A Strong Island Swell

Photographer Ryan "Chachi" Craig chases hurricane surf with Will Skudin, Balaram Stack, and more

This year’s hurricane season on the East Coast hasn’t been a matter of If, but a matter of Who, with Irma, Jose, and more recently Maria booking extended stays in the Western Atlantic. But until a week and a half ago, the mind of staff photographer Ryan “Chachi” Craig was focused on Southern California, and on considerably smaller conditions, at the Lower Trestles contest. It was as Filipe Toledo and Silvana Lima were chaired up the cobblestones when Chachi got an unexpected call from a 516 area code — the name ringing on the phone was Long Beach, NY charger Will Skudin.

“The last day of the event, I got a call from Will, out of the blue,” says Chachi. “Will's someone who I’ve met a bunch while shooting in different parts of the world – Mavs, Puerto, all those big wave spots. But I hadn't spoke with him in a couple of months. He told me that this hurricane swell was going to be really good on the East Coast. He asked me if I wanted to jump on a plane and head over after the comp finished up.”

Looking out at the exhausted swell in Southern California, the offer didn’t need much arm-twisting for Chachi to book his ticket to Long Beach, Long Island, to meet with Skudin, Balaram Stack, Leif Engstrom, and others. The trip marked his first time shooting through Long Beach’s three-mile stretch of sandbars, most of which were in mechanical form as they cycled out ridge-backed barrels and punchy ramps.

“Everyone kept telling me that they had waves for a while, but ultimately that the East Coast is extremely fickle, and that it rarely gets really good,” says Chachi. “But the whole time that I was there, there were waves in good conditions, so for me, it seemed like a pretty damn-cool environment for producing good surf.” [All photos by Ryan “Chachi” Craig]

“The surf community there is pretty tight-knit,” says Chachi. “Leif is originally from Montauk, so he's something like a two-hour drive away from Long Beach. All of these guys are friends, and Leif came down for the swell, because the winds favored Long Beach a little better than where he's from. These hurricane swells are unpredictable. It might be good at first light, it might be good later in the day, it might be good all day, it might not be good all day. These guys were up really early in the morning checking the surf. Everyone just sort of shows up. These guys have it dialed.”

“Balaram Stack is probably the most accomplished New Yorker in terms of exposure. Here he is after a surf during the beginning of the swell. The winds were howling offshore, so you can see the movement of the sand in the foreground with that blur.”

Balaram Stack

Balaram Stack

“Will and his brother Cliff [pictured here] run a huge surf camp over in Long Beach. Cliff is a super accomplished lifeguard and waterman. He runs water safety and tow stuff for Will when the waves get really big. Thus was the first day of the swell when it was a bit bigger, but it was also a bit more unruly.”

“This was the second day of the swell, and the winds were a lot more offshore — the first day, they were side-offshore, and the second day, they were straight offshore. Word got out that this was one of the better peaks along the beach, and there were probably a good 30 to 40 guys surfing this one peak, spread out. Over the hour or so that I shot from this particular angle, James Theobald [pictured here] got three or four pretty nuts barrels.”

“Kurt Rist [shown here] is really good friends with Will. They both surf places like Puerto Escondido and Ireland together. Since I came over to hang with Will, and since the forecast was looking better down at Long Beach than the Hamptons, Kurt decided to come down for the first two days of the swell. This was the first morning of the swell. While everyone was checking the spots, we decided to go to the first beachbreak that we saw, and Kurt locked into a few.”

“This was the second day of the swell. It wasn't as big as the previous day, but the peaks were a lot more defined, and the sandbars were a bit more shallow. This was where a lot of the guys, like Leif Engstrom [pictured here] went for the morning surf. It was a lot more hollow, more top to bottom, than other parts of the beach.”

“When I think of New York, I automatically think of New York City. But Long Beach doesn't have that big-city vibe, and it was way more spread out than I thought it would be. There are endless set-ups of beach break that remind me of Southern California with not nearly as many people. They have all these different jetties everywhere. For comparison’s sake, the south part of Santa Cruz, and the south part of the county, has miles and miles of beaches. You find the reformed sandbar. You find your own little peak somewhere along the beach. It's the same over in Long Beach, but they just have jetty after jetty, so it tends to create better sandbars, in my opinion. There were a lot of people surfing, and the good waves got crowded, but you could easily go to the left or the right and find your own setup.”

“Here’s Kurt and Will checking out an A-Frame. “The first morning, when the swell was really raw, the forecast was for the swell to significantly spike up in size toward the afternoon. This was in the morning, when the swell was on the rise. The winds were good, but not great, and you could tell that there was a lot of energy in the water. We were trying to assess what part of the beach was the best. You can tell here that the ocean was a bit rawer, and slightly more disorganized, but there were still diamonds in the rough, if you happened to find the right peak.”

“On Day Three of surfing all day, everyone was hanging out during the sunset, soaking it all in. This was a beautiful late-summer day. with a temperature in the mid ’70s as the sun went down.”

“TJ Gumiela is one of Will's good buddies, and an underground New York talent. He did well on this swell. The whole crew was dialed in, so they go to similar spots. I saw a couple clips of TJ from another filmer, and he got some of the better waves from the swell. He wasn't necessarily staying with the pack the whole time, but he definitely maximized the swell and got a shit-ton of barrels.”

“In the UnSound Pro a few days earlier, Will did a floater, and his board bounced back up toward his head. When he went to block it, it cut pretty deeply into his hand, between his pinky and ring finger. He ended up getting 10 stitches before I had even flown in. It f—ked up his finger pretty good. He was told by the doctor that he had to stay out of the water for 10 days. But then he was joking around about how there was this movie with Chris Ward where he wrapped his hand in a yellow dish glove, so Will put on a sock over his hand to protect it, and then duct-taped a yellow rubber glove onto his hand. He ended up driving a jet ski around on the big day, just doing water taxi for everyone. The current was outrageously strong, so he was just giving people rides up and down the point, keeping people in position. I was taking a couple of photos off the ski. At sunset, he gave his hand a little test, and he actually managed to paddle in and catch three waves, like the one above. You can see his hand that's dragging the wall — his yellow glove hand. Even a busted hand wasn’t going to keep him out of the water.”