The water surrounding the Rockaway peninsula in Queens this time of year averages around 50 degrees — a bit warmer than the air temperature. But today, when Zoey Thorson threw herself on her surfboard into the ocean and paddled in 20 feet, the water was exceptionally chilly at 41 degrees.
Despite the cold, this is the best time of year to go surfing in New York City. As the winds shift and the tides change, the small crumblers of summer turn into impressive 8-foot waves between the fall and winter months.
“Surfing in the Rockaways this time of year is very much like being on the subway,” said Thorson. “You’re getting pushed and pulled in all directions and it’s crazy. But that’s when we get the best waves.”
And there’s an added benefit to surfing when there’s snow lining the beach: the crowds are gone because the beaches are closed.
In the past decade, the Rockaways has experienced a surfing renaissance. Businesses are recording higher sales and expanding as more people come to take surf lessons, rent equipment and test the waves. But the sport’s popularity is outpacing the city’s ability to provide more safe space for people to surf.
At 6:35 a.m., Thorson is one of the first surfers in the ocean. By the time the sun peeks over the horizon, there’s more than two dozen surfers scattered between Beach 60th and Beach 62nd streets. This, she said, is the perfect number of surfers.
“When it gets to the summer months, you’re literally terrified to go in the water it’s so packed,” she said.
During the fall and winter, surfers are allowed anywhere along the peninsula’s beaches, but come Memorial Day — when beaches officially open for the summer — surfers are given access to only 10 beaches. That number would have been fine, officials said, had the number of surfers not increased.
“It used to just be a handful of locals, to this thing where you’re seeing young men and women coming off the subway with surfboards and they’re fighting for space,” said Jonathan Gaska, district manager for community board 14, which includes the Rockaway beaches. “It’s expanded exponentially over the past five or six years. The surf schools have formed and that crowded up that area… it’s just growing so much that it doesn’t seem to be enough.”
The issue is more than just convenience for surfers who might have to walk a few blocks during the summer. Some say it’s now become a safety issue in which injuries are inevitable.
“If you feel the itch to surf on a weekend between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., just don’t,” said Matthew Kisilenko, manager of the popular surf and skate shop Boarders. “It has become so congested it’s damn near impossible to not get hurt in the water. It’s become this interesting unknown safety issue that no one knows about or talks about.”
Steve Rodriguez, who owns the local skate shop 5Boro and surfs in the winter, said that he’s worried for his son to go out during the summer months to surf and is working with the community board and parks department to add more surf beaches.
Until then, Thorson said she’ll continue to surf in the winter and love every second of it. Though she has an affinity toward warmer climates, she said her most thoughtful moments come when she’s alone in frigid waters.
“It’s the most meditative I’ve ever been,” she said. “Though, it could also be due to mild hypothermia.”