One morning — a few weeks after the so-called “bomb cyclone” in January had thrown record-low temperatures, high winds and thick ocean waves onto Rockaway Beach in Queens — the conditions remained gnarly. It was 35 degrees, snowing, the Atlantic Ocean was colder than normal at 38 degrees, and the winds were whipping.
Joe Falcone looked past the snow-covered sand to the surf and saw a fleet of humans bobbing up and down on boards. Dozens of them. His blood pumped hot with frustration.
“There were at least 50 guys just in my eyesight,” Mr. Falcone said, describing the scene as “mayhem.” He believes that surfing should be like a meditation. “But it’s hard when you’re sitting shoulder to shoulder with someone you don’t know. Out goes the intimacy between man and Mother Nature.”
The best New York City surfing, experts say, is between September and April. January through March can see great waves, fueled by storms at sea.
Surfing Rockaway Beach in the bitter cold used to be a solitary affair, only for locals and the hard-core. But because of a boom in popularity of the sport, the gentrification of the neighborhood and advancements in wet-suit technology (a $600, five-millimeter- thick suit can keep you warm for two hours), the frigid city surf has gotten crowded, locals say.
Back in the day, when Rockaway Beach was identified by its low-income housing, surfers had a Chinese food takeout spot, an Italian restaurant, and not much else for après-surf. But somewhere around 2011, the hipster and foodie scene exploded here. Rockaway Taco led the way, followed by a proliferation of boardwalk concession stands and food trucks, including an outpost of Roberta’s Pizza. Everything would close in winter.
Starting around 2015, however, surfers started opening year-round places. Rockaway Roasters, a coffee shop serving seed-laced protein balls and gluten-free dragon fruit bowls, opened that year, followed by Rockaway Brewing Company in 2016, which soon became a community hangout, offering racks to hang boards. And in 2017, the pastry chef and surfer Tracy Obolsky opened Rockaway Beach Bakery.
The developing scene delights many, but it has brought tension out on the waves.
“The newcomers are not respecting the natives,” said Mr. Falcone, a sort-of local surf icon who builds surfboards in a garage, blocks from the beach. There’s a lot of posing in Rockaway, he said. “People think of it as an Instagram moment.”
Injuries aren’t uncommon.
When Dion Mattison, 37, of Crown Heights, is not teaching Aristotelian philosophy at the New School in Manhattan, he operates the Conatus Surf Club in Rockaway, extolling proper technique to clients. On Feb. 12, Mr. Mattison was surfing with a student when he was forced to jump off a wave to avoid hitting another surfer. Mr. Mattison’s board whipped around and hit him, ripping off part of his eyelid.
Mr. Mattison grew up riding waves in Northern California and moved to New York in 2009. Back then, the surf was quiet, he said. A connoisseur of surf culture, Mr. Mattison said that surfing has surged and waned since the 1930s. “There are moments when it peaks, and we are in that moment right now,” said Mr. Mattison, who attributes the craze partly to surf imagery in fashion.
Conatus in Rockaway (with additional outposts in California and Costa Rica) is at near-capacity with 35 clients. Mr. Mattison said he’s been surprised that so many New Yorkers are eager to pay the $120 hourly fee to train with him, since he’s noticed that most surfing newcomers don’t seem interested in learning proper form.
For example, last year one of Mr. Mattison’s students needed staples in his head after “some complete ignoramus,” as described by Mr. Mattison, with “no business going for the waves he was going for,” crashed into the student. “Even if you are going to get rolled,” he said, “it’s better you get hit with your own surfboard then to hit someone else with your surfboard.”
At 7 a.m. in late February, Shaun Crowley, 40, left his home in Hamilton Heights, Harlem, and jumped on the A train at 145th Street, with his thermos of kelp tea, to begin his weekly pilgrimage to Rockaway Beach. As the train emerged aboveground an hour later with a view of the water, Mr. Crowley’s eyes lit up. “This is part of the payoff,” he said. Getting to the beach via subway provided the inspiration for Mr. Crowley’s company, Mottai Surf, which produces special bags to protect boards in transit.
Walking toward the beach, Mr. Crowley passed a line of surfers. Ryuta Sayama, 29, from Bushwick, stood drenched and shivering in the 40-degree weather next to a silver Zipcar. He was wearing only wet boxer briefs after pulling off his wet suit. With bloodshot eyes, he wrapped a towel around his waist to put on some clothes.
“It just feels good,” Mr. Sayama said. “When you go into the water, upside down in a wave, you feel like everything that is stressful in society becomes small, because of the wave, and nature. If you surf, it’s a good day; it’s life.”
Good surf in New York City is finite: only so many good days; only so many good waves; good one minute, gone the next.
“Forecasting is a nightmare,” Mr. Mattison said. “If you want to be a surfer, you can’t promise any social engagements to any of your friends. The promise is: I’ll be there unless the surf is good. If they get mad, too bad,” he continued. “Surfing is more important than any social engagement except maybe your child being born. Definitely more important than your friend’s wedding.”
Surfers have many unwritten rules of etiquette. Changing at the beach is one of them. “If someone travels to the beach with their wet suit already on, they’re considered a bad surfer right there,” Mr. Mattison said.
And then there are the inexperienced surfers: Throwing them into the mix can get really dicey, said Julian Vasquez, of Brooklyn, who grew up surfing in the area. “It gets territorial,” he said. “I’ve seen fights. Someone who is not a good surfer gets yelled out. Everything is a cock fight.”
Mr. Vasquez compared the Rockaway surfer scene to what’s happened to New York in general. “There’s a grittiness that you miss about the old New York. It’s the same with the beach. You felt like it was your special thing. Now everyone wants to be a surfer.”
“Localism,” the practice protecting home surf spots, is intense and can get violent in places such as California, with reports of tire-slashing, beatings and “spearing” — aiming a surfboard at someone else like a weapon. It’s not that bad here, Mr. Mattison said, though intimidation does occur.
“I don’t condone nasty localism,” Mr. Mattison said. “But I think a certain level of rule following is needed.”
Andrew Bombard, of Williamsburg, grew up in Colorado. He moved to the city four years ago and has been surfing weekly since, hitting the beach “at first light,” before heading to work as director of quality for Brooklyn Brewery.
Mr. Bombard has been cursed at. But he gets it. “If you show respect, it’s certainly O.K. to be out there,” he said. “You show respect and earn it in kind.”
The nor’easters of early March brought great surf, with up to 12-foot waves out at Rockaway. The ocean temperature was around 40 degrees, the air in the 30s, and winds created a powerful swell, Mr. Bombard said.
“I wish it was like that every day. I’m always watching the weather, looking for storms,” Mr. Bombard said. “It’s my new existence.”
Later on that cold and cloudy February day, after his 90-minute subway journey through Manhattan and Brooklyn to Queens, Mr. Crowley stood with Mr. Mattison and looked out over the Atlantic. It was 8:30 a.m. and there were already 20 surfers in the water despite the dinky, one-foot-high swell. They watched two surfers nearly run into each other trying to catch the same wave.
“Only at Rockaway,” Mr. Mattison said.
Mr. Crowley pointed to a scar on his left cheek. “The only scar of my life after nearly 30 years of surfing was getting run over by a beginner” at Rockaway, said Mr. Crowley. “But I believe the ocean is free.”