The first issue of The Blue and White has landed on campus! In today’s selection, Mariela Quintana investigates the trials of Columbia’s urban surfers.
But that hasn’t stopped a cohort of beach bums from making their homes in Morningside Heights. These student surfers are single-minded in their pursuit of breakers and swells, and though their numbers may be small, their passion for surfing is anything but.
“I spent every possible free second that I had at Columbia trying to surf in Long Island and New Jersey,” said Michael “Wojo” Wojcieszek, SEAS ‘10 and a native of the Jersey shore.
After Wojo discovered a fellow surfer and Jersey boy in Matt Ward, SEAS ‘11, the two almost immediately began weekly trips out to Far Rockaway, Queens–compared to Jersey, a local-enough surf spot. All things Columbia were made secondary to riding the waves: John Jay became an impromptu surf shack, boards jammed into closets and hung from ceilings. Whenever possible, Wojo would choose 9 a.m. classes to free his afternoons for shred sessions. He recounts with pride stumbling late into a chemistry final, while Ward brought his board to exams, leaving for post-test surf sessions posthaste.
The surf buddies even had hoped to turn their ocean devotion into dollars. Two years back, they took to the roof of Mudd with fiberglass molding equipment as part of a plan to launch a board sculpting business. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Columbia maintenance objected and shuttered the operation. Attempts to create a club team also fell short. “Asset Management deemed us too risky,” Wojo recounted somewhat bitterly of the Athletic department’s vetting system that evaluates proposals for new student sports groups.
Even though graduation has now ended Wojo’s time at Columbia, he and Ward still make the jaunt out to Far Rockaway with their surfboards stashed under their seats on the A train. Outer-borough commuters often give strange looks–it seems many New Yorkers have forgotten that their city is, you know, on the water. For others, the surfboard itself is a foreign object–a mystified MTA rider once stopped the two to ask why and where they were going sledding.
But the end of the line brings surf-friendly company. “Once you get off the train, there are kids on skateboards and you can smell the beach. You almost think you’re in a real beach community,” recalled Ashley Ellenson, SEAS ‘11 and another Columbia surfer. “Then people start talking to you and you hear their Queens accents and you remember you’re still in the city.”
Although Rockaway attracts surfers from all over the city in the late summer, Wojo and Ward prefer the beach in the dead of winter. They are quite literally riders of the storm: wintry squalls form waves ripe for carving. Ward talks of blue lips, wind chill, and “flushing” – when a wet suit takes on too much icy water. “It’s just about the worst thing that could happen to you,” he insisted. “Ever.” Whatever the conditions, Ward won’t budge: Rockaway is his beach, and he’s faithful. “Anyone who says East Coast surf is bad hasn’t really surfed the East Coast,” he said.
The Surfrider Foundation, a beach advocacy organization, would seem to disagree: in its annual beach report card, the Foundation gives Rockaway and other Long Island beaches a “poor” grade for surfing quality. That echoes the opinions of other Columbia surfers who choose not to practice their pastime in the New York area. “I’m sure people generally enjoy it, but in the end to proclaim oneself a surfer in this city is more of a self-conscious posture,” said Alex Ludlum, GS ‘11 and native Californian. Ellenson remains unfazed, “It’s Rockaway. We’ll take what we can get.”
Surfing quality aside, Wojo insists one thing matters: “All that traveling and time spent in the water isn’t worth it if you don’t have someone to share the stoke with.”
Collage by Cindy Pan