by Kevin Weiner
Traveling down the coast of both the Atlantic and the Pacific, the lyrics from Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy ring close to a subpopulation of New Yorkers and Californians alike:
Chewing out a rhythm on my bubble gum
I hate to break it to you, but the Ramones are not real brothers, even though they have the same last name. Similarly, despite their likeness in title, the two Rockaways are not the same and are even on opposite sides of the country. They do have a lot of overlap, however, and if Urban Outfitters sold a black t-shirt with ROCKAWAY in white font above the Ramones seal, each coast would have their fair share of Rockaway enthusiasts and Rockaway haters in both New York and San Francisco.
Rockaway in the East Meets Pacifica in the West
As Rockaway is the closest surfable spot in New York City, the crowd is reminiscent of the San Francisco surfers flooding Ocean Beach from the taxi, trolley, and bicycle mayhem, seeking solace within the plethora of rips and paddle battles that Noriega Street can bring – only in New York, you have everyone from Broadway dancers, struggling artists, and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies filling the lineups. The water quality is similar to the smattering of breaks outside of Lima, Peru, where they tell you not to worry about rocks or sharks, just don’t drink the water. The most popular spot is 92nd street, mostly because of the beloved Ramones connection, but bring on a southwest swell with a northwest wind, and you’ll have goofyfooters breaking guitars over each other’s heads to get their chance to barrel down the line. Not to mention getting their cars stolen if they aren’t careful. The NY thieves around there can con the best con artist, so the Hawaiian key burial is not the best idea.
So what, you say? Why should we care? Well, tucked away in Pacifica, you have Rockaway’s bicoastal companion. Like the NY Rockaway, you have an eclectic mix of onlookers who curb their dogs by using extra surf leashes hanging off rear view mirrors, where you never know who you’re surfing next to – a long time local, a UC-Davis med student from Philadelphia, a San Diegan transplant, or even a pizza boy who just moved out here from Wildwood, New Jersey. No matter where you’re from, one thing is for sure: this place is not for beginners.
The Ramones song sounds more like a jingle than an early punk anthem when pulling up to the parking lot on a foggy, cold, double overhead close-out day on a winter morning. The ocean itself looks like it’s moshing to GWAR, rather than hitching a ride to Rockaway with the Ramones. In addition to the dangerous rips and competitive paddle battles, the pack of more-often-than-not grumpy locals sits just outside the channel to get those rights that bowl at just the right moment, while others sit for that elusive left that you need to time perfectly on southwest swells to avoid getting sucked inside. From the rapid movement of water to the nearby sewage pipe, the Ramones probably would have only sung about this place if they successfully made a drop or two on a heavy day. For the people that surf it regularly, sometimes that’s the only thing they can hope for. Not to mention the long flat spells in the summer where, from the parking lot, it still looks like people are fighting for those ankle high dribblers. Still, on the right swell, both coasts have their fair share of frontside carves on twin-fin Hobies, to backside airs on the newest Al Merrick, leaving the question – does one Rockaway deserve the title of the ”Real” Rockaway?
Fight for your Right to Surf
One thing is for sure, both Rockaways are territorial. With a smaller swell window for Northeast surf, the ever-present anxiety of missing waves, and east coasters wanting their fill, the vibe is nearly always heavy. I’m not bad-mouthing my northeast upbringing, but since I have Sicilian blood, I can safely say that the lineup is Sopranos-esque. If you duff a drop-in, don’t expect it to go unsaid or to not have glares from every person that missed the set, thinking with their eyes that they wanna give you such a smack – said in Joe Pesci voice, of course. Not to mention expletives that I won’t mention here. Combine this with a New York winter and it doesn’t matter if there’s snow, sleet, or hail, the local crew will find their 6/5’s and their Vaseline, and duck diving 34ºF water never seemed so tropical, especially while getting pelted in the face with ice balls of hail from that howling west wind. It’s true that the racing lefthander in fall and winter brings smiles to the Zoo York crew and all others who hit it on the right swell, making them forget the infamous summer flat spells of Lake Atlantic.
The Pacifica Rockaway isn’t known for its consistency or epic-ness much either, but as just explained for its right coast counterpart, if you catch it on the correct combination of swell and wind, you will hear every surfer that hit it singing Rockaway’s praises—and they will let you know if you are allowed to sing along with them or not when you paddle out and try to squeeze your way into the pecking order. Though there aren’t many New York Italians out in the line-up in Pacifica, you still need to earn your keep to get your fair share of rides. And when most of the time the only goal is to paddle in with a board in one piece, that’s not something most want to deal with during their session. Despite this, it’s not uncommon for wave hungry regular foots to cruise up the coast from Santa Cruz, stopping at Rockaway to take a look. And then they typically keep on driving. On one particular occasion this past spring, I was taking off my booties after a session as three cars pulled up. The driver of the first car rolled down his window.
“It looks heavy, man.”
The passenger of the second car chimed in as he saw a dude swimming to shore, chasing pieces of his semi-gun.
“Yeah man, it is heavy. Sucking up hard.”
But after sitting in the right spot for not even an hour, getting your fill of overhead waves on days where that channel is your best friend, you want to tell them to paddle out, to feel the Rockaway energy. But, as always, actions speak louder than words. At that moment, hooting from the three cars began in unison because, following a paddle battle, the surfer on the left flew out of a rogue, spitting barrel.
It goes without saying that each Rockaway has its moments and that paddle battles will be paddle battles and barrels will be barrels no matter the coast. Sure, they raced into their wetsuits and watched as the wipeouts ensued following the ride of the day. They got stuck by the inside rips for 20 minutes on the paddle out, and one of their crew got sent home packing with two pieces of his board because, at peak low tide, Rockaway is anything but gentle, and the line-up didn’t give much advice to the newbies invading their space. If you’re looking for a Sunday stroll type of wave on either coast, Rockaway for sure isn’t it.
Whether you’re in fog city or just outside the city that never sleeps, though paddle battling is always appreciated when compared to the crowds outside Madison Square Garden or parallel parking on the left side of a one-way street in a Friscan rush hour, before you decide to choose a new spot, the old saying of pick and choose your battles is appropriate to describe Rockaway. Not only do you have to battle the ocean, but also the uber-competitive line-up that sometimes even contains aggression from local to local. But, doesn’t everyone love a barrel of Rockaway bliss, even if it means braving the cold and fog in fog city? Though this may be true, if you do get one, don’t expect to paddle back to an open-armed group of locals—because you haven’t earned your keep. You would be better off chancing the left on the shoulder, hoping to pick off some uncontested closeouts.
So, crank up your iPods, CD players, or tape decks if you still have them, and join the Ramones as they head bang in their graves at their immortal tribute to the NY Rockaway. But if you’re caught singing it in the Pacifica parking lot, just turn around and head to Linda Mar because you’ve already boxed yourself out of every wave.