The city beach culture is one of NYC's unique features that still largely flies under the radar. While some still make the long trek to and from the Hamptons—or even as far as Newport or Cape Cod—on summer weekends, the beaches in Queens have only grown more appealing for their immediate access and, particularly in Rockaway, the surf scene. The stretches of beach offer prime waves for beginners and pros alike, and if you're the former, Locals Surf School is one of the best places to warm up to the awe-inspiring, and sometimes intimidating, sport.
Located a few blocks away from the 67th Street beach stop off the A train, Locals Surf School is simply a black tent set up on the sand. (Currently the Google Map search for Locals Surf School is incorrect, as their business doesn't have a physical address.) We arrived at 9AM with just a tube of sunblock and a positive attitude, as wetsuits and surfboards are provided (though we're sure that the instructors would be happy to share their brightly colored Zinka).
The year-round school was founded by two guys named Mike (Michael Kololyan and Michael Reinhardt), childhood friends who were born and raised in Rockaway, learning to surf together and later becoming beach lifeguards. The former competitive surfers launched Locals in the summer of 2012—only to have Hurricane Sandy hit that October. Reminders of the super-storm's effects still remain, including the noticeably missing historic boardwalk and memories of their own homes nearly flooding, but Kololyan, Reinhardt and the rest of the crew they've assembled are a buoyant, cheerful bunch who are breathing life back into their neighborhood. And this forward-looking mindset manifests clearly in the way they interact with their students.
As it was an early Saturday morning, a few people canceled and our group lesson turned semi-private. There was a good mix of first-timers and returning students (of all ages) eager to develop their skills—a testament to how much people enjoy the hands-on guidance from Locals Surf School and come back again.
The first 15 minutes are on dry land, covering basic positions, safety and etiquette, and the rest of the two-hour lesson is spent in the water. The instructors stay in the water up to their necks the entire time, giving your soft foamboard a big push to help catch the wave—and when you return, either choking on seawater or triumphant, they spend a few minutes with you one-on-one, going over what can be improved, before pushing you off to meet the next wave. Conversations soon spiral into casual chats about the best local joints and Rockaway's secret surf spots, but the instructors won't let you slack off—they're working just as hard in the water and stay hands-on the whole session, throwing hurrahs and encouragement every step of the way. Reinhardt in particular was dedicating himself to a struggling student who was determined to stand up. This is what is most impressive about Locals: great surfers who are also great teachers.
"We keep our classes very, very small and personalized," Kololyan tells CH. "We're a family-owned business, and we're the actual locals from Rockaway who know the ocean probably the best [versus other] schools. We like to offer better, valuable classes rather than making you another number in the water."
"[Some] people don't even know there's a beach in Rockaway, or even in New York," he continues. "This is my backyard: I've traveled to California, been to Central America—but when the waves are very good here, it's amazing. It is immaculate. Let's not give too many secrets away but September through November, is the best season."
Aside from a salty aftertaste in our mouth, dry sand in our ears and a thoroughly sore body the next few days—surprisingly, we're left with one last souvenir: an urge to go back in the water and try to stand up on the board again. Locals Surf School lives up to its founding mission, as said by Kololyan: "Share the stoke with everyone. Share the good vibes of surfing, and keep spreading the awareness and how fun it is."
Whether visiting from out-of-town or just wanting to treat yourself to a staycation, the W Hotel Union Square's Surf and Stay package makes things very convenient by getting you from hotel room to the beach in less than 45 minutes; it includes car service both ways, a surf lesson, lunch at Rockaway Beach Surf Club and more. The hotel will donate 10% of every package to the Rockaway-based non-profit Graybeards, which has helped local families get back on their feet from Hurricane Sandy. Starting at $469, the package is available until 30 September 2014.
Two-hour group lessons start at $80 and the school is one of the few open year-round; visit Locals Surf School online to book a spot and peruse other lesson options.
Images by Cool Hunting