Dawn Patrol

Surfing in the city that never sleeps.

Words and photos by Gordon Macrae

Autumn. A weekday morning, before dawn.

I slip out of bed and layer on one, two, three sweaters, shoving a still-damp wetsuit into my bag. As I do this, a question runs through my head, over and over.

“Why am I doing this?”

It’s not even 5 a.m., and I’m on my way to Rockaway Beach, Queens. To go surfing.

Maybe it’s because I’m an islander living in an overcrowded city where outside space is in short supply, but I love seeing the beach. This is a purely selfish pleasure, but after seeing the Rockaway Peninsula for the seventh or eighth time I made it a goal to learn how to surf. Living here requires equal parts tenacity and flexibility: New York City is truly the city that never sleeps. Which is why I’m not in bed and instead optimizing on a chance experience that I never would have thought possible before I moved here. And much like New York rewards those with ambition and drive, so does surfing in the city. It requires an agenda, a detailed plan, and a method to execute on it. Mine? To surf before work; to be out to the Rockaways and back into Manhattan by 10 a.m.

At the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station, waiting for the A train, I stand out like a sore thumb. I’m in board shorts and a heavy jacket, clutching my eight-foot, soft-top. I could swap it all for a Winston Churchill costume and get less attention.

I change trains and head toward Beach 60th Street, where I’ll meet my friend Dave, who lives out by the water. Dave’s been my partner in crime over the summer, aiding my transformation from hapless beginner to slightly less hapless beginner. Making friends in a new city can be hard. Fortunately, Dave and I met in a brief period of overconfidence on my part, almost immediately after I moved here and, knowing nobody, was forced to say “yes” to every opportunity that came by. And now, after a few lessons from a surf school based on Rockaway Beach, I’m starting to feel that I might be getting the hang of it. Or at least, that onlookers might not feel the need to call the coastguard, at least not right away.

“I could swap it all for a Winston Churchill costume and get less attention.”

Once on the train, the wind picks up as we cross Broad Channel. In the last 24 hours the storm has been downgraded, but the swell still holds promise. Riding this stretch of the line over Jamaica Bay is my favorite part of the trip. It’s always disconcerting to jump on the subway in Northern Brooklyn and then find yourself a half-hour later in what looks like a small East Coast fishing town.

As the subway curves around the beach I catch a glimpse of the churning ocean. It looks heavy, with five-foot waves slamming on the shoreline. The sun is barely up, but surfers are already crowding the break at 87th Street.

I grew up on an island but never caught a wave. Mine was not a surfer’s childhood; in fact, I thought you had to have a couple screws loose to ride those heaving walls of water, bodies sliding down, and often under double-overhead waves that couldn’t care less about the human beings spinning inside them. But, the summer after I moved to New York, I spent Memorial Day on the shoreline at Beach 67th Street and I had a realization I’d been wrong for all these years. Out here, there were surfers. Groups of weekend riders gliding lazily down mushy knee-high waves. I lay transfixed all afternoon, and left with an itch to be able to do it too.

The next day I was back, standing in chest-high water in an old wetsuit with an instructor, grappling with a large soft-top surfboard and a grim realization of just how long it would take to become one of those agile surfers I’d watched from the beach. Aching and fatigued, I tried over and over to rotate my leaden arms fast enough to push up into a half-crouch and catch a wave, but I kept ending up face down in the water. And yet I was hooked.

All through that first summer I monitored the surf forecast like an addict. Rising at 4 or 5 a.m. to take the A train out to the Rockaways, just for the chance to ride two-foot waves, might sound masochistic to some, but I was growing to love it. If I managed to catch even a few of those short breaks in a session it was like an early payday.

That’s certainly what I’m telling myself when I meet Dave outside the station at Beach 60th Street and we drive to a deserted stretch of sand. My body wanted nothing to do with the water at that hour. Regardless, we suit up and paddle out in a lull between swells.

Once we’re safely beyond the surf, we sit on our boards and rest, two black specks bobbing on a blue, windblown sea. The waves out here are bigger than anything I’ve surfed before, the power like a jet engine gearing for takeoff. After 10 minutes of cautious inaction I decide it’s time to catch a wave. I spin my board and dig in deep, and suddenly Dave is shouting: “Paddle! Paddle hard! Up, up, up!” Then I hear nothing but the roar of water.

Timed just right, experienced surfers will line up with the peak of the wave—the highest point and the first section to break—as they get to their feet and their board drops with the wave. Timed poorly, less experienced surfers will fall down a lot. I’m on my feet for a glorious split-second, but then my board pearls and I topple over the front.

After the sixth wave, I find myself beyond the break and collapse on my board, unable to lift myself up. Fire shoots through my arms and shoulders, and it’s barely eased when Dave shouts again. Another wave is approaching, I turn and paddle hard. And then something magical happens. The board slips down the front of the wave and I find I’m on my feet. Gravity pulls me down and down. Unconsciously, at the bottom I turn and there I am, ahead of the peak, gliding across the break toward the shore. There’s no sound but the hum of the water cascading behind me.

An hour drifts by. I don’t catch another wave like that second one, but I don’t care—I know that for the rest of the day I’ll have a dopey grin on my face, feeling the echo of those two waves, the sweet, primal rush. Not to mention the deep calm that comes from being worked over, and chilled to the bone.

It’s 8.30 a.m. and I’ve got work to do. Just time to change in the car on the way back to the subway and make it into Manhattan for a 10 a.m. meeting.