Then there’s the question of whether even a less-complicated entrepreneur could jump-start a surfing community in Rockaway. Surfing was introduced there in 1912 when Duke Kahanamoku—the Olympic Hawaiian swimmer and father of modern surfing—gave the locals a wave-riding demonstration. But it didn’t really catch on until the 1966 public screening of Bruce Brown’s iconic surf film The Endless Summer, and even then the numbers were small. “Up until about ten years ago, there were only about fifteen of us in the water,” says Christian Stathis, a Rockaway surfer who runs another surf shop, called Boarders, with his father.
This mostly has to do with the fact that surfing in Rockaway can be incredibly unpleasant. Often the waves are soft and mushy, or wind-whipped and confused, or dangerously steep with sheer faces. During the summer months, only about one in six days presents good waves. Conditions are best during hurricane season and the winter, when water temperatures hover near freezing. On days when the waves are rideable, surfers have to contend with the occasional syringe and “Coney Island whitefish” (floating condoms). For much of the last 50 years, the beaches were overrun by hookers, dealers, and packs of feral dogs. Surfers at Beach 38th would drive their cars right up to the boardwalk to keep watch over their stereos, or carry baseball bats in their board bags to fend off muggers. And to this day they have to keep watch for Parks Department officials ticketing surfers in the illegal zones (which cover most of the beach).
But the thing about Rockaway is that when the waves are at their very best—during a hurricane swell, when the winds are just right and the sandbars are all in order and set after set of overhead barrels are rolling through—they’re as good as the waves anywhere else in the world. Over the past decade, as the sport has grown in popularity on the East Coast, the number of surfers showing up in Rockaway has spiked. On a summer weekend, old-timers like Stathis say they can be outnumbered ten-to-one by DFDs (Rockaway slang for those coming “down for the day”). “It’s international madness out there now,” he says.
Surfing is always an unfriendly sport: Everyone is competing against the guy next to him for a precious resource—waves. “The vibe in the water is angry,” says longtime Rockaway surfer Jimmy Brady. “It’s always been a pretty tough place. Now it’s all these people coming down to learn how to surf. When it gets to six- or eight-foot waves, 100 guys start paddling out. Fifty of them miraculously make it, and you’ve got long boards flying all over the place.” Sal Falcone, a 20-year-old who’s been surfing for fifteen years, recalls a day some years ago when he watched a local choke a DFD with a leash.
Surfing in Rockaway can be incredibly unpleasant, but the best waves can rival any in the world.
And so the Rockaway Beach that Bobby Vaughn discovered when he moved to New York in 2006 was rough, ugly, combustible, and legally suspect. It was a good match. Vaughn had just been discharged from Rikers Island on five years’ probation, after pleading guilty to charges that he was in possession of an unregistered handgun. This after the night in February 2005 when he got into a dispute with his childhood friend and roommate, Mark Rivas. Rivas, in a tequila-fueled rage, stabbed Vaughn in the face with a broken bottle. Vaughn reached for his handgun and shot Rivas to death. He was arrested on charges of first-degree murder and eventually acquitted by a jury that ruled it justifiable homicide.
Shortly after leaving Rikers, Vaughn found his way to the beach. “I was so tired of courts,” he says. “I was like, I just want to get my life back. I want to surf.” He’d seen photos of New York surf before—beautiful A-frame waves during hurricane season—and started exploring the coast. One afternoon he drove the length of the Rockaway Peninsula, passing by the massive housing projects and shabby apartment buildings that advertise themselves as “Beachfront Luxury Apartments.” It reminded him of California and, in particular, of Venice.
He found the surfing beach at 90th Street and continued east until he saw some kids. “It was just like a Cali street, where you pull down and all the boys hang out and it’s like a local spot,” says Vaughn. “They’re skateboarding, surfing, hanging out. So we started rapping.” He began visiting Rockaway regularly, surfing when there were waves and chatting on the beach when it was flat.
Vaughn quickly noticed that the Rockaway surf culture was insular, even stale. None of the surfers from the neighborhood had ever been signed to a sponsorship deal, and for the most part, they weren’t very good. “When I started surfing Rockaway, I saw that nobody was making it out,” he says. “Barrels were getting passed up, and I was like, What the fuck is going on here? Go anywhere in the world that has waves this solid and you will have at least 30 pro-level guys on it. I thought, Either these kids don’t have the right boards, or they’re scared.” Then he took a look at Long Beach, just eleven miles east, with its thriving beach culture, three surf shops, pro-tour event, and a junior surfer named Balaram Stack who is now one of Quiksilver’s highest-paid young surfers.