Okay, I’m just going to put it out there, this question that’s really got me pondering one of surfing’s great mysteries: when did the beaches of New Jersey – New Jersey – become Barrel City? Because I don’t know about you, but the season is soon approaching when I’ll compulsively be watching clip after clip of excessively neoprened Garden State surfers pulling into, and getting spat out of, serious sand-bottomed tubes.
Peaky, makeable barrels, groomed into hollow cylinders by frosty offshore winds that if you took away all the rubber, snow and dripping noses could rival any of the world’s renowned beachbreaks, like those of Ventura, Hossegor or South Stradbroke. And there was a conspicuous lack of imagery of such New Jersey waves before the epic Northeast winter of 2013-2014. That’s when Lavallette stalwart Sam Hammer and crew blew up what little media existed with a series of amazing video clips and photos, shocking the surfing world. But if those epic Jersey tunnels had, in fact, existed all this time, why hadn’t we seen them before?
It’s not like they haven’t been riding waves along the Jersey Shore for decades – for over a century, apparently. In August of 1888, for example, the cover of Police Gazette magazine featured a fetching, dark-haired female surfer, dubbed the “Gay Queen of the Waves,” sliding her plank in the Asbury Park shorebreak. Reported to be the adventurous daughter of a rich planter from the “Sandwich Islands,” the East Coast’s unheralded proto surfer is today thought to have been Emma Spreckels, daughter of Hawaiian sugar baron Claus Spreckels (and great-aunt of tragic burn-out Bunker Spreckels)
That might be rewinding a bit too far, sure, but today even a perusal of the New Jersey Surfing Hall of Fame’s “Gallery Of The Past,” taking us on a nostalgic trip though the 1960s and ‘70s, shows not a single barrel ride. There’s been plenty of talented area surfers throughout those eras and beyond, from Brian Heritage Sr. to Rob Kelly; local OG’s like Dennis Doyle, Kevin Casey, Gary Germain, Mark Neustadter, Tony Giordano, Steve Dwyer, Tyler Callaway, Sandy Ordille, Scotty Duerr, Joe Grottola and Lisa Roselli, just to name a few. And there have been photogs shooting Jersey surf for just as long, John Ker and Point Pleasant’s Dick Meseroll (before moving to Florida and becoming the East’s premier surf photographer) most prominently back in the day. If New Jersey had been holding all that time, and considering this combination of legacy, talent and lensmen in play, wouldn’t the surf magazines have been full of epic photos, with the typical consequence of “spot exposure” seeing wave after wave of out-of-towners crowding New Jersey Route 35 in search of the East’s best barrels?
“We used to have a saying way back then,” says Jeff Divine, the legendary surf photog and former SURFER magazine photo editor. “If it didn’t get a photo, it didn’t happen. And there just weren’t that many guys shooting the Northeast. Like back in the sixties, you’d see an occasional shot of New Jersey in the ‘Photos From The Readers’ section that made the waves look pretty good. And later I remember that every now and then an A-frame wedge at a spot like Manasquan Inlet would occasionally float across my light table. But that was about it. Probably because the conditions were so fickle, and like I said, there just weren’t many photographers focusing on that area. Before the digital and video age, it was all about Florida.”
With all due respect to the Great Divine, however, it would’ve only taken one. Photo, that is. Because despite the Sunshine State’s more consistent (and decidedly warmer) conditions, and seemingly bottomless talent pool, had a single photo or video clip of the sort we’ve become used to seeing after virtually every blustery cold front – New Jersey locals getting seriously shacked in well-overhead tubes – the East would’ve had a new legitimate hot spot. So why all of a sudden, in historical terms, at least?
“A lot of it has to do with imagination,” claims former Atlantic City local Steve Dwyer, who, though transplanting to Central California in the late 1970s, maintains sufficient East Coast authority to discuss the topic. “We used to watch the waves that we’re seeing now, but we didn’t surf them. Back then we just couldn’t imagine ourselves air dropping into barrels like that on single fins.”
So what changed? Dwyer, who, by the way, got his first surf shot in the mags in 1975 (no barrel, alas, but a cool bottom turn on an overhead left at Seaside Heights) and later competed as a pro, worked in the surfboard industry and eventually morphed into a NorCal high school English teacher, adds considerable expertise to any conjecture on the subject.
“The Momentum Generation changed everything,” he says. “In the way those guys started air-dropping into tubes. Nobody in the seventies made waves like that. Look at old footage of Pipe, with surfers like Gerry Lopez knifing into the face on the drop, engaging the rail by leaning on their toes. But guys like Slater started dropping into barrels in a stance I call ‘toe-side neutral,’ with feet more in a skate stance, not leaning on either rail, but just dropping straight down to the bottom. Then they’d engage their rail and pump up into the barrel at speed. Which suddenly made those super-hollow waves that we used to watch seem doable.”
Along with this technical analysis Dwyer offers the more obvious laundry list of innovations that have changed the way we perceive New Jersey surfing today: better, more flexible wetsuits, better, more refined surfboards, better, less-refined (read: ballsy) surfers, like the aforementioned Rob Kelly, visiting New Yorker Balaram Stack and even Ben Gravy. But it’s a much more impactful influence he’ll point to that has really made the difference. And considering his teaching tenure, it comes as no surprise that it starts with the alphabet.
“The autumn surf season is completely different these days,” he asserts. “Just look at the number of hurricanes we’ve had this year. For example, back in, like, 1980, there might have been eight or nine named storms, but now we’re getting up into the L,M,N,O and P’s. That never happened before. I think it’s this new consistency factor that explains why the talent level of New Jersey surfers has changed entirely. Which is why we’ve been seeing all these clips of them getting barreled, not just in autumn, but all winter.”
Thanks, teach – that clears that up. Now, if you could only explain why surfers rack their boards fins-forward so that their board bags turn into wind socks on the highway, or why big wave bragging means cutting the wave size in half, or why surfing with your right foot forward is considered goofy, or…