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How to Surf on the East Coast

Mar 17, 2024


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why not try

Autumn may be the season of big swells, but the smaller waves found year-round near East Coast cities are perfect for beginners who want to give surfing a try.

By Lisa Fogarty

Lisa Fogarty wiped out the first 20 times she tried surfing at Rockaway Beach, N.Y. All 10 of the surfers she interviewed said the second you stand on a board makes up for all of the falls.

Jeriyla Kamau-Weng never imagined herself as a surfer. A Boston native who is Black and Asian, she’d never seen a surfer of color and didn’t know there were beaches close by that would be good for beginners. When a classmate mentioned that he surfed near Boston, she was intrigued.

So this past summer, Ms. Kamau-Weng, 22, rented a car and drove two hours to take a lesson in Cape Cod. The female instructors made her feel welcome and she learned how to “pop up” (moving from a push-up into a crouched stance) on a foam board, which is easier for beginners to balance on than a fiberglass surfboard.

She fell — a lot. But finally her instructor spotted a promising wave and pushed her onto it, and Ms. Kamau-Weng paddled her arms until the nose of the board dipped into the wave — her cue to pop up fast and balance. She kept her head up and looked away from the board, positioning her right foot toward the back and placing her left foot in the middle. Her first ride lasted only a few seconds, but it was thrilling.

“I was so locked in on the wave crashing underneath my board, I could cast aside all my worries and focus on the exhilaration and joy of the moment,” Ms. Kamau-Weng said. “While riding a wave, I don’t have time to second guess myself or overthink. It’s just do or don’t.” Now, she plans to check out beaches closer to the city so she can keep practicing.

From 2019 to 2021, the number of surfers in the United States increased by 17 percent, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. During this rise — which coincided with surfing’s debut in the 2020 Olympics — more beginners like Ms. Kamau-Weng have been getting started at urban beaches, which often have smaller, more manageable waves to learn on.

In addition, a flurry of inclusive surf groups, like Queer Surf in San Francisco, Black Surfers Collective in Los Angeles, Benny’s Club and Black Surfing Association in Rockaway, N.Y., are reaching communities that have historically been left out of the sport. Intrigued? Here’s what to know.

Surfing is an outstanding cardiovascular and strength-building sport. It delivers bursts of extreme anaerobic exercise followed by a recovery stage, similar to high-intensity interval training, said Sean C. Newcomer, department chair of kinesiology at California State University San Marcos.

“What most surfers realize, and the general population probably doesn’t realize, is the vast majority of the time in the water is spent either paddling or stationary — a small fraction of the time (between 2 to 5 percent) is spent wave riding,” Dr. Newcomer said.

Surfers spend 40 to 60 percent of their time either endurance paddling to get to the lineup, where waves start breaking and surfers wait to catch them, or sprint paddling to catch waves — both of which strengthen muscles in the back, shoulders, chest and neck, Dr. Newcomer said.

There is some evidence that surfing can lead to better coordination later in life. One small study found that people between the ages of 57 and 64 who had surfed for several years had better balance and stronger posture than non-surfers their age.

As you might expect from a sport requiring focus, balance and the steady crashing of waves, there’s a therapeutic quality to surfing, and “surf therapy” programs have emerged to capitalize on these physical and psychological benefits. Small studies have looked at the sport’s positive effect on youth at risk for mental health disorders and combat veterans coping with PTSD.

Posie Mansfield, 73, who was overwhelmed by grief after losing her husband and having her left leg amputated because of an infection, credits learning adaptive surfing with AmpSurf near Boston with helping her overcome trauma. “Surfing helped me heal — it showed me life wasn’t over for me,” Ms. Mansfield said. “I’ve never experienced such a freeing feeling.”

“Are you comfortable in the water — are you water safe? If you’re not, your first lesson needs to be swimming lessons at the Y.M.C.A,” said Sharon Schaffer, the first Black female surfer from the United States to compete in a World Qualifying Series tour.

When you start out, only surf in a group or at breaks where there are other surfers. Even with small waves, stay cautious: Rip currents (narrow channels of fast-moving water that drag swimmers out to sea) are the cause of most surf-zone fatalities, though not just among surfers.

“The learning process is not about how many times you can stand up on a board and surf a wave,” said GiGi Lucas, founder of SurfearNEGRA, a collective that offers surf lessons and beach transport to girls and women of color. “It’s understanding how to navigate your environment.”

Consider taking lessons or hiring an instructor to teach you how to avoid rip currents and what to do when you are trapped in one, how to avoid colliding into other surfers and how to choose appropriate waves. For example, if waves are overhead (about six to seven feet high), beginners should avoid surfing but can observe from the shore how advanced surfers handle them.

Ms. Schaffer warns that the surge in surfing’s popularity has resulted in some surf schools putting people in the water unprepared. If you’re interested in taking lessons, “look for strong, longstanding reputable people who’ve been doing this for a minute,” Ms. Schaffer said. Look for an instructor with International Surfing Association (ISA) certification, which means they have met safety and surf skills training standards.

With the right gear, you can surf year-round. East Coast surfing is most popular in the fall when passing hurricanes create large, powerful waves. For safety reasons, though, beginners should stick to surfing waves that are around one to two feet — which you should also be able to find year-round. “When you’re a beginner, you don’t need to know the difference between good and bad waves,” Ms. Schaffer said. “You just need to get better at surfing.”

You can check local wave and wind conditions with apps like Magicseaweed and Surfline, and learn about daily surf conditions on their websites. These sites also provide more in-depth details on things like offshore, onshore and cross-shore winds, which affect wave period (the number of seconds you’ll wait between waves; with a few exceptions, the higher the number the more powerful the swell). As you progress as a surfer, understanding winds and tides can help you tell which days are best for surfing in your area.

As for gear, beginners often learn on a foam board (as opposed to fiberglass or epoxy resin) that’s nine or 10 feet long, since they are more stable and less likely to cause injury during wipeouts. You can usually rent a foam board with lessons.

You’ll need a rash guard (a shirt designed to prevent board-induced rashes) in warm water, a 3/2 wetsuit (meaning three millimeters thick over the torso and two millimeters over the limbs) for early fall and spring conditions, and if you’re feeling brave, a 4/3, 5/4 or thicker winter wetsuit, along with booties, gloves and a hood, for cold-water surfing in late fall, winter and early spring in New England, Mid-Atlantic States and San Francisco.

Lastly, be patient: Surfing takes years to master. Enjoy the process. “You’re going to mess up — a lot. But surfing is a life-long relationship,” Ms. Lucas said. “My advice for beginners is: Don’t take yourself seriously.”

Lisa Fogarty is a writer from Long Island, N.Y.

An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misidentified one of the surfers. Madeline Kim is not nicknamed Momo or a co-founder of Benny’s club, but is a member.

An earlier version of this article misstated the size of a beginner surf board. They are nine or 10 feet long, not nine or 10 inches thick.

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