Volume 48, Issue 7

A Fellowship of Wave Riders
By Joanne Kountourakis

For a remote stretch of beach with average waves and a rather undistinguished surfing reputation, Fire Island sure has some faithful followers. Most of them can’t help it – they’ve been here their entire lives.
“Just being here my whole life, being near the water, it just happens,” said Scott Warburton, a 20-year-old lifelong Fire Islander who first picked up a surfboard eight years ago. He hasn’t missed a season since and is one of the few locals who surf the whole winter through.
“The worst thing about surfing on Fire Island is that there are barely any waves,” he said. The best thing – and all the local surfers will attest to this – is that the water is never packed out, even on the best of days. A piece of ocean free of crowds, a place to surf where you don’t have to jockey for position or deal with the hierarchy of native surfers is a luxury for any wave seeker.
“That’s the good thing about it,” said Warburton.
There’s a certain camaraderie among Fire Island surfers facilitated by being part of a close-knit community. Some guys have been surfing here for over four decades now. A handful of them still go out together and hold their own against surfers in their twenties.
One of those “old boys,” is Dana Wallace, a local real estate broker who was raised in Ocean Beach. At 59 years old, Wallace is one of a cluster of Fire Island surfing vets – including locals James Ragusa, Kevin Burke, Doug Meyer and Bruce Mayer – who still ride the waves together.
The first time Wallace got on a surfboard was not on Fire Island but in South Beach, Florida, when he was 17 years old and in college. “It was terrible surf,” he said. “But I was hooked.”
Wallace brought his enthusiasm for the sport back to Fire Island. It was good timing – surfing was gaining popularity in the sixties, when less expensive, lighter and more maneuverable surfboards made of fiberglass and foam became available. Hordes of people around the world got into the water to test their skills.
Over forty years later and Wallace has surfed every season, save about five when he became too busy with his family and job. “When I got back into it, I couldn’t imagine that I ever got away from it,” he said.
For the past six years, Wallace has traveled to Costa Rica to try the surf there. He stays in when some 20-year-olds are tapping out, said Wallace’s son Dylan, an OB lifeguard and local surf instructor.
“It’s not a particularly easy sport to learn or master unless you grew up in the ocean as a kid,” said Wallace. “I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it’s not easy.”
Dylan, 22, was raised spending every summer on Fire Island, visiting sporadically over the winter. For the past four years he’s lived here full-time. “I just grew up in the ocean,” he said. “I remember waking up and going to the beach and staying there till the lifeguards shut down,” he said.
His mother, Ronnie, also a surfer, bought Dylan a surfboard when he was nine. His father began teaching him the basics. Hesitant to take on the big waves, Dylan bodyboarded for four years until getting addicted to surfing for good.
Passion for the sport runs in the family, with sister Meg, 30, braving the water as well. She said the Fire Island scene is hard-pressed for female surfers – so much so that trying to learn in the male-dominated environment was troublesome. “Megan couldn’t stand to learn from her father and brother,” joked the elder Wallace.
According to Justin Cavalieri, a 23-year-old surfer and store manager of Special Sauce, a surf, skate and snowboard shop with locations in Bay Shore and Ocean Beach, the women’s side of the surfing business is finally booming. “They’re pretty much dominating the entire market right now,” he said. While Special Sauce has always had a section for women, it doubled in size this year alone. Not too long ago, female boarders would have to buy a wetsuit made for a man. Now wetsuits designed for the ladies (“you know, for their curves and stuff,” said Cavalieri) are readily available, as are accessories specially designed for women, from board leashes to clothing.
“It’s probably the most progressive part of surfing,” said Cavalieri.
Four years ago and a bit before the burst in women’s surfing, Meg traveled to Mexico to attend the all-girl Las Olas (Spanish for “female wave”) surf camp. She said she learned there one of the most important skills in the sport – how to read a wave. “That’s the hardest thing,” she said. “Knowing when not to waste your energy.”
Meg calls herself a “Barbie surfer” – getting in the mix only in the kindest of conditions – the perfect weather and the perfect waves. “I don’t pretend to be a good surfer,” she said. “But when everything is right, it’s a lot easier.” She says she’s out there for the most legitimate of reasons – to enjoy herself. “They say the best surfer is the one having the most fun,” she said.
It’s a motto that both she and her brother share.
An admitted “soul-surfer,” Dylan is humble about his surfing abilities and says his goal in the ocean is not to be the best. He treasures the solitude, the energy, the thrill. “It’s such freedom out there. You’re out there in another world. It’s such a rush. You get in the water, you really know you’re alive,” he said.
After spending a year in California for college and wintering the past two years in surfing hot spots in Hawaii and Costa Rica, Dylan officially has the travel bug and is already planning a return trip to Hawaii for this winter. He hopes to make it to Mexico and Puerto Rico, too.
He believes he’s found the perfect balance, splitting his time between Fire Island and wherever the winters take him. Ideally, he’d be surfing year-round, if he had the time and funds to travel. His heart, however, remains here – at least for now.
“A part of me always wants to come back to Fire Island,” he said. “You know about this life. You can’t get away. I just love it so much, I got to be around it.”
Dylan says his favorite month to surf Fire Island is September. The water is still warm, the waves are good and there are even less people than usual, he said. “When it’s good it’s epic,” he said. “It’s really good.
“The great thing about here is that it’s a small town and not too many people can get where we are,” he added. Dylan said that during last year’s hurricane season – a peak time for surfing – there were at the most 15 surfers in the water at one time. He knew all of them. “It’s great, we’re all cheering each other on,” he said.
According to Dana Wallace, June and July are spotty months for surfing on Fire Island, with isolated good days. August through October offer the best stretch of surfable weather, when the right combination of storms passing off shore combine with winds coming off the bayside, creating the perfect blend of beautiful weather and desirable swells. The waves, with a six to ten foot overhead, usually break at the first sandbar, about 100 yards from shore. “It’s kind of feast or famine here,” said Wallace. “When it’s good it’s great. Then there’s long stretches when it will just be mediocre.”
One of last year’s best surfing sessions occurred over Labor Day weekend when a storm came up the coast off the Carolinas, creating monster (by Fire Island standards) waves down here.
“That’s not your average day on Fire Island,” said Wallace. With waves reaching 11 to 12 feet, he said, “that’s about as big as it gets here.”
As frustrating as the Fire Island surfing scene can get, its few dozen devotees wouldn’t trade the fellowship they’ve created for anything. It’s a bond that’s irreplaceable, with the younger crowd looking up to the vets. Father-and-son teams – in addition to Dylan and his dad, there’s Ragusa and his son Jamie as well as Meyer and his son Doug – can often be found in the water together, sharing support and advice.
With the reputation of being the top surfer on Fire Island, Warburton serves as an inspiration to the local 20-somethings. “He brings it to another level,” said Dylan. “He pushes everyone else.”
Mayer, another wave fanatic who surfs through the winter, is “about as hardcore as you get,” said Dylan. He and Scott “really define Fire Island surfing.”
Currently sponsored by Special Sauce, Warburton began competing when he was 14 years old and has become familiar with the East Coast circuit, going to competitions in places from Montauk to Robert Moses, Westhampton, Long Beach and out to New Jersey and North Carolina.
He surfs Long Beach and Montauk all winter long. “It’s crazy in the snow,” he said. Dressed in a hooded wetsuit, boots and gloves, “the only thing showing is your face,” he said. While job responsibilities have caused Warburton to stop competing for now, he says he’ll never give up the sport he loves.“You don’t really stop surfing,” he said. “No one really stops.

Rad Turn for Mellow Sport: Competition
By Mark Bulliet








Surfing competitions are a rather new addition to a sport with origins dating before the 15th century in the islands of Hawaii.
Some say that competition is antithetical to the spirit of the sport, where kindred souls revel in the confluence of natural elements. Ever-shifting currents, tides and locations of sandbars create a backdrop for the development of improvisational athletic skills and the love of speed. If people already love surfing, some argue, formal competition can only sour that love as money, jealousy and hierarchy become part of the mix.
Nonetheless, competitive surfing is a growing sport. And there are a handful of upcoming competitions on the South Shore of Long Island this summer.
Unsound Surf Shop in Long Beach will be holding a surfing contest, the Unsound Pro, for professionals from September 12 to 14, as well as an amateur contest sometime during August. The pro contest is a qualifying event for the Association of Surfing Professionals where $25,000 will be awarded to the winner, plus $5,000 for the air show, where surfers are judged on how high they propel themselves in the air.
Bunger Surf Shop in Babylon will hold the Bunger Surf Classic on August 14, an amateur tournament. About 200 entries in 12 different divisions are expected, and division winners have the opportunity to attend the Eastern Surfing Association’s northeast regional tournament. The Bunger contest will be held at Gilgo Beach.
Special Sauce in Bay Shore will also hold an amateur competition August 28 with trophies for the winner of each division, and the most competitive division’s winner receiving a new surfboard.
Justin Cavalieri, a manager at Special Sauce, said that the difficulties of reaching Fire Island-proper account for the dearth of competitions on our beaches.
“You can’t drive there and usually a lot of people don’t show up because they don’t have boats and rides,” Cavalieri said.
“There’s one surfing competition, it’s in Smith Point, which some argue is not really much of Fire Island,” said Brendan Smith, 30, a Nevada entrepreneur who used to be an avid Fire Island surfer. “It’s not really the Fire Island scene at all.”
Scott Warburton, 20, a local surfer sponsored by Special Sauce, recalled a contest held at Sailor’s Haven years ago, but that contest is no more.
“People just don’t want to take the ferry over here,” he said.
Winners and losers in competitive surfing, like figure skating, synchronized swimming, diving and dog shows, are ultimately decided by judges striving to be objective. A ten-point scoring system is used, and surfers are judged on the length of their ride, speed, the difficulty of the tricks they attempt and the success they have completing them, according to Josh Goetz, a manager at Special Sauce. Tricks include floaters, frontside airs, cutbacks, off the lip, and getting barreled – which, for the uninitiated, are different ways of maneuvering your surfboard over a cresting wave several feet high. Perhaps the most difficult of those tricks is getting barreled, because it requires the rarest of conditions: a long wave that is breaking onto itself in a tube, in which a surfer can actually crouch on her board and ride through the middle, enveloped in a cylinder of rushing water.
“It has to be just right,” said Mario Deluca, a Northeast regional director for the Eastern Surfing Association, the largest amateur surfing organization in the world. “You have to have certain conditions, you have to have the right swell with a north-shore wind that blows into the wave as it’s coming toward the shore, and if the conditions are just right, if it’s big enough, then you get a tube.”
But Fire Island isn’t known for its waves.
“It’s bad, it’s horrible,” said Warburton. “Our best day is not as good as some of [Hawaii’s] worst days.”
One thing that effects the size of waves in Fire Island is the presence of a barrier sandbar that can kill waves before they ever reach the shore.
And when the Atlantic is placid as it so often is, the judges’ jobs are that much more difficult.
“There’s less things they can do on a wave, less maneuvers, so the judges have less leeway in the judging,” said Deluca. “If they had larger waves the contestants can do more maneuvers on the waves so the judges can issue more points and a wider spread of points,” he added.
The best times to surf Fire Island are August and September, also known as “hurricane season,” and the dead of winter, when the waves are big but the temperatures are unsurprisingly brutal, even in wetsuits. Hurricane season is the time of choice for local competitive events to be held.
“We get some pretty solid-sized waves,” said Goetz.
“Waves are the best during hurricane season in the fall, September and October, and during the winter when it’s freezing cold,” said Tom Bunger of Bunger Surf Shop, which has sold surfboards in Babylon for 41 years. “They produce swells that generate from miles and miles away, from the south.”
Of course, an actual hurricane at the event would be undesirable to competitors, spectators, sponsors and judges. The benefit of hurricane season is the disruptive force storms miles from the shore create, pushing larger and larger waves toward the shore.
“We just like when the hurricanes are close, but definitely not hitting us,” said Mike Nelson of the Unsound Surf Shop. “When they’re offshore, that’s ideal conditions for us.”
And even though Fire Island isn’t known for the size of its waves, Nelson said, “waves can get really big actually. You can get ten, fifteen feet on the biggest days. It can be pretty fun sometimes.”

Surfing Injury Report
By Mark Bulliet

On July 10, surfer Brad Smith, 29, was bitten in half by two great white sharks off the coast of Gracetown in Western Australia.
Meanwhile, in Ocean Beach, lifeguard and surfer Scott Warburton, 20, said many of his colleagues had spotted 12-foot sharks – the average size of a small great white – off the coast of Kismet just this month.
Before anyone becomes too alarmed, it’s important to note some of the differences between Fire Island and more exotic locales. Our 12-foot sharks are basking sharks, filter feeders that have hundreds of tiny, almost useless teeth and sift microscopic fauna from the water, such as plankton. Our sharks, that is to say, are wimpy.
Which does not mean that local surfers face no risks. Surfing is a dangerous sport, and a variety of opportunities for injury offer themselves to the avid waverider, from repetitive stress injuries to lacerations and soft tissue injuries to more serious spinal problems. But the most serious risk surfers face is that of death from drowning.
Justin Cavalieri, a manager at Special Sauce surf shop in Bay Shore, said he had to get 10 staples on the top of his head last year when the fiberglass fin of a surfboard gashed him. Lacerations are common because of the susceptibility of skin after long hours spent in the water.
“When you’re in the water for a long time you’re saturated, your skin gets really soft, so you get cut,” he said.
Pulled hamstrings and “blown MCLs” (ruptured medial collateral ligaments in the knee) – common injuries in many sports, including baseball, volleyball, and football – are also common surfers’ ailments, he added.
“Right now it’s so crowded, it’s kind of getting so popular, people are running into each other,” Mike Nelson of the Unsound Surf Shop in Long Beach said. “Even today, I saw some guy running into a little kid and just cutting him up a little bit. It happens.”
Cuts to the head, feet and legs caused by contact with other surfers’ boards, the ocean floor and ocean debris are the most common surfing injuries, according to Sean Fyfe of the <Sports Injury Bulletin>. Soft tissues are the next most susceptible part of the body, including sprains and strains. Fractures are third: broken noses, teeth and ribs are a fact of surfing life – and some claim there are two million teeth lost yearly to the sport.
The eyes and ears are also at risk, according to Fyfe. Excessive amounts of UV light, saltwater, sand particles and wind can damage eyes. Eardrums can be popped during a wipeout, when a surfer loses her footing and is crushed under a wave causing a sudden increase in pressure on the sensitive membrane. A chronic condition known as “surfer’s ear” is also a risk. Surfer’s ear is caused by an excess of saltwater spray and wind in the ear canal, stimulating the soft tissues to generate bony growths that can reduce the diameter of the ear canal and impair hearing.
The nearly worst-case scenario is craniospinal injury – injuries to the skull and spine that can lead to paralysis.
Less menacing are repetitive stress injuries to the shoulders and elbows from hours of paddling to meet the waves.
The real risk for surfers, wherever they are, is drowning. Although in parts of the world where giant waves or coral-bottomed beaches are the norm the risk for drowning is higher, even in sand-bottomed beaches with modest waves like Fire Island (where surfers are unlikely to be entangled or knocked unconscious by coral), drowning is a risk. About 94 percent of surfing accidents occur on waves less than 10 feet high, according to one study, partly because novice or careless surfers are more likely to be riding them. With many large and heavy boards in a small patch of water, it’s easy to get knocked on the head, too.
Some dangers are particular to Fire Island.
“The jetties are a big risk,” said Scott Warburton, a local surfer. “If you’re trying to get out and there’s a big sweep, you can get knocked right into them.”
“Mostly around here, if you hear of anyone drowning it’s from a riptide or current,” said Mario Deluca of the Eastern Surfing Association. “Last year an off-duty policeman surfing in Rockaway lost his life. I think he got caught in the rip.”