Meet the Surfing Rebels of Rockaway Beach

New York's surfers don't do an "off season" – taking to the waves in near-freezing temperatures - and continuing to help restore the area after Hurricane Sandy

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Meet the Surfing Rebels of Rockaway Beach

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It's 4:30 in the morning, and the streets of New York City are empty on a chilly early-spring morning. It feels nice as I ride the motorcycle out of Manhattan toward Queens, but a little eerie to see "the city that never sleeps" this quiet. For some people, Saturday night is still winding down as Sunday begins. The morning sunlight hasn't started to peek above the horizon yet. The roads in front are empty, and the waves of the Far Rockaways lay ahead.

When most people think of surfing, they probably picture California, Hawaii and Australia – some place tropical, certainly much warmer than New York's chilly shore at the crack of dawn. But New York surfers flock to the Rockaway beach area to seek out the early morning surf. It's the place that inspired the Ramones to write one of their best songs, and where countless kids from the outer boroughs go in the summertime when they want to beat the heat. 

But the Queens' Rockaway Peninsula that the beach calls home was one of the most devastated areas in New York after Hurricane Sandy. Even nearly five years later, some communities affected by the storm are still recovering. So on a brisk April morning, I decide to see how the community has grown and thrived after the area was ravaged by the 2012 natural disaster.

I arrive on the scene at dawn, and my first stop is with Joe Falcone, an in-demand surfboard shaper who grew up in the Rockaways and works out of his garage. He opens the door of his workshop to reveal a floor covered with fiberglass from the previous day's work. This is where surfing started for Falcone, where his obsession grew. The experience in New York is different than the rest of the world, he believes 

"It's an epic way to cleanse off all the bullshit that happens in Manhattan," he explains. "The swell doesn't happen as frequently as some places, like California. There will be massive amounts of time where we don't get any waves, and you're still in that mindset, watching surf videos, working out, rethinking boards – everything is really romanticized."

Back on the bike, it's a short drive to the Rockaway Beach Surf Club to speak with owner Brandon D'Leo. The local hangout is decorated with colorful murals, photographs and paraphernalia, and a sign behind the bar displays the "Surf Code" that outlines who has first dibs on a wave breaking. "Not enough people know it, and I wish they did," D'Leo says. In the back of the bar is an outdoor patio with tall, painted lockers where "transplant" surfers can store their surfboards and gear to use for early morning sessions. D'Leo says seeing the boardwalk rebuilt after Hurricane Sandy was a huge step for revitalizing the Rockaways. "Before this winter, if you went out in January, you would see five or six people in the water," he says. "This past winter, you would see 90 people on a good day."

Since the waves are not attracting many surfers on this brisk Sunday, I return the next morning at sunrise and meet a few who are new to the scene. Desiree Melendez considers herself a beginner and is one of the four women in a surf group called Club 98. Surfing in the winter is the best time, Melendez explains. "As soon as it starts to warm up, it flattens out." That means, for surfers at the Rockaways, there is no off season.

While it may seem strange to move to New York for surfing, she says that living close to a beach that's a train ride away from a major city is something you cannot find anywhere else. After catching a couple of waves at dawn, she heads back to shore to get to her job in Manhattan.

Jimmy Dowd, owner of local surf shop Boarders, walks down the boardwalk, explaining how he grew up on this beach. "Starting with body surfing, then to boogy boarding," he says before finally graduating to surfing." As any surfer, he had dreams of going to California or Hawaii for big waves, but he's just as happy hanging out in his own backyard. Dowd says he's seen the community change over the years and doesn't mind the newbies, and that means the area has grown over the years with new businesses, attracting bigger crowds and adding to the surf scene every year at the Rockaways.

"This little oasis of this home break, perfect wave that was kind of unknown is now globally recognized," he says. And that's fine by him.