It’s a silver-blue January morning with no separation between sky and water, and a diverse line up of surfers take in their ritual. The waves come choppy, clean, short, thick, fast, chest high and occasionally over my head. On this frigid day I’m encouraged to surf with a longboard, and I’ve almost forgotten to don my cap. The wind greets my face and I howl in return, grateful. I look around after finishing my ride and see people simmering in joy. These are the scenes at New York’s Rockaway Beach, a harbor for Black surfers.
Coming from the security of snow-blanketed mountain peaks to the crashing, storm propelled waves of the east coast, I’ve stumbled on a dynamic community of surfers: artists, activists, community leaders, film-makers, and creatives. Surfers mending the world through their connection to the sport.
Quest Soliman and Paul Godette, from Brooklyn and Queens respectively, are Rockaway surfers with a purpose. Stop Playin’ With ‘Em, a 2022 documentary directed by Sean Madden, captures their five-month experience with the local community while surfing in Bocas Del Toro, Panama.
A screening of the film in November allowed the audience to witness the actualization of Black and brown people in nature, in the water. “Surfing is supposed to be fun and inclusive,” Soliman tells me.
Surfing is primarily depicted as a pursuit for white men with blond hair and blue eyes. Some have turned it into a selfish sport and lean into their privilege. Yet, here at Rockaway Beach that’s far from the reality.
Kids from Harlem and Brooklyn carry their surfboards on the train heading towards the Atlantic. The walls at Rockaway are painted with vibrant street art reflecting the culture. Surfboards lean outside shops and cafes, and Black and brown skateboarders, rollerbladers, and surfers ride between the skate park and the burger spot near 84th Street. There are restaurants and bars that operate as surf clubs, and garage parties that turn into community events. Late nights sitting around a backyard fire turn into early morning sessions in the water.
“It really does take a village to raise a child and you learn so much the more you’re in the water,” Soliman says, as he talks about the welcoming nature of the beach suburb. He was raised in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn. Growing up surrounded by people from myriad cultural backgrounds shaped his approach in connecting with new spaces.
“As we travel and show representation, we always give respect to the spaces we’re fortunate to enjoy,” he says. If Stop Playin’ With ‘Em had a mantra it would be just that. Enjoying your stoke responsibly.
In December, Fat-Tire invited Soliman and Godette to Hawaii where they were able to connect with Hawaiian locals, fully encounter the North Shore, and rip some of the best waves in the world.
“This was not our home turf, we were just visitors, but we were welcomed into the pipe house, and everyone was dapping us up – pros I’ve grown up watching. It was cool,” Godette says.
In Hawaii, they linked up with friends from New York and California, as well as Pro-Am surfer and Hawaiian local Julian Williams. These aren’t just any group of friends but haymakers, creating room for themselves and their communities through intentional collective efforts in the water.
“It was amazing to have the west coast squad, the New York squad, and even though we were newcomers [to the Vans Pipe Masters] we weren’t the only ones and we had a good time bonding,” says Godette. Despite breaking his board during the trip, he found delight in surfing with two of Africa’s top surfers, South Africa’s Joshe Faulkner and Senegal’s Cherif Fall.
“Women are getting that equal prize pay, they’re ripping just as hard as the guys. That’s really important and cool to see – the increase in representation and seeing opportunities given for different people to surf pipe and compete,” says Godette.
Soliman and Godette now have their eyes and boards set for Bali, where they’ll be for the next four months. They’re on to their next project and seeking sponsors. For Soliman and Godette, inclusive surfing includes perfect waves, clean turns, and endless laughter.
I’m back in New York. I’ve gone from snowboarding soft pillow lines to getting smacked, dumped, and rushed by the sea. The joy of being a noob. Yet occasionally when the waves start firing, I pop up and find myself in a waltz with the ocean.
“The beautiful thing about surfing, is that it chooses you,” says Nigel Louis, owner of the Rockaways community hub, surf and skate shop, Station RBNY.
Surfing can’t choose you if you never get in the water. Surfing is more than a sport here. It’s a connection to your environment, community, and self.