Rockaway Beach: the heart of surfing in New York City

September 2, 2021 | Surfing
Rockaway Beach: the most famous surf break in New York City | Photo: Nicolej Chambers/RBSC

Rockaway Beach is the only place where you can legally ride a surfboard in the New York metropolitan area.

The serene East Coast beach resort and neighborhood in the borough of Queens is the go-to surfing destination for wave riders from the City of Dreams and the New York State.

But it is also the most popular NYC beach for non-surfers, with thousands of people flocking to its sands during summer.

The spot is located in the Rockaway Peninsula, also known as The Rockaways, a ten-mile stretch of coast that goes from Far Rockaway in the east to Breezy Point in the west.

It's basically a sand bar island.

Rockaway Beach is commonly referred to as "The Irish Riviera" because of its large Irish American community.

It is also the area where surfers from Brooklyn spend their summer chasing waves. They call the surf spot "Williamsburg on the Rockaways."

Rockaway Beach, New York: a warm seaside resort during summer, and a snowy surf town during winter | Photo: RBSC

New York City's Surfing Roots

Interestingly, New York has a long surfing tradition and a deeply established surf culture.

Duke Kahanamoku, the father of modern surfing, introduced the sport to New Yorkers in 1912 while en route from Honolulu to the Stockholm Olympic Games.

The wave-riding demonstration held at Rockaway left a seed that would later inspire locals to pick up the water sport.

The first-ever surf competition held in New York took place in 1960 at Lido Beach, just 11 miles east of Rockaway Beach.

The contest attracted over 10,000 spectators and was featured in the New York Times.

Five years later, the legendary and long-running East Coast Surfing Championships kicked off and boosted an already lively NYC surf scene.

In 1977, American punk rock band, The Ramones, released a song named "Rockaway Beach," which eventually became the highest-charting single in their career.

The group's lead singer, Joey Ramone, was raised in town, and bassist Dee Dee Ramone was a regular beachgoer at Rockaway.

The song's lyrics told us that "it's not hard, not far to reach; we can hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach."

The 9/11 terrorist attacks killed several surfers who worked in the World Trade Center. A surfer-fireman also lost his life when the towers collapsed.

In 2012, Rockaway Beach was severely devastated by Hurricane Sandy.

As a result, over 4.1 million cubic yards of sand had to be restored along Rockaway Beach between 2013 and 2014.

Its iconic boardwalk also had to be rebuilt.

"Our Hawaii," a documentary by Kryssa Schemmerling, features the stories of a group of local surfers who have been riding Rockaway Beach for decades.

Rockaway Beach: one of the most crowded New York City beaches during summer | Photo: ACE/Creative Commons

Where Surfing Is Not a Crime

The New York City Department of Parks & Recreation manages nine beaches spanning 14 miles, and Rockaway is one of them.

There are strict rules for surfing at Rockaway Beach.

You can only paddle out between Beach 68th Street and Beach 71st Street, Beach 87th Street and Beach 91st Street, and Beach 110th Street and Beach 111th Street.

Believe it or not, it is also the only beach within NYC limits where it is legal to surf. The authorities constantly patrol the area, and you could get in trouble for violating the law.

Also, during summertime, red flags remind everyone on the beach that you're in a closed, unprotected, and unsafe area to swimming.

Nevertheless, Rockaway Beach is the most consistent surf break in the New York City area and oftentimes the most crowded spot, too.

Actually, roughly half of all NYC lifeguards work on Rockaway Beach.

Many NYC surfers catch a train, bus, or subway to get to the famous south-southeast-facing coastline.

If you're driving your car to the famed break, there's also plenty of street parking near the beach.

New York has several surf shops, surf schools, surfer-owned bistros, and a very active community of surfers and surf-related environmental organizations.

The Rockaway Beach Surf Club is a local cultural event space, bar, and restaurant where you can breathe the NYC surfing culture.

It's a place where surfer-environmentalists, musicians, writers, visual artists, and beach-and-surf lovers converge to inspire its residents positively.

Rockaway is also the home of the Black Surfing Association's East Coast chapter.

Rockaway Beach Surf Club: a cultural surf center that brings local wave riders together | Photo: RBSC

Beach 90th Street

The surf zone located in front of Rockaway Skate Park is the most popular wave riding spot in the region.

But there are a lot of peaks to choose from.

One of the great things about NY's ultimate surf break is that it suits all surfers, from first-timers and beginners to intermediate and advanced surfers.

The water quality is generally good, but you'll always be catching waves in a densely populated region, so surfers should check the conditions before paddling out.

Remember that Rockaway is not far from the New York Harbor and the Hudson River mouth, so clean and pure water is not something you should expect.

Despite its relaxed and laid-back atmosphere, the lineup can get competitive and greedy during epic swell days, so make sure to follow surf etiquette.

And respect the locals - sometimes, it gets territorial, and fights have taken place in and out of the water.

Rockaway Beach is primarily a left-hand beach break that shines close to the groin/jetty at Beach 90th Street and Beach 92nd Street.

Technically, you could consider it a point break.

As a result, you can use the rip current adjacent to the man-made rocky structure to get to the lineup on bigger days.

Rockaway Beach, NYC: hurricane swells produce perfect-peeling barrels | Photo: Nicolej Chambers/RBSC

Where, When, and How to Surf NY's Rockaway Beach

But depending on the swell and wind conditions, it might be worth checking all the different jetties.

The best time of the year to surf Rockaway Beach is from September through April, as Atlantic hurricanes and storms coming from the south produce fairly steady long-period, two-to-six-foot waves.

The ideal swell window is SE, ESE, or E with WNW, NW, and N offshore winds.

Paddling out at low-to-mid tide will allow you to enjoy perfect-peeling, shoulder-to-head-high barreling waves.

A very low tide results in extremely shallow waters near the jetties, i.e., pounding closeouts or really fast-breaking waves.

Depending on the size of the waves, you'll need to choose between shortboards, funboards, and longboards, so check the surf cams before getting to Rockaway.

The average air temperature in coastal Long Island varies from 80 °F (26 °C) in summer to 38 °F (3.3 °C) in winter.

The water temperatures range from 70 °F (21 °C) in summer to 33 °F (0.5 °C) in winter.

These abrupt differences in air and water temperature mean that you could surf on your boardshorts in the warm season and then need a 5/4 wetsuit in the cold season.

Surfing Rockaway Beach with snow-covered sands is nothing new to the die-hard local community - if there's a wave breaking in freezing conditions, they're out there.

So, if you're curious about surfing in New York City, then Rockaway should definitely be on top of your priorities.

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