Whatever the true nature of New York City, its definition probably doesn’t include the word “natural.” After all, this is a city most closely associated with towering buildings, not towering trees (or waves, for that matter); our parks are a feat of human ingenuity, not an act of Mother Nature; it’s a place that you spend all summer thinking about escaping from, rather than escaping to. Hell, mention “surfing” here and people are more likely to think of riding the green wave of lights as they coast down Vanderbilt on their bikes, than anything having to do with the ocean.
But while the idea that the New Yorker is some nature-fearing urban-dweller who has no inclination toward the great outdoors and has panic attacks walking through Central Park because of all that green holds some merit—or has in the past, anyway—it doesn’t really hold water anymore. Nowadays, just as you’re likely to see someone riding the A train out to the Rockaways with a surfboard tucked under their arm as you are to see people kayaking down the East River. Because the truth is that the reason why New York wasn’t considered a place to indulge in outdoor activities is because it often feels like there wasn’t much access to nature. But now with everything from the addition of endless miles of bike paths to the renewal of New York’s waterways to the introduction of a bunch of stores specializing in surf gear, the myth that New Yorkers don’t have easy access to nature has been dispelled, making this city an excellent spot for the outdoor enthusiast—especially one who can’t afford to travel very far this summer while looking for adventure. And all you’ll need to get started on your New York City outdoor odyssey is right here.
The Urban Surfer
New York City surfers have a lot going against them. For one, hardcore surf aficionados scoff at East Coast waves—Hawaii this is not. For another, unless you have a car at your disposal (and, if so, hi, let’s hang out this summer), it can kind of be a pain in the ass to get to the New York-area beaches that do have the type of waves that make the trek worthwhile. But much in the same way that life in this town isn’t for the faint of heart, neither is surfing. All you need to be able to surf here is to want it. Just get on your board and ride. Ok, enough with these koan-like aphorisms! They’re pretty annoying! But they’re also indicative of the kind of mentality it takes not just to surf in general, but to surf in New York City specifically. You have to take a zen approach to the whole thing, because if there’s one thing that you can consistently depend on with New York waves, it’s that they’re inconsistent. (Oh my god, there’s that whole zen koan thing happening again. Sorry.)
What I’m trying to say is, you have to be open to the idea that even if your goal is to ride waves in the Rockaways, you might find yourself spending a whole afternoon sitting on your board, about twenty feet from the shore, waiting and waiting for that perfect wave that just. never. comes. And you have to be ok with that, at peace with your surroundings, chill with the reality that the sea that day was just not angry. Because the next time you head out, you’re just as likely to find that it is angry, my friend, and that you’ll be able to take ride after glorious ride. And whether or not you actually catch the perfect wave, since surfing the Rockaways means that you can end your day with the perfect fish tacos over at Tacoway Beach, you kind of can’t have a bad day anyway, you know? You know.
If you’re just getting started in the world of urban surfing, here’s a guide to some of the best spots to check out for gear, lessons, and, of course, waves.
Where to Take Lessons
Locals Surf School
Founded by Rockaway Beach-natives Michael Kololyan and Mike Reinhardt, both longtime surfers, this company was founded in 2011, and has built up a reputation in the past few years as the place to go for high-quality instruction by teachers (all of whom are certified lifeguards) who are not only experts in surfing, but also in surfing the Rockaways, specifically. Private lessons are a good idea at first for total newbies, and group lessons are the best deal once you’re feeling more confident on your board.
New York Surf School
This Rockaway Beach surf club will provide you with a board and seasonally appropriate wetsuit so that you can hit the water well into November. This surf school also offers paddleboarding lessons, so you can really feel like you’re in Hawaii. What? New York City is also an archipelago! They’re basically exactly the same. Basically.
Skudin Surf, Rockaway Beach Surf School
The Skudin family has been teaching surfing for well over 30 years now and has schools in Rockaway Beach, Long Beach, and beyond. They teach surfers of all levels (all they ask is that you be able to tread water, which, if you’re not able to tread water, what are you doing thinking about surfing??), so you’re sure to feel comfortable no matter your experience level.
Where to Shop for Surfing Gear
This Greenpoint-based surfboard shop crafts some of the best looking (and most functional) boards we’ve ever seen. Founded by Jeffrey Schroeder and Chris Williams, both avid surfers, Union offers customizable boards for every level of surfer. Not sure what kind you’ll need? Check out the handy infographic they developed with designers Indoek below.
Pilgrim Surf + Supply
This Williamsburg shop has everything from surfboards to rashguards to visors to sunblock, and will get you outfitted (literally: they also have pretty great clothes) for whatever your surfing needs. Or even, you know, if you just want to look like you have surfing needs.
68 N. 3rd Street, Williamsburg, pilgrimsurfsupply.com
When our offices were located in DUMBO, I would frequently walk by this shop and wonder about what the longevity would be for a Brooklyn store that only specialized in surf gear. Well, three years later and Aegir (pronounced “Aae-Grr,” apparently after the “bad ass sea god from Norse mythology,” because when you think surfing, you think Vikings) is still around and thriving. Maybe that’s because it’s not “just” a surf shop; it also trades in skate-and-snowboarding gear. But mostly it’s because all the stuff they have is pretty damned awesome, and comes at a variety of price points, many of them wallet-friendly.
99 Water Street, DUMBO, aegirboardwalks.com
Rockaway Beach Surf Shop
For the most authentic New York surf-shopping experience, hit up the Rockaway Beach Surf Shop for your board- and wetsuit-needs. The shop has been around for over 40 years, and it’s also got a solid stock of clothing and accessories.
177 Beach 116th Street, Rockaway Beach, rockawaybeachsurfshop.com
Where to Surf
Well, obviously. If you’re surfing New York, you have to check out the Rockaways. Not only because it’s just an A train ride away, but also because the intermittent jetties make for short, intense, fast-breaking waves that will give you a fun morning of surfing before heading into shore for some of those Tacoway Beach fish tacos.
Although this is technically Long Island, not New York City, Lido Beach is just a couple miles east of the Rockways. Which serves as a reminder, really, that we actually all live on Long Island. Uh. Cool. Anyway. It can get pretty crowded here on weekends, but that’s only because the surfing is so good. Hit it up on a weekday morning and you’ll be happy you did.
Right next to Lido Beach is Long Beach, and the surfing conditions are similarly strong, aided by the existence of jetties which help the waves break well near the shore. This is a great spot for beginners, and much easier to get to (and much less crowded with annoying people) than Montauk.
Not just for making your friends jealous with perfect Instagram sunset photos, Fire Island also has some decent surfing. Plus, it’s just kind of a magical place to be, what with the whole prohibition on cars, and the fact that you have to take a ferry to get out there. You really can’t lose.
Ok, so, yes: We are telling you to go to New Jersey. But it will really be worth it because of the fast waves that can actually swell to pretty impressive sizes. Plus, it’s just an hour south of New York City, making it closer than the Hamptons, and the perfect length of time to listen to Nebraska while traveling.
The guys at Union Surfboards also listed their five favorite spots for us:
Rockaway Beach 67th Street: “Personal favorite, city classic, A train accessibility.”
Fort Tilden/Breezy Point: “Novelty spot, uncrowded, only an option on bigger swells, it’s the furthest point west on Long Island.”
Lido Beach: “A bit more of a commute from the city, but the best option for bigger swells in the NYC area.”
Long Beach: “The jetty setups here provide the most consistent waves on Western Long Island.”
Robert Moses State Park: “When the sandbars are right it has the potential to be the best waves on Long Island.”
Beyond Surfing: 5 Other Outdoor Activities for the Summer
Maybe surfing isn’t for you; that’s ok! We get it. But it doesn’t mean you should spend your summer indoors reading or something. Here are five other ways to enjoy New York’s natural—and maybe even not-so-natural—wonders that will take you far off the beaten path, or at least, far off your beaten path.
Indoor Rock Climb at Brooklyn Boulders
Ok, so technically an indoor activity, climbing at Brooklyn Boulders should be seen as tons of fun (and an excellent full-body workout) in and of itself, yes, but also as preparation for the ambitious daytrip of climbing in the Shawangunk Mountains upstate. Climbing the Gunks is an exhilarating experience for all levels of climbers (but, again, we recommend you practice at Brooklyn Boulders first), and one that will leave you with the kind of Instagram images that will not only inspire envy, but also plenty of faves.
Brooklyn Boulders: 575 Degraw Street, Gowanus brooklynboulders.com
For more info on climbing the Gunks, visit mohonkpreserve.org
Get Lost in Prospect Park
Look, walking through Prospect Park might not be akin to hiking the Appalachian Trail, but it can still be a lot of fun, and there’s still a ton to see. Go foraging with Wildman Steve Brill on one of his many tours and find out whether or not you’d be able to survive for long if you got lost in the Park’s Vale of Cashmere (spoiler alert: you would, because you have a smartphone and you could find your way to Franny’s pretty easily). Download an app that will help you identify trees and help New York City with its ongoing project to identify every tree in New York City. See how many of the park’s birds you can spot; last time we were birdwatching in the park, we saw a hawk swoop down for a kill. Nature! It’s kind of awesome.
For info on foraging, visit wildmanstevebrill.com
Kayak in the East River
Not only can you kayak in the East River this summer, but you can do it for free: F. R. E. E. E. E. E. That’s right: Every Saturday and Thursday from June to August, there’s free walk-up kayaking at Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Piers 1 and 2. Think of this experience as an opportunity to get comfortable in the water (the free rides are only 20 minutes long, and you’re not allowed to try and make it to Manhattan and back during that time), so that you can do lengthier kayak runs in the future. But hey, you’ve gotta start somewhere, right? Might as well be in the East River while paying absolutely nothing.
For more info, visit bbpboathouse.org
Go Bird Watching in a Canoe in Marine Park
Marine Park is the biggest of the borough’s parks and offers all sorts of amazing activities for the urban explorer. One that we’re particularly excited about is this opportunity to go birding while canoeing through Brooklyn’s creeks and bays. It’s a guided tour, so no need to worry about being swept away into the Atlantic Ocean.
For more info, visit nycgovparks.org
Make Like an Olympian and Swim in New York’s Public Pools
For those of you who are not that into swimming in the ocean (too salty! too many seagulls waiting to attack! sharks?), you’re in luck, because New York City has an abundance of public pools with the kind of aquamarine, highly chlorinated water that is just begging you to enter and cool off. But New York’s pools aren’t just for splashing around: Many of them are ideal for swimming laps and seriously working on your backstroke. Plus, they’re free to use and because there’s so many of them, you could recreate John Cheever’s The Swimmer right here in Brooklyn. Actually, BRB: I’m off to do that right now.
For more info on New York’s public pools, visit nycgovparks.org