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Gangster Surf

Can Bobby Vaughn, a Californian with a shady past, turn Rockaway locals into professional surfers?

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From left, Lawrence Benin, Pat "Rambo" Butera, Brian Shannon, Kevin Gray, Bobby Vaughn, Tommy Tyne, and Graham Hill.  

On the Saturday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend, FTW, a bright, high-ceilinged surf shop on Beach 116th Street in Rockaway Park, is overrun by kids: preadolescents sprawled across black vinyl couches watching a surf video; skateboarders attempting kick-flips on the sidewalk out front; pretty girls wearing purple velour sweats standing around, their boyfriends clinging to them from behind and telling war stories about last night’s party. Two months since the store opened, it has already become the default hangout for local teens who have grown up surfing the waters off Beach 90th Street and Breezy Point.

An older Rockaway surfer with shoulder-length hair is regaling a few kids with a story about a wave he caught in Costa Rica—“I’ve never been barreled like that in my life!”—and Bobby Vaughn, the 34-year-old California native who opened FTW, can’t help himself. He emerges from behind the cash register to tell the tale of his own perfect wave—an unexpected tube ride on a long, right-breaking wave that he’d recently scored on the Jersey shore. The memory of a great ride can last a surfer for months, and the recounting of it is what people gather in surf shops to do.

Vaughn grew up surfing legendary breaks in Santa Cruz and, later, Hawaii. If he’d been more focused, he might have surfed professionally. Now it seems that Vaughn has taken a page from the book of Skip Engblom, who opened Zephyr surf shop in the seventies and recruited the most talented misfits of Venice, California, to form the legendary Zephyr skate team (of Dogtown and Z-Boys fame). Vaughn’s goal is similar, if more modest: to put Rockaway surfing on the map.

When asked how he plans to do this, Vaughn points first at Pat Butera, a big, powerful 16-year-old in a green T-shirt. “This kid right here rips, man. We call him Rambo because he looks like Stallone.” Vaughn’s been coaching Rambo on how to get his back fins onto the lip of the wave and make the kind of forceful snap-turns that you see the pros doing on surf videos. That’s not something Rambo had ever done before, or even seen in person—there are few down-the-line surfers in Rockaway. Earlier in the spring, Pat was tentative, shying away from the lip, eating it hard. He’s making progress, though. “In a few years, he could be on the cover of magazines,” says Vaughn. “He just needs that push.”

Vaughn looks around the room. There’s Kevin Gray, a reed-thin 17-year-old who may be even more talented than Rambo, and Lawrence Benin, a long-limbed 14-year-old with fewer skills but plenty of promise. And then there’s Tommy Tyne, a slight 13-year-old who Vaughn says may be the most marketable of the bunch. “Tommy’s so small he makes every wave look huge. But he’s fearless. I’ve been out with him on days when none of the older kids would paddle out.”

Vaughn plans to turn his surf shop into a clubhouse that doubles as the flagship for FTW, the lifestyle brand he founded in 2004. (FTW—or “fuck the world”—is an initialism long used by convicts and bikers.) He wants to build a tiki lounge in the backyard and a gym in the basement for members of his FTW crew to train on days when the surf is flat. By the end of this year, he hopes to have a team of about 25 kids. The top members will receive a salary, FTW clothing, and money to travel to some of the best surf breaks in the world.

Back behind the cash register, Vaughn is getting Rambo pumped up about Rockstock & Barrels, an upcoming contest that is expected to attract surfers from as far away as Florida as well as some kids from Long Beach, up the road. “If you want to stand out, beating Long Beach is a start,” Vaughn says. “After Long Beach, we’ll go to Carolina and then Florida and then California. Then you’ll be doing something.”

There aren’t many observers who think that Vaughn has a chance at succeeding in Rockaway. He has opened, of all things, a surf shop that stocks only $600 high-performance Australian surfboards, expensive clothing, and high-end sunglasses on one of the bleakest blocks in all of Queens. On the eve of the shop’s opening, word spread of Vaughn’s troubled and violent past—one that includes a murder charge and the illegal possession of a handgun. This led a number of local surfers to bash Vaughn on Internet message boards. Rumors spread that FTW is a money-laundering front for organized crime (which Vaughn denies). And only a few days before Memorial Day, Vaughn had spent 33 hours in central booking after being arrested for carrying an illegal knife.


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