The Thin Line Between Life and Death and Following Your Dreams

I just checked my Facebook page and they had one of those Memories listed with a photo of me and my friend Jason Dennis from 5 years ago.  I was attending a digital media conference in New York at the Javitz Center.  I don’t remember specifically why I was there, I might have been speaking, or maybe it was just an excuse to go back to the homeland (I was born in NYC and spent my first 14-years there).

As I prepared for the trip, I checked the surf forecast for NY.  I’m always looking for opportunities to surf new places.  Its one of the great things about surfing.  There are so many miles of coastline in this world, and anywhere there are waves there’s bound to be a surf culture there. You just have to seek it out.  Some places its underground, and some places it’s all over the tourist magazines.  NY is one of the more underground surf cultures.

Theyve been surfing in NY since Duke Kahanamoku demonstrated wave riding in 1912.  Theres a fascinating story on the history of surfing in New York at the East Coast Surfing History website by Mike Tabeling (who of course now lives in San Diego).

Courtesy of The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority

Theres a small but hardcore group of surfers that surf Rockaway Beach in Queens.  Theyre pretty protective about their waves and proud of their history. They have a right to be.  Rockaway can be brutally difficult to master.  Its cold and only the hardcore surf it when it’s at its biggest.   I started digging online and found a surf shop called Boarders that was run by a guy who had been surfing in Rockaway since the 60s.  They promoted a wide variety of rental boards.  I bookmarked them on Yelp just in case things worked out.  The surf forecast was looking good, the show ended on Friday, and my return flight was scheduled to depart JFK on Saturday at 3 PM.  JFK was a stones throw from Rockaway, so I was pretty confident I could figure out the logistics if the waves showed up.

So as I’m wandering the show floor, Jason comes up to me.  I throw him a big bear hug.  I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years.  JD (as I call him) was an executive at Walsh Wireless, a business solutions reseller for Sprint started by his father-in-law, Chick Walsh.  Id met Chick years ago and had done some business with his company while I was working for Ecast in Silicon Valley.  For some reason Jason and I just clicked.
We immediately remarked that we seemed to be wearing each others clothing.  Jason was in board shorts and a t-shirt, to go with the surfing theme in his trade show booth, and I was wearing a full suit and tie.  Complete role reversal.

I tell him that I’m thinking about surfing tomorrow, and that I found a shop called Boarders in Rockaway that rents boards.  He laughs and says that’s where he rented the boards for his booth.  He tells me he has to return them tomorrow morning, and asks if I want a ride to the shop.  He even offers to hang around and take me to the airport afterward.  My logistics were taken care of.

Jason also advised me he was quitting his job at Walsh Wireless.  I was shocked. After all. it was a family business and I always felt he was in line to take over when Chick retires.  He went on to explain that we was tired of the rat race in Manhattan, and wanted to raise his daughter in a better place.  He was debating between Colorado and Hawaii.  I mentioned that he should consider the Big Island, as it was kind of the combination of the two. We agreed to meet early the next morning.

The surf forecast had solidified, and Surfline was calling for 8-12 surf and Good to Excellent conditions.  My stoke meter climbed as I took the train to lower Manhattan and our agreed-upon pickup spot.  Jason rolled up with his daughter, Madeline, who I believe was about 3 or 4 at the time, and I jumped in.

We took advantage of the drive time to catch up as he motored across Manhattan to the Hugh L Carey Tunnel, through Red Hook, and past Bensonhurst, with the hi-rise projects that I remember as a kid.  We passed Coney Island, which has recently undergone a rebirth.  The Belt Parkway took us through Marine Park and to Flatbush Avenue, and onto Beach Channel Drive and ultimately to 92nd Street and the Boarders shop.

The shop was as advertised.  I chatted with the owner, Steve Stathis, about the old days, and he was curious about San Clemente.  One nice thing about living in San Clemente is that while most people haven’t heard of it (some remember it as the home of Richard Nixons western white house), everybody in the surf community knows it as the home of Trestles, which is a world-class surf break and the only consistent stop for the World Surf League championship tour in the continental US.

I picked out a wetsuit that was a little too tight, and a board that was a little too big.  At this point I had been surfing for about 6 or 7 years, and my passion for it had really taken off.  I was surfing more than 100 days a year, and had been in some pretty big, overhead surf.  I was surfing mostly a Walden Magic Model, 9 x 22 x 3, made of epoxy.  It was light, really fast and maneuverable.  It paddled fast but I could still get it under the white water while paddling out.

Boarders had an 8 super fish, and a 9 NSP.  I opted for the NSP, as Steve told me that people were having trouble getting out, and the bigger board would paddle faster so I might have more luck getting out between sets.

While I was getting suited up, three young studs came in.  They were from Maui, and were talking of being part of a crew with Jamie O’Brien, one of the worlds best free-surfers.  Check out the film Who is J.O.B. to see what I am talking about.  These kids were cool, and I wound up walking to the beach with one of their fathers.  He had a camera and was hoping to get some good shots of his son, who was seeking sponsorship.

As we walked up the stairs to the boardwalk, the ocean came into view and my heart began racing.  The surf was big, with stand up barrels for those lucky enough to be in the right place and the right time.  It was a south-facing beach, and the sets were coming in 10-15 waves at a time from the southeast, creating a nasty side shore current.  Jason took some video before I paddled out, and later posted it to Vimeo; you can hear how excited I was.

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