You Can Surf in New York City?
It’s a question I’ve been asked more times than I’ve been snaked in my NYC surfing tenure. Although in recent years, the frequency with which I’m asked this question—both in the city and in lineups from Biarritz to Tofino to the Maldives—is starting to taper off. Maybe it’s the pervasiveness of NYC surf brands, a brighter spotlight on local organizations and talent, or that surf fever Brian Wilson and the boys crooned about is truly catching on. So once more, yes, you can surf in New York City. Below is all you need to know about it.
First off, a note about writing a surf guide. For decades, gatekeeping was the norm in surf culture. If you don’t surf, don’t start. If you’re not from here (here, usually meaning right next to the break) you’re not welcome. Pair that with the surf industry’s historically dismal record of representation of any experience that isn’t cis, white, hetero, and baked to a blinding shade of blonde by the SoCal sun: you’ve got a recipe for uniformity and discrimination of every flavor. We’re here to join the growing chorus of voices across surfing in politely exclaiming, ‘fuck that.
Learning a subculture’s norms and respecting history is important in understanding and experiencing any new pursuit—those unwritten rules that demand learning by doing. Surfing is one where you’ve got to earn the glory for yourself outside of a lesson. However, creating a welcoming environment where it’s fair game for all to paddle the peak is the way the tides are moving. We’re stoked to share the stoke.
This guide dives deep into NYC surfing, including what you need, where to go, when to go, who to link up with (organizations and shops), where to grab that precious post-session bite, and more. Let’s get it.
Rockaway, Queens: The Closest Surf Beach to the City
The Rockaways, located at the southern edge of Queens, New York's most diverse of the five boroughs, is the go-to spot for any New York surfer and a damn good beach hang when the waves are flat. Accessible by the A Train, the Rockaway Peninsula stretches 11 miles long but is just three-quarters of a mile wide. The beach is the main draw for most visitors, but there’s much more to explore within the surrounding nine neighborhoods, including expansive parks, nature reserves, restaurants, and bars worth the trip alone.
For a deep dive into living life at Far Rock, check out “Rockaway: Surfing Headlong into a New Life” by local writer and ripper Diane Cardwell, founder of Vibe magazine and former reporter and editor for The New York Times. While a beachside bungalow is the dream, most of us will have to settle for day trips.
How to Get to The Rockaways
For most, owning a car in NYC is a luxury not a necessity. And while driving isn’t the only way to get to Rockaway, it can be the most comfortable—especially in the winter. Having a warm spot to change and store your stuff is welcome when the snow is falling and the temps dip below freezing. Even in the warmer months, there’s something about seeing the sunrise over Cross Bay with a coffee in hand and your soundtrack in stereo rather than headphones. However, driving has major drawbacks. There’s parking, traffic, tolls, and driving itself—the routes to Rockaway are anything but tranquil. Expect NYC’s most aggro driving at all hours.
Luckily, there are transportation alternatives. The A train is the line that runs to Rockaway (and happens to be NYC’s longest subway line). Be sure to hop on a Far Rockaway bound train instead of a Lefferts Boulevard, where you’ll find excellent Guyanese food but little in the way of beaches. A note on etiquette, if you’re bringing a board, stay out of the way. Head to the back of a car and don’t block the doors or seats. Many folks ride the A train long distances for work, and if you’re heading out for a surf, that means you stand if seats are in short supply. Think of it as a warm up.
The NYC Ferry is another option—yes, the city has a robust-ish ferry system. From Sunset Park or Wall Street, the ferry runs to Beach 108th Street on the bayside, so it’s a bit of a walk to the beach, but this is a great option if you live near a ferry. Plus, you’ll never step foot underground or get in a car.
When to Go
There’s a misconception that Rockaway only gets waves in colder months. While summer tends to have fewer big swells, that doesn’t mean there aren’t fun days to be had year-round. One of the most vexing and satisfying aspects of surfing in NYC is the unpredictability. There have been generally dependable autumns that go flat for weeks and summers that feature week-long swell runs. In short, if you want to surf, check the forecast no matter what time of year.
What to Know About the Wave
The wave at Rockaway is a beach break. That means the swell breaks on sandbars. The sandbars are always shifting, depending on the time of year, the spot, the swell direction, weather patterns, whatever project the Army Corps of Engineers just got funding for, and about 100 other variables. So if you were in the perfect takeoff spot one session, there’s a good chance it’s not in the same place during your next session. Frustrating but ultimately satisfying.
The 11-mile stretch of beach is technically entirely surfable. Certain parts of the beach are patrolled by lifeguards where surfing is prohibited during summer months from 9 am to 5 pm. Our advice for summer? Get in the water early and ask for forgiveness. It’s awfully hard to hear those whistles when the waves are good.
The beach is punctuated by jetties from Beach 116th Street to Beach 59th Street—this is where the best waves are generally found. Jetties are spaced out every two to three blocks. The main spots (and weirdly usually the best waves) are found at streets with train stations: 90th Street and 67th Street. It’s a direct shot to the beach, and each spot has surf shops, rentals, and cafes for a pre or post-surf snack. They’re also the most crowded.
In summer, 67th is packed with beginners on Peep-colored foamies and groups of lessons. The vibe is laissez-faire party waves in the summer, so if you’re looking to practice your air reverses, head somewhere else. The 90th is less prone to lessons but is still one of the more crowded spots. Walk away from the train stations, and you could be rewarded with a less crowded peak.
Day Trips aka Where Else to Surf Near NYC
Rockaway isn’t the only spot to surf within striking distance of NYC—there’s a lot of coastline a short train ride or drive away. Long Island’s south shore—from Long Beach to Montauk, New York's most famed surf destination—is all surfable on the right swell, the right tide, and the right day. Part of the fun is figuring it out. The other part of the fun is riding the waves. Exploration is a key part of surfing, after all (see Bill Finnegan’s “Barbarian Days” for further proof).
Long Beach, accessible via the LIRR, features longer, less crowded (sometimes) breaks and a refreshing change of pace. Don’t miss a visit to Blacksmith’s Breads.
New Jersey’s shoreline features a wealth of spots. And while a car is essential to get the best of Jersey, it’s worth the trip. With a bit of driving, you’ll find (potentially) less crowded, open breaks throughout Monmouth County. Asbury Park is a highlight for vibes and the occasional wave.
Surf Etiquette You Need to Know
What Conditions to Look For
But if you are headed to Rockaway, we got you. Here’s what to look for. First off, make sure there’s swell in the water. Rockaway works best with swell from the east and southeast; the longer the period the better (that means the waves themselves are further apart and generally have more shape and power). If the direction and period are spot on, Rockaway can be a fun longboard wave with one foot of swell or a barreling hero wave up to 10 feet. Anything bigger is best left to the pros.
Next up is wind; this is a big one. No wind is ideal (we’re talking glassy surfaces of the water, chatting with friends 15 feet away). The next best is offshore (that means the wind is blowing out to sea and helps keep the face of the wave up). At the Rock, look for North and Northwest winds. Finally, the tide. A mistimed tide has led to many sick days called into work, so we’re told. Generally, a rising or lowering tide is best. However, when the waves are on the smaller side, go with low to rising or falling tide. When there’s a healthy amount of swell in the water, high tide works, but it’s not common and shouldn’t be targeted. High tide = high time for a coffee.
Another note about the weather; surfing in the snow is very cool and should be sought out whenever possible. Surfing in the rain is less ideal. In urban areas, large rainstorms (especially after a dry spell) create a massive runoff of all kinds of stuff going into the water. Wait a day or expect not to feel 100 after the session.
New York Surf Etiquette
Similar to most surf spots around the world, when you’re new to the area, it’s best to be hyper-observant. Keep an eye on where the peak is, the best posts to paddle out to avoid collisions, and for a general vibe check in the water. The priority is the safety of yourself and those around you while keeping everyone’s boards ding free. So if you’re a beginner, go with a soft top or foamie until you’re more confident keeping your board to yourself.
It’s also a good idea to surf around folks with a similar level of proficiency. There’s no shame in belly-riding the whitewater or doing hop-ons in the shore break. Riding waves is fun. Sometimes that means catching set waves, and sometimes it means glorified boogie boarding.
With safety in mind, always surf within your limits. If the waves are huge, the currents are strong, and hey—you did take the train all the way out, so you should go out—it’s okay to stay dry. Rockaway might seem like a mellow spot, but it’s still the ocean. Shit can get real fast.
Organizations to Surf With in NYC
The beauty of surfing in NYC is the diversity and vibrancy of the folks in the lineup (and getting a world-class slice after a session—or heading to the MoMA if you fancy like that). There are loads of organizations to get involved with for folks new to the scene.
If you’ve never surfed or want to up your skills, head to Locals. They’re the top lessons provider and will teach you everything you need to know to become a safe, capable surfer. From etiquette to Rockaway local knowledge, this is the spot. Plus, they have a snazzy cafe and board storage with showers right by the 67th Street station for when you graduate to full-on ripper.
Benny’s Club is dedicated to creating an inclusive space for queer and POC surfers. They host meetups, events, sessions, and clean-ups and are fast becoming an influential presence in the surf community far beyond Rockaway (yes!).
Rockaway-based Black Surfing Association is dedicated to improving access to the waves for community members.
Laru Beya Collective provides lessons and water safety classes for Rockaway youth and underserved communities, while Stoked (co-founded by surf/tv legend Selema Masekela) mentoring organization teaches surfing and swimming to youth across the city. All organizations welcome volunteers and are a great way to give back to the community and get to know like-minded folks.
Gear Up: What You Need to Surf the Rockaways
Wetsuit collectors rejoice. For those who love stockpiling neoprene and inevitably stinky neoprene accessories (boots, gloves, mittens) in varying thicknesses, the ever-changing water temperatures in NYC create endless opportunities to fuss over what suit to struggle into. Generally, in the dead of summer, board shorts or a bikini are all you need to have a good time. The warm water often extends well into late October where a 3/2 is all you need. Then things get dicey.
The 4/3 wetsuit season lasts anywhere from two months to a week before you need to go full seal suit (that’s hooded 5/4 or thicker, boots, gloves, and a thermos of coffee on the beach). Seal season lasts until late spring. Then it’s time to start guessing again until summer has fully set in. For those looking to streamline their kit, ask yourself, what time of year will I be getting out there most? Start there. Then once you’re frothing for surf in the winter, investing in that heavy suit will be a no-brainer.
Still not sure what you need? Rockaway is home to an array of surf shops. Our go-to's are Breakwater Surf and Station RBNY. Below the 67th station, Breakwater is crispy new and offers all the latest wetties, boards, and daily essentials; this is a great spot to rent if you don’t need a lesson. Meanwhile, Station RBNY is the spot for insider knowledge and everything from ding repair to wetsuit selection. The Black-owned shop also rents lockers for those wishing to keep their suits and boards at the beach.
Most Importantly: Where to Eat in the Rockaways
It wouldn’t be a surf guide without food. After a long session, venturing out of Rockaway without grabbing a bite is just wrong. Pick up a California-style burrito at Super Burrito near the 67th Street station. After an early morning surf, breakfast at Rockaway Beach Bakery is the only move. Their BEC is one of the best in the city, and after all, you’ve earned it.
If time is on your side, whiling away the afternoon over fish tacos and watermelon margaritas at Tacoway Beach (summer only) feels like a miniature vacation. You’ll swear you’re in Malibu until you hear the train rumble overhead and gladly remember you’re in nasty old New York.
For those winter and sunset sessions, Goody's BBQ Chicken and Ribs is the go-to for Caribbean comfort food, while the Uzbek eats at surf-influenced Uma’s warm the soul after a frigid surf.
Final word: Be nice, be cool, and always remember to respect your fellow surfer and the great big ocean itself!