In his new documentary “Fire and Water,” director Thomas Brookins explores the rich history and culture of New York’s surfing and firefighting community. Often underneath those firefighter uniforms layered with ash, you’ll find a New York surfer who’s part of a tight-knit beach community that spends equal time in the elements of fire and water.
Brookins dives deep into the working class coastal town of Rockaway, to trace the life path many kids follow after growing up with family members that answer the call to civic duty. Lots of Rockaway kids begin as Junior Lifeguards, then move to become full-fledged lifeguards, a path that often leads to becoming a firefighter.
Brookins says that the film is meant for surfers and non-surfers alike. “I think it’s a really humble tale of a group of people who possess a lot of strength,” he says “There’s a great lesson to be learned from them.”
Can you describe Rockaway and Long Beach’s history as a blue-collar and working-class finger of NYC?
Rockaway Beach is the farthest eastern tip of New York City before you cross a small bridge to Long Island, which is a 100-mile stretch of eastern shoreline that runs all the way to Montauk. Rockaway and Long Beach, the bordering town on Long Island, have a long history of surfers, but the local governments of places like Rockaway haven’t always gotten along with the City. You have white sand beaches and an ocean, but the City has long tried to use it as a dumping ground for problems they’d like to hide from the money of Manhattan.
There are miles of projects outside of Queens, built in the ‘60s, where the government left people with no jobs or transportation. Long Island, from what I understand, had similar issues in the ‘70s, but it was not an easy place to live if you wanted to surf. Lots of crime and drugs. But it’s changing daily now, and it’s not the same as it once was. Long Beach is beautiful. To me, it looks a lot like some vacation spots in Florida. Nowadays, Rockaway has a developing restaurant, art, and music scene. Surfing has shown the rest of the world the area’s potential.
It’s hard to talk about firefighters and New York City without thinking about 9/11. Can you talk about what that experience was like for the Rockaway surf and firefighter community?
Long Beach and New York City both felt a huge loss on 9/11. We all know someone who died on that day. There was a surfer, Richie Allen, who we knew that didn’t make it. His family is full of surfers and almost all of them are firefighters. In fact, many of the surfers in these areas were firefighters and each one has their own take on that day. A good firefighter friend of mine drove out to Montauk on 9/11 and found people crowded in a circle. He didn’t know why — the surf was pumping and no one was out. He thought there must be a big fight happening, but when he pushed through the crowd everyone was gathered listening to a car radio. He went into a panic and tried to get back to help, but the city was locked down. He couldn’t do anything but listen to the radio.
Every firefighter I know who was on the job has a deeply rooted sadness for that day, set aside in a special place of their minds. People asked me how I would talk about this in the film. I didn’t want to. My friend Casey Skudin—cousin of big wave surfer Will Skudin—became a firefighter because of Don Eichin, a legendary local surfer and firefighter. September 11th was the day that made Skudin go take the exam, and now he’s one of the most decorated firemen in the area. He’s truly a hero.
Talk a little about Don Eichin. How did you meet? What was it like going through his footage?
My friend Brian Walsh, a local firefighter, surfer, and ASP Judge from Long Island, introduced me to Randy and Eric Eichin, who are also firemen. They brought Don to one of my film screenings, Shadows of the Same Sun, during the Quicksilver Pro NY. Quik wanted to show the film to educate the fans and pro surfers competing in the contest about NY and its surf culture. Don watched the movie, and he knew half the guys in it. He started telling me old tales of surfing Hawaii in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and was throwing some legendary names in there. Shortly after the Quik Pro ended, he called me up and asked me to help him grab something out of his truck.
It was a large heavy box. When we got it inside, there was a bunch of old metal film canisters, and an old Bell and Howell projector. We rolled the footage, and there he was, Don hanging out with about every big name you can imagine from Hawaii back then: Felipe Pomar, Rusty Miller, Eddie Aikau, Fred Hemings, Dick Brewer. The footage sat in his NY basement for 50-plus years. I asked why he hadn’t shown this publicly and he humbly replied, “Eh. Not sure anyone would care too much. It’s not a big deal. I just loved to surf.” Fell in love with the guy right there. He’s a cherub of a person that’ll give you the shirt off his back if you needed it.
What are the qualities that a New York surfer and fireman share? What makes that pairing so natural?
People ask me all the time “Why do you think firefighters are attracted to surfing?” I respond that they’re not. Surfers are attracted to firefighting. It’s in a surfer’s blood to be a thrill seeker, constantly testing their own limitations. They watch out for each other, they notice the little things; they are involved in their communities and care and fight for ecology. Don Eichin says it’s quite possibly the best job on the planet for a surfer.