I wake to the sound of my phone ringing and I answer in a low voice so as to not disturb my wife. Bob, matching my tone as if he were in the room with me, whispers, “You up?”
“I am now,” I say.
“Wanna go?” he says.
“Yeah,” I say.
“I’m five minutes away,” he says.
“Ok,” I say and hang up the phone.
This is typical Bob. He’s been up for hours and rather than call me before he leaves, like I’ve asked him countless times, he calls when he’s almost to my house. This means that he’ll be sitting around waiting for me to get my shit together. I guess this doesn’t really bother him, because it gives him a chance to catch up on surfing magazine reading. Bob is often a month or more behind, because I save my magazines and he takes them home. His only opportunity to read “first run” articles is to get to my house early. Of course, with surfing magazines, it doesn’t matter. There’s really not a whole lot of difference between a May issue and a March issue. It’s all just surf porn. An elite group of surfers, catching waves in exotic lands. This represents less than 1% of surfers worldwide, yet it’s still a multi-billion dollar industry. Ever since Endless Summer, we all want to live the dream.
I come downstairs and Bob is sitting in a chair, wearing a pair of my wife’s reading glasses, and reading a magazine. The purple glasses look particularly fetching against his full head of gray hair. Bob is really handsome when his hair is short, but for whatever reason, maybe his hitchhiking days from the 70’s, he likes to let it go until everyone is yelling at him to cut it. He says he’s “just letting my freak flag fly.” He looks like a mad scientist. A mad scientist with a beer.
We go outside and normally Bob has already tied my surfboard to his ladder rack before he even came in the house. He’s good like that. He’s 54 but he has the energy of a 16 year old and the work ethic of a Depression-era immigrant.
Bob drives. I don’t know why. Maybe because I don’t really want to. Bob always has a thermos of coffee, always spiked with a little rum (for a little flavor according to Bob) and we share that. I’ll be smoking a cigarette, still half awake and Bob will be chattering away, like a monkey in a tree. As I said, he’s been up for hours. I usually don’t have a hell of a lot to say. Bob does the talking for both of us. The radio is usually on, which Bob compensates for by speaking louder rather than turning it down. He does the same thing when you call him while he’s driving. The idea of turning the radio down hasn’t ever really occurred to Bob.
We cross the Garden State Parkway and before you know it, the lowland marshes that separate the barrier islands from the mainland, fan out before us. I’ve been living here for 15 or 16 years and it still takes my breath away. I’m still inspired by the sight of white egrets, dolphins, terns. It all still seems so exotic, like there are zebras or giraffes running around in your backyard.
We usually head to whatever our favorite beach is that season. Because we have all beach breaks, as opposed to the reef breaks in other parts of the world, the surf is created by sand bars that are constantly shifting. Sometimes we have a great spot for several years, sometimes for a season, and sometimes for only a weekend.
One thing both Bob and I agree on is that we’d rather spend time in the water rather than looking for the perfect wave. There are people who will spend more time driving around looking for something better than actually surfing. We’ll hit one or two spots, if we’re really hard up maybe three, but usually if we roll up and there are waves and guys in the water, we go in. Sometimes, we miss a better session, but we also get some great rides because the waves change by the minute.
One time in the fall, Bob and I rolled up to a particular break we’d been surfing a lot and it really didn’t look that great. In fact, it didn’t even look worth going in. Then it started raining. Bob wanted to surf. Then again, Bob always wants to surf. Even if there is no surf, he’ll want to body surf, or swim. I nicknamed him Otter years ago, but it never stuck.
That day, he turned to me as I was trying to duck under the pier and said, “Come on. Let’s just go get wet. Come on.”
I really didn’t want to. I love getting up and going out with Bob in the morning, but I’m often a little lazy. Many times I will have just come home from a trip and I simply don’t have the energy. Bob is a good influence that way. He makes me go. I’m almost never disappointed.
So this day, I relented and walked back to the car. We put on our wetsuits, took the boards off the car and walked back. From the parking lot you can’t see the ocean, and as we walked up over the dune, an amazing thing had happened. The waves that had been small and confused, were all of sudden lining up. We both looked at each other in disbelief.
“Is it me, or did the waves get a whole lot better?” Bob asked.
“They do look better,” I said.
It had begun to rain a little harder, but once you’re in the water, you can’t get any wetter. We paddled out and were met with beautiful, clean waves coming through in organized sets. We were catching wave after wave, then paddling back out, laughing and enjoying the day in a way most others weren’t on this cool, rainy day. After about 30 minutes, a friend of ours paddled out and joined us, and for the next hour and a half, the three of us had all the waves we could handle, all to ourselves. At one point, the clouds opened up and we were sitting a regular deluge of water from above. Just at that point a pod of dolphins swam by slowly, checking us out. It was magical.
When we get to our spot, the first thing we look for are the cars of the surfers we know. If there are no cars, it’s not usually a good sign. But if there are waves, there will be cars. As early as we get up, there will always be someone getting out of the water as we come in. Often you get the “Oh, it was great earlier, but it’s starting to get a little sloppy.” The thing is, the way the swell changes in New Jersey, we could be saying the same thing a few hours later when we come out. You just never know. This is why no one believes the online surf reports. You can track certain storms, and most serious surfers are amateur weathermen, but mostly you just have to go and see for yourself.
If there are cars on the road, and surfers in the water, you just suit up and paddle out. But this is New Jersey and the ocean is a fickle beast. Occasionally, you roll up and see all these cars and think, “Great. Waves.” But then you walk over the dunes and find all your buddies standing around in hoodies, drinking coffee and talking about….well, it’s always the same thing. Surfboards. Surfing. Lack of waves. How good they were last week. How good they’re supposed to be on Monday when everyone has to go back to work. How much better they were last year. Their desire to take a trip to Costa Rica this winter. It’s a lot of talk, but since the sea isn’t cooperating, no one is going in, yet no one wants to go home.
Surfing is basically a solitary pastime. I won’t call it a sport. Sport implies competition, and while there are a lot of people who surf competitively, either pro or amateur, the vast majority of surfers do so because they can’t imagine not doing it. Surfers who surf purely for pleasure are called soul surfers. Most everyone I know is a soul surfer. They’re bankers and plumbers, sales reps and electricians. All walks of life and economic stratum with maybe nothing more in common other than the desire to ride a board made of foam and resin, on possibly the only form of energy a human being can ride.
Even when you’re out in the lineup, sitting on your board among other guys, you’re often separated by time and distance. Your friend just caught a wave while you were paddling out. The drift is strong and the wind offshore so you’re too far away to be talking. The sun may be shining and the water warm. You’re totally relaxed. And then you see your wave. It’s coming for you and you’re in the right place. You turn and begin to paddle, waiting for that rush of power as the wave picks up your board and begins to propel it. You hop to your feet and turn down the wave, feeling the raw energy of the ocean as you slide down a wall of water. You don’t hear anything else. You don’t see anything else. You’re not aware of anything else. When you are riding a wave, you can only be there. There is no future. There is no past. Only the present.
Bob calls it church. We often surf on Sunday, and this is our cathedral. Our communion with God. Our congregation. There is something very spiritual and supernatural about surfing. It’s hard to explain just as spirituality is, but there is also a certain amount of faith involved in taking off on a wave. Especially a big wave.
But when you’ve paddled all you can paddle and you’re weak with hunger, you take that final ride in and carry your board back to the car.
While there is a certain camaraderie in the water, at least where we surf, and with the guys we surf with, much of the community aspect of surfing happens outside of the water.
Community derived from common interests is not unique. Be it bikers or birders, people come together through common wants and desires.
Community is an important concept in the world of surfing. Surfers think of themselves as a breed apart; part of a tribe that spans the globe, but separated from other people. Surfing is something that connect people from wildly different cultures, languages, geographies and socioeconomic backgrounds. And within that larger group, are smaller communities that span a regional area, and then still further, a small group that is defined by those who surf a single home break.
One of the great things about the surfing community is that its very generational. Father’s teach their sons and daughters, who teach their sons and daughters. On any given day, you’ll find families who surf together, be it the 30 year old dad with his seven year old son, or the 65 year old dad with his 43 year old daughter.
Surfers, while possessive and possibly even downright selfing in the water, are very giving in spirit when they’re out of the water. Surfers support their own and are protective of each other, maybe because there is a little bit of an us against them mentality. Surfers have traditionally been seen as living outside the norms of society, and so band together in tight knit groups.
The beach I consider my own is called Nun’s Beach. It’s called this because it is situated next to a convent. Actually, it’s a summer retreat for nun’s for the Immaculate Heart of Mary order. Every fall there is a surf contest that benefits the nuns and the retreat. It’s paid for new windows, and roofing, and general upkeep for the last decade or so. The nuns sell everything from snacks and coffee, to t-shirts, hats and sweatshirts, always with an illustration of a nun, in full habit, surfing. It’s a family affair, and if you’re part of it, you know practically everyone there. It’s a way for the community to come together and do some good.
And then there is the Borek. Brendan Borek was a young surfer who lived and surfed in the seaside town of Avalon, NJ. We was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer when he was a young man, and died at the age of 19. The charity that bears his name was started by his mother 21 years ago, and raises money to support families who are struggling with pediatric cancer. They have a multitude of events throughout the year, from art sales and movie nights, to t-shirt sales and fundraisers. But the big event each year is the Brendan Borek High Tides Surf Memorial. It’s a surf contest and it draws thousands of people to the beach each September.
The first time I went, about 7-8 years ago I brought my camera and took pictures, because it involved surfing and I’m a photographer. Lydia Borek, Brendan’s mom and the woman who started the charity, found my photos and asked me if they could use them on their site. I agreed and have been shooting for them every year since.
This year, I decided to do a little something different and shot video of the day. What I wanted to do was capture the spirit of the day. The families. The sense of community. And the feeling that life is precious.
One of the most unique parts of the surfing community is called The Circle Of Friends. This is a traditional that likely harkens back to the Hawaiians, although I’m not certain of this, whereby the friends and family of a surfer who has passed, paddle out and form a circle just beyond the breaking waves. They carry with them rose petals and wear leis around their necks. Someone speaks, and they all hold hands. It’s a very moving thing to see, let alone be a part of. It’s a solemn moment, but then it changes when everyone splashes the water and throws the rose petals into the center of the circle. It ends with the surfers all surfing in, many on the same wave, it’s a celebration of the pleasure that the fallen surfer enjoyed when they were still with us.
As the father of a cancer surviving son told me, it’s “a day of reflection, LOVE, JOY, SADNESS, FAITH, and a community like no other on planet earth!!”
And that’s what community means to me.
The following is the video I shot for the Brendan Borek event this year (2011).