Growing up near the beach doesn't guarantee access to surfing. Even for the locals of Far Rockaway in Queens, New York City's go-to surf beach, the sport is often just more uncharted waters where ocean safety, swimming lessons, and equipment remain unaffordable privileges. That's despite a huge uptick in recent years of the number of surfers around the world, including in the Rockaways: every weekend, hundreds of people from Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the city's other boroughs make the hour or so trip out to the beach by subway or car to catch any waves they can (they're often small, but frequently fun). It's all N-Y-C, but what does that influx of surf visitors mean for the locals that live in the neighborhood?
That's the question that Laru Beya Collective, a non-profit based in Far Rockaway, has been addressing since its founding in 2018. (Laru Beya means “on the beach” in the language of the Garifuna, a culturally preserved and unique Afro-Indigenous people who still reside throughout Central America and the Caribbean.) The organization's goal is to provide access to the ocean and ocean education for the people who live there, primarily through surfing. Despite a long history of Black surfers, surfing in the United States and in mainstream media is dominated by white people. Laru Beya is part of a broader movement by Black surfers to organize and get more BIPOC folks in the waves by creating a safe and inclusive environment, primarily through community-based initiatives.
Surfing isn't known as the most inclusive sport to begin with. Despite a laid back and chill characterization, surfers can often be protective, hostile, and intimidating, especially toward beginners in a line-up. In the Rockaways, this culture has only compounded the problem of exclusion. It also reveals a strategy for the solution; mentorship, which Laru Beya harnesses to teach hard skills as well as forge connections within the beach community that help make it more diverse, reclaiming the ocean for a new generation of young surfers.
Adanya Gabourel is the daughter of Aydon Gabourel, Laru Beya's co-founder, and has lived in Far Rockaway all her life. One day when she was 11, her dad decided to take her out surfing after years of seeing everyone in the water just beyond their front door. The experience turned out to be formative, and the family realized they had an opportunity to bring the joy they felt in the water to other POC youth in Rockaway. Thus, Laru Beya was conceived.
“The Laru Beya Collective means being surrounded by a safe and supportive community," Adanya says. She knows how much representation in the sport matters, and how important it is to have mentors that look like her doing things that she never saw herself doing. In less than half a decade, the nonprofit has grown to teach around 60 kids every summer with close to 30 volunteers and has become an integral part of the members' lives.
Jean Train is one of Laru Beya's mentors, co-organizers, and a soon-to-be certified surf instructor. For her, Laru Beya calls to mind two expressions from people native to the Chaoshan region of southern China known as Teochew. The first is sangha, a word used to signify spiritual community in yoga and Buddhist traditions. The other, gaginang is harder to translate. "It’s one of those cultural words that is hard to have a direct translation of because it’s meant to evoke a feeling rather than a meaning," Train explains. "No matter who we are or where we come from, once spoken, it melts away every barrier standing in between us. It ignites an abundant sense of nourishment and belonging."
Surfing may be a solo sport where people go to find calm and solitude, but at the same time, surfing fosters tight-knit groups coming together around a love for the ocean and the movement and energy it creates. Surfing can be a way to express group joy and peace between people and the natural world, even against the urban backdrop of New York City. And it's precisely that juxtaposition that creates a unique and vibrant surf culture in Far Rockaway.
During the summer you can always find the Laru Beya Collective teaching lessons at the beach on 67th street. Ranging in age from eight all the way to eighteen, students participate in lessons that cover water safety, line-up etiquette, and individual instruction in the water. It's all made possible by the volunteers, mentors, and instructors that form Laru Beya's backbone. In addition to surf lessons, groups also go rock climbing, snowboarding, and host beach clean ups. The group also trains for surf competitions like the Sisters of The Sea Classic, in Jacksonville, Florida, which happens in September every year—experiences that expand on what surfing can mean for members outside of Far Rockaway and the East Coast.
Volunteers and members agree that Laru Beya has created a second family through these community events, in and out of the surf. The organization's purpose is as much about passing along knowledge in the water as it is about fostering individualism, strength, and empowerment on land and in the kids' day to day lives. Accessibility, mentorship, diversity, and joy are the pillars that support this strong and diverse community of surfers out in Far Rockaway and allow it to thrive, so far from the conventional surf spots that show up in magazines and on social media.
You can find out ways to get involved with Laru Beya through their volunteer application and you can donate to the organization here.
On Saturday October 1st, the Laru Beya will be coming together with the rest of the Rockaway community to raise money and celebrate the surfboard shaping work by Laru Beya's Farmata Dia alongside Drew Austin of Kings Surfboard Glassing and Austin Surfboards. They will be raffling off two boards with vinyl spinning by Charles Chibueze and food and drinks. Raffle Ticket and Board Descriptions are available here.