Gangster Surf

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

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.

Vaughn and the FTW kids at Rockstock & Barrels on Beach 90th Street, Rockaway Beach.Photo: Gerald Förster

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 beforebeautiful 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.

The opportunity was staring him in the face: Vaughn would open up his own surf shop in Rockaway. He was two days away from going to prison in violation of an employment condition to his probation when Lawrence called to say that his father, a doctor named Yury Benin, was interested in investing in FTW. The two men met on December 10, 2008, and Vaughn laid out his business plan. The doctor agreed to the deal and fronted the funds immediately, allowing Vaughn to remain free on probation.

He found a storefront on Beach 116th Street, blacked out the windows and, with some boys from Beach 149th Street, got to work. By this point he had already become acquainted with almost every surfer in the area, and he wasn’t afraid to ask the local kids to help him build the store. “We put our sweat and blood into that place,” says Matt Alessi, an 18-year-old who works behind the counter a few days a week. Vaughn brought in the All City Crew, a well-known street-art collective, to paint wild-style streetscapes, subway trains, and big-booty girls in short shorts brandishing huge handguns. The construction took months. “I met Bobby out in the water one day,” says Sal Falcone. “He was telling me about making teams, sponsorships, building up the young kids, uniting the community. I was down with the movement from the beginning. All of us neighborhood kids helped build that store. We raised it up like it was a little baby.”

Vaughn is confident that a handful of his kids possess the baseline skills to become elite surfers—if not professionals, then at least able to make some money selling action shots to surf magazines. Pat “Rambo” Butera is more ambitious. “If you can surf in New York, you can surf anywhere,” he says. “The waves here are tricky, and when I go someplace where the conditions are cleaner, I’ll be able to take it to the next level, no problem. I just need more waves.”

But it became apparent at the Rockstock & Barrels competition a few weeks ago that the FTW kids have a lot of work to do. Kevin Gray won his first heat and eventually took third place. Little Tommy Tyne took second place in the boys’ division, losing to a kid from Rhode Island. Rambo came in third in his heat and didn’t advance. “These kids are so far behind,” said Vaughn after the match. “The other kids do contests all over the East Coast. They’re so far ahead, it’s like night and day.”

Vaughn plans to start a camp to teach the rudiments of competitive surfing, and in the meantime he coaches his kids whenever he’s not manning the shop. On a recent Friday afternoon, Vaughn paddles out to a Rockaway Beach break and finds Rambo, Kevin, Graham Hill, and Lawrence Benin straddling their surfboards, rising and falling in the swells. The water is 62 degrees, and all the boys are dressed only in trunks. After a few minutes, Rambo, who’s positioned about ten yards farther offshore, straightens up and sends the alert that a set is about to roll through. The other boys begin hooting and whistling—then sprint-paddling, like windmills in a hurricane, trying to get into position to catch the waves.

The first one is closing in fast—first a mound, then a hill, then a steep wall maybe five feet high. Rambo takes two furious paddles, pops to his feet, and coils his upper body against his legs. He makes a ferocious snap-turn off the lip of the wave, coming back down again, then back up for another. He speeds by, pumping up and down the face of the wave, the fins of his homemade board razoring through the water.

Kevin, the flashiest of the FTW kids, is the next to catch a wave. He goes left, carving sharp lines, and buzzes by a jagged wooden piling protruding from the water. He ends his ride by attempting to launch off the crest of the wave, but he falls, landing awkwardly, and gets blasted as the wave explodes onto shore. Everybody waits, wondering if Kevin might be dead. After a long pause, he emerges with his arms up, a wide grin on his face, and paddles back out.

Another set soon approaches, and Rambo is in position. Vaughn sits outside the lineup, marveling at how he makes it look so easy—big cutbacks and turn-on-a-dime maneuvers. “Can you believe he’s only 16?” Vaughn says. “I’m telling you, man: In two years, he could be the poster boy for New York surfing.”

Rambo speeds up the face of the wave, high into the air—but instead of landing on the wave’s face, he descends onto its back. Frustrated, he paddles back to the lineup, next to Vaughn. “What am I doing wrong? Why can’t I land that? Do I need to grab a rail?”

“You just gotta flow with the wave,” Vaughn says. “Let the wave and the board take you. Keep a hand on the closest rail.”

The sets continue to come, one after another, until high tide is at its peak. After weeks of rain, the sun has broken through the clouds. Vaughn extends his arms, lifts his chin to the heat, and closes his eyes, soaking in the rays. An hour passes. The waves become mushy, the sets less frequent. The session is winding down, and Graham has football practice, so the boys paddle in. But Vaughn stays at the break, waiting for one more set. “It’ll be better in a few hours,” he shouts toward the shore. “We’re surfing tonight. No matter what.”

See the Video

Bobby Vaughn Talks About Riding Rockaway’s Waves

Gangster Surf