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Strong Island Son

Growing up in Long Island, New York might seem like a disadvantage for an aspiring big-wave surfer. But in the case of Will Skudin, his roots might be his greatest strength

Around 9 A.M. on February 25, not long after the Eddie Aikau big-wave invitational was called on, Will Skudin sat alone on the left at Jaws. Seventy-five yards to the west, the right was filling up with surfers and Jet Skis, but because of its propensity for closing out over the inside shallows, the left is often overlooked. Skudin paddled up and over a set—a lopsided trip with a long, rollercoaster ascent and quick, spray-showered slide down the back. As he surveyed the empty lineup, he started wondering if he was going crazy. Was it not 30 feet and perfect? Why weren’t there other surfers out? The answer lay a hundred miles to the northwest, on Oahu, where most of the big-wave elite had collected. All eyes were on Waimea Bay, and so many people were watching the Eddie live-stream that the island’s Internet crashed.

As he does before paddling out for every big-wave session, Skudin had taken five minutes on the beach to visualize every step of his waves. It was a trick—half prayer, half meditation—his mom had taught him two decades before, when Skudin was one of the best young freestyle swimmers in the United States.

When another set approached, Skudin spun and started scratching toward the boulder-lined beach; that was step one. As the wave grew and reached its apex underneath him, he jumped to his feet and rolled over the ledge—step two. Halfway down the mountainous face, his rail momentarily caught on a lump of chop, but he powered through, regained control, and found a smooth line across the wall. Just before the wave imploded on the inside, Skudin took aim for the shoulder, leaned hard on his toe-side rail, and kicked out into blue water—step three. “It was the perfect way to end the best big-wave season of my life,” Skudin says. He went in to watch the last heats of the Eddie, and a few days later, he flew home to Long Beach, New York. You could say that was step four.

“It’s not surprising to me that someone from the East Coast could become successful in big waves. Sometimes there’s more motivation if the waves aren’t in your backyard. It’s incredible how committed
Will is.”
[Gary Linden]

According to WSL Big Wave Awards director Bill Sharp, the 2015–’16 big-wave season was the most competitive since Sharp began keeping track in 1997, when he launched the K2 Big-Wave Challenge. “This year has shattered all records in terms of content,” says Sharp. “There were more guys surfing better and in more places than ever before.” Sharp claims he had to upgrade his computer’s memory just to keep up with submissions; there were over 500 paddle entries alone.

For this year’s Big Wave Awards, 10 surfers were nominated for Best Overall Performance, a category that highlights the unhinged watermen who consistently pushed the limits of big-wave surfing throughout the season. The nominees included Shane Dorian, Greg Long, and Mark Healey—some of the most highly regarded big-wave veterans in the world. And right next to them was a relatively unknown surfer from Long Beach, New York.

Skudin earned his place among the big-wave elite the hard way: by keeping his finger on the pulse of storm systems, chasing swells around the world, and committing to the heaviest waves he could find. Over the last year, Skudin threw himself over the ledge at Puerto Escondido, Mullaghmore, Mavericks, Todos Santos, Nelscott Reef, Jaws, and more. Back in December at Nazaré, he paddled into a left that Garrett McNamara called “one of the biggest paddle waves I have ever seen, if not the biggest.”

Many big-wave surf fans were left scratching their heads, wondering how Skudin, a New Yorker who grew up surfing breaks that seldom get over head high, could have become one of the best big-wave surfers in the world. But others saw something in Skudin that could account for his unlikely rise.

“It’s not surprising to me that someone from the East Coast could become successful in big waves,” says Gary Linden, founder of the Big Wave World Tour. “Sometimes there’s more motivation if the waves aren’t in your backyard; it’s incredible how committed Will is.”

On this morning, while a pack of international chargers jockeyed for position on the Jaws right, Skudin was the only surfer to brave the more dangerous, but equally spectacular left. Photo: Aeder
On this morning, while a pack of international chargers jockeyed for position on the Jaws right, Skudin was the only surfer to brave the more dangerous, but equally spectacular left. Photo: Aeder

Skudin is 31 years old and wears a scraggly reddish beard. He was always a skinny kid, but years of competitive swimming and surfing have covered him in lean muscle. When he was 15, he announced to his parents that he wanted to surf big waves, and that he wanted to be the youngest goofyfoot ever to surf Mavericks. These were unusual goals for a kid in Long Beach, even among the city’s talented contingent of small-wave surfers. But the Skudins are not your typical New York family.

Two weeks before Skudin’s session at Jaws, I met his parents, Dave and Beth, at The Park, a sleek sports bar on Long Beach’s busy six-lane Park Avenue. It was the coldest day of the winter—13 degrees—with a northwest wind slicing across the low, mustard-colored marshland separating this western tail of Long Island from New York City, which looms on the horizon like an approaching concrete-and-glass glacier. Beth, who is small, serene, and fair-skinned, thanks to her Irish roots, had hair still wet from her evening class at the Long Beach Recreation Center, where she has taught swimming on and off since 1991. Dave, who had just stepped off the train from Manhattan, where he works on Wall Street as a U.S. Treasury bond broker, is barrel chested and thick jawed; the latter trait is one he passed on to all four of his sons.

Dave and Beth both grew up in Long Beach and met as kids on a swim team at the local rec center. They were also both from surfing families, raised on the beachbreaks scattered between Gilgo State Park to the east and the Rockaways to the west. Beth’s father, an actor and artist named Dick Bolton, was one of Long Beach’s earliest surfers. In the 1960s, he became friendly with Duke Kahanamoku, who visited Long Beach occasionally to give swimming demonstrations. In the family’s modest bungalow, there is a framed photo of Kahanamoku with a note written to Beth on June 29, 1964: “To Beth, Aloha” it reads in sloppy cursive. It’s signed by The Duke.

Dave’s childhood was not as dazzling. After their father passed away when they were young, Dave and his three brothers were taken under the wing of their swim coach, Woody Davis. “Woody made sure we kept swimming,” Dave told me one afternoon as we drove past the beachside block where he lived as a teenager. Davis was able to get all four boys to college on swimming scholarships. Today, Dave’s brother, John, is a captain on the Long Beach Lifeguard Patrol. “We’ve been wet more than we’ve been dry,” he says about their upbringing.

GALLERY:

Much like their parents, Skudin and his brothers—David, Cliff, and Woody—immediately took to the ocean as kids. In the off-season for beachgoers, when the lifeguards left and waves were stirred up by hurricanes and nor’easters, Beth stood watch on an overturned trash bin with a pair of swim fins slung over her shoulder as the boys surfed the local beachbreak. “I didn’t worry,” Beth says. “They were good swimmers and they had each other.”

Like their parents, the boys also began swimming competitively. By the time he was 12, Skudin was ranked 12th in the country in the 50-meter freestyle, and 15th in the 100. “There was eating, sleeping, and swimming,” Skudin says. “We were in some kind of body of water every single day.”

But swimming didn’t light a fire in Skudin like surfing did, and he soon found himself spending far more time in the lineup than the lanes. At a shallow, fast beachbreak north of town called Point Lookout, which was the domain of Long Beach’s most talented locals, Skudin started to make an impression. For the locals, it was hard not to notice the skinny towhead happily taking beatings in his attempts to get barreled. Skudin’s passion for surfing and penchant for wipeouts were constant entertainment for his older brothers, and Cliff was soon calling him “Whitewater Willy,” a nickname that sticks with him today.

“I remember not making one drop for, like, a year,” Skudin says. “Then one day I just figured it out.” Mike “Nelly” Nelson, who co-owns Long Beach’s hallowed surf shop, UnsOund, and who was a Point Lookout regular at the time, remembers the wave that flipped a switch in Skudin. “He paddled out on one of the heaviest days of the season and got a stand-up tube,” Nelson said. “That put him on everybody’s radar.”

Very quickly, however, it became apparent to both Skudin and his family that Long Island’s waves couldn’t satiate Skudin’s peculiar joy in getting worked. That’s when he told his parents he wanted to become a big-wave surfer.

“We weren’t behind it at first,” Beth admits. She and Dave figured their son would grow out of it. But as he got older, his obsession with the idea only intensified, and his frustration with being stuck on Long Island started to manifest itself in various ways. “I was starting to drink and was getting into fights,” Skudin says about his early teens. “It was a tough time in my life.”

Numerous rock groins jut out from Long Beach’s coast, creating often-pristine sandbanks up and down the three-mile stretch. Growing up, Skudin became familiar with each and every one of them. Photo: Manzoni
Numerous rock groins jut out from Long Beach’s coast, creating often-pristine sandbanks up and down the three-mile stretch. Growing up, Skudin became familiar with each and every one of them. Photo: Manzoni

A tidy metaphor for the cultural complexity of Long Beach can be found on the wall of The Park. Above a booth is a framed photo of Skudin, deep inside a thick 8-foot Teahupoo barrel; the bottom right corner of the frame reads “Surfer of the Year,” an honor given to him in 2013 by Eastern Surf Magazine. Above is another picture, this one of the 27-0 light heavyweight boxer Sean Monaghan, who comes from Long Beach’s West End and grew up surfing and scrapping with Skudin and his older brothers.

Looking at the pictures, it occurred to me that this dichotomy of life paths—Monaghan the boxer, Skudin the surfer—is proof that Long Beach stands apart from other surf towns in America. Once imagined to be a seasonal resort destination for city slickers, Long Beach has calcified into a gritty but proud middle-class community of police officers and firefighters, boxers and Wall Street commuters. People like Monaghan and Dave, who, though they know their way around a wave, aren’t the kind of people you’d look at and immediately think, “There’s a surfer.”

I met Monaghan one morning at a chic café called Gentle Brew, just a few blocks away from unsOund. Monaghan has a flattened nose, an Irishman’s green-blue eyes, and a vintage New York City drawl. The day we met, he could have been mistaken for any Long Beach surfer, wearing a …Lost T-shirt and a large gold watch. As different as boxing and big-wave surfing may be on the surface, Monaghan told me the drive to do both comes from the same place—one defined by the raucous childhood he and the Skudin boys lived, riding waves and getting into brawls with the kids from out of town who flooded Long Beach in the summers. “I’m sure the adrenaline that comes from turning on a giant wave is the same as it is walking up into the ring,” Monaghan told me. He paused for a moment and took a huge swig from his second cup of coffee. “The biggest shame to me is people talking themselves out of doing something they can do, just because they’re scared.”

“When you see younger guys come out to Mavericks, you’re waiting to see how they react to the experience of wiping out. It’s what happens when you don’t make a wave that really matters. With Will, I knew he had it.”
[Grant Washburn]

Back in 2001, Dave left his job at 1 World Trade Center. When the towers fell several months later on September 11 and many of his friends and co-workers perished, he started thinking differently about life, and about his son’s desire to become a big-wave surfer. With David and Cliff off to college on swimming scholarships, Dave and Beth decided to sell the house in Long Beach and move Skudin and his younger brother, Woody, to Frisco, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, home of some of the best waves on the East Coast.

Nearly every day, before and after school, Dave took Skudin to The Lighthouse in Buxton, where every Outer Banks pro from Noah Snyder to Brett Barley has cut their teeth. Skudin surfed the break relentlessly, edging his way into the pack on the biggest days. Gradually, he went from curious oddity—“I was the squeaky wheel that wouldn’t go away,” Skudin says—to respected transplant.

But even on the biggest days, the Outer Banks was no substitute for the kind of mountains that Skudin eventually wanted to tackle. He had long idolized the late Jay Moriarity, who famously paddled out at Mavericks for the first time as a teenager, and Skudin wanted to take that leap himself. So when a swell headed for Half Moon Bay popped up in January 2002, then-16-year-old Skudin begged his parents to allow him to go.

Skudin arrived in Half Moon Bay with his uncle Bill and Dave, who said he would allow him to paddle out on the condition that he wore a Jet Ski vest and a Gath helmet. Mavericks was decent with roughly 25-foot faces on the sets, but Skudin didn’t know how to get out to the lineup. Eventually, Dave found an inebriated crabber and talked him into taking them out to the channel. “Wall Street guy comes to the harbor…” Skudin laughs, recalling the scene.

They made it out into the lineup, but less than an hour into the session, a cleanup set came through and sucked Skudin and his brand-new 9’6″ Jeff Clark over the falls. “I thought, ‘He’s finally gonna get this out of his system, thank God,’” Dave says. “But Will just comes back to the boat and goes, ‘I need another board.’”

The next day, Skudin was back in the lineup on a used 10’6″ single-fin that he bought off the rack at Jeff Clark’s shop. “All day long, there weren’t any true Mavericks sets,” Nelson, who flew out to shoot Skudin, said. “Then a bomb comes and this kid’s right in the spot. He turns, goes, makes it three quarters down the face, and then just gets totally worked. But he pops up and comes over to the boat, all smiles.” At 16, Skudin had in fact become one of the youngest people ever to surf Mavericks, and his fearless approach didn’t go unnoticed by the locals.

“When you see younger guys come out, you’re waiting to see how they react to the experience of wiping out,” says longtime Mavericks charger Grant Washburn. “It’s what happens when you don’t make a wave that really matters. With Will, I knew he had it.”

In March, a couple of weeks after his final Jaws session of the winter, Skudin and I drove around Long Beach in his beat-up Chevy work truck. He hadn’t been home since Christmas, so he had a lot of catching up to do. At the Salt Air Café—a Long Beach staple with a “Big Wave Will” breakfast sandwich on the menu—we met his older brother Cliff, who is a spitting image of their hulking father. Cliff joins Skudin for most big swells, but after suffering a broken rib at Jaws, he spent most of last winter watching his brother from the sidelines.

At the table, the brothers talked over each other, finished the other’s sentences, and gesticulated wildly. “Mark my words,” Skudin said, pointing at his brother for effect. “Cliff Skudin will catch the biggest wave of the season one of these days.”

Throughout the 2000s, Skudin and Cliff refined their big-wave game each winter on Oahu, where their older brother, David, lived and worked as a lifeguard. In the summers, Skudin would return to the Outer Banks, where he and his parents started a surf camp at the Frisco Pier. In the shadow of the pier, a seed was planted for Skudin, and in 2008, he and Cliff decided they wanted to use a similar model to teach kids in Long Beach how to surf.

At the café, they discussed plans for Skudin Surf, which has grown into one of the largest surf camps on the East Coast. At six locations each summer, the entire Skudin clan works together to push thousands of city kids, wounded veterans, and people with disabilities into their first waves.

You might think it would be difficult for Skudin to take a break from chasing big swells to push beginners on soft-tops into knee-high crumblers, but he doesn’t see it that way. Even though Long Beach will never be home to big waves, it will always be the place that molded Skudin as a surfer, and he attributes as much of his recent success in the big-wave realm to his upbringing here as he does to his travels around the world. That’s why he’s happy to spend a handful of months out of the year rolling around in the whitewater, helping the next generation of New Yorkers find their sea legs. “It’s important for me to leave something for Long Beach,” Skudin says.

A few hours after our meeting with Cliff, it suddenly occurred to Skudin that he hadn’t looked at the ocean once that day. We parked at the end of Long Beach Boulevard, where Skudin Surf headquarters is located. The windows of the high-rise apartment complexes stacked along the boulevard were cloudy from the salt air. Without the hot, sunlit varnish of summer, everything appeared to be wet. On an empty lot next to the boardwalk, a chain-link fence encircled the rusty shipping containers that house countless soft-tops and rashguards. A recent nor’easter had blown a section of the fence down, and plastic bags danced around the lot. A Skudin Surf sign wobbled in the breeze.

The Atlantic was a fitful brown-green and nearly flat, and the water was 40 degrees without a soul in the lineup. But the sun had popped out and the air was starting to warm up. A miniature set feathered across an outside sandbar and Skudin stopped. “Looks fun out there,” he said. I couldn’t make out what he saw in the winds-wept expanse, but then again, that shouldn’t have been a surprise. After all, Skudin looked out over this same sandbar years ago and saw a future in big-wave surfing.

Skudin started the 2015-’16 El Niño season hunting the Pacific Northwest’s fabled Yeti; a cold-water slab often compared to Teahupoo and Mullaghamore—two waves Skudin knows well. Photo: Murray
Skudin started the 2015-’16 El Niño season hunting the Pacific Northwest’s fabled Yeti; a cold-water slab often compared to Teahupoo and Mullaghmore—two waves Skudin knows well. Photo: Murray

[This feature is from “Home of the Brave,” our 2016 special edition Big Issue, on newsstands and available for download now.]