When I returned to surfing after a 15-year hiatus, in the mid-1990s, I was living and working in New York City. My go-to spot was Long Beach, about an hour’s drive from the city on Long Island, where the waves could be good and the locals were salt-of-the-earth friendly. I came to know the boardwalk, the cheek-by-jowl bungalows, the bagel shops and barnacle-encrusted jetty rocks, the ivory gulls with their sidelong appraising looks, the jetliners passing overhead in the clear autumn skies, headed for Kennedy Airport. By the time Hurricane Sandy hit in the fall of 2012, I had been surfing there long enough to feel an adopted son’s anguish at the damage, which was extensive.
Amid rumors of bands of looters and toxic spills, I joined a caravan of fellow Brooklyn surfers and drove out to volunteer in the cleanup effort. We entered town by way of an unfamiliar roundabout route, the usual way having been cut off by flooding. The traffic lights were flashing yellow on eerily deserted streets, ruined household belongings piled on curbs like hillocks of plowed snow. Closer to the beach, we caught glimpses of the wave-shattered boardwalk, streets filled with sand, abandoned cars. Eventually we arrived at the designated meet-up spot for volunteers, a construction company’s store in a strip mall. It was nervously agreed that we would be sure to leave before nightfall.
Organizing the cleanup effort was Will Skudin, then 27, along with his brother Cliff. With his beard and strong jaw, Will had the air of a mountain man. He began by dismissing the reports of locals looting: Long Beach, he said, was too tight-knit a community for that to happen. Then he thanked us for lending a hand in his town’s recovery.
I knew about Will Skudin from the surf media. A third-generation Long Beach surfer, he was the first veritable big-wave surfer ever to emerge from the East Coast. He had grown up idolizing Jay Moriarity, a surfer from Santa Cruz, Calif., best-known for a horrendous wipeout in 1994 at Maverick’s, Northern California’s lethal big-wave spot. The photo of it, which made the cover of Surfer magazine, shows Moriarity blown backward at the crest of a five-story brownish wave, his board pointing skyward, his arms flung out in crucifix position.
At 15, Skudin decided that he wanted to be the youngest goofyfoot (someone who rides with his right foot forward, a kind of left-handedness) to surf Maverick’s “at size” — waves of 25 to 50 feet. When he was 16, in 2001, he heard there was a swell on its way there and talked his father into allowing him to travel across the country to surf it. Watching from a boat in the channel at Maverick’s, Skudin’s father saw his son take a bad wipeout and assumed that would be the end of his infatuation with huge surf. But Will popped up with a smile and promptly went back for more. It’s this freakish response — whetted appetite — to a violent near-drowning that distinguishes the psyche of big-wave surfers, a tiny minority, from that of the rest of the surfing populace.