. (0:16)

FERGUSON 10: And because the waves are unreliable, it makes the surfers that way too. (0:04)


It ends up screwing up a lot of times your plans. You said you would have brunch but then the surf just became really good… (0:06)

[Music: California Dreamin’, The Mamas and the Papas.]

FERGUSON 11: The song that just happens to be on in the bar while we’re talking about this? California Dreamin’. And it’s true. It’s not just that the waves more consistent out west — there are a lot of other things surfers there just don’t have to deal with. Like gear. In California, all you need is a board and a pair of shorts. In New York? (0:17)


Here, you need boardshorts, spring suit, full suit, like a three millimeter full suit, then you need a five millimeter full suit, you need boots, you need gloves, then you need a place to store those, you need a place to dry them. They smell horrible. (0:16)

FERGUSON 12: I don’t know what some of those words mean, but I don’t really care. I do want to know about that smell, though. I can’t use the words Bruer used to describe it at first, but eventually I catch a whiff of what he’s saying. (0:11)


[FERGUSON: A word that I can say on the radio, what does it smell like?] Urine. Urine and feet. (0:13)

FERGUSON 13: That’s bad no matter where you are. But in a tiny, 600 square foot New York apartment? Bruer used to live in one of those, and he’d leave his wetsuit to dry in the bathroom. (0:09)


It would stink up the whole place, the whole apartment. It’s like, well, what are you going to do? You have to let it dry somehow. Otherwise, it’s going to deteriorate and it’s going to smell even worse. (0:12)

FERGUSON 14: And Bruer says maybe even more brutal than that smell is getting up at 5:45 in the morning, in the winter — that’s when the waves are at their best in New York — and putting on that wetsuit in a parking lot when it’s below zero. (0:12)


It’s definitely…takes like, that extra talking up or talking yourself into it. You know, you’re like, okay, I’m going to do this. I’m going to do it. The waves look alright. We can do this. It’s not, not going to be bad. It’s not going to be bad. It’s going to be good. (0:15)

FERGUSON 15: Because according to Bruer and Toddy Stewart, when it’s good, it’s really good. That’s what keeps them coming back. The thrill of having those really great surf days, in spite of the dank wetsuits, the cancelled brunches, and the long rides on the A train…a trip Chrisman Payne may just be making again soon. (0:16)


If they’re breaking like this, at this tide level, that just means with a little more swell, it’ll be a little bit better. So I like actually want to come back. (0:09)

FERGUSON 16: And just like that — with that unwavering optimism you have to have to hit the beach here — another New York surfer is born. As long as the waves cooperate. Katie Ferguson, Columbia Radio News. (0:07)

[Music: Catch a Wave, The Beach Boys.]


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