‘That Was the Biggest I’ve Ever Seen New York’

Looking back at when Maria visited The Empire State

Aspiring big-wave surfers from New York are in a tough zip code. There’s no Mavericks next door to cut your teeth on. Jaws is in another ocean. Beachbreaks are your training ground, and frankly, if big waves are what you’re after, you’re going to need a bigger sandbox.

Then Hurricane Maria brought heavy squalls to New York near the end of September, and reports came in of Puerto-like closeouts a few hours outside of Long Beach. The state’s big-wave scene dropped everything and headed to their own shores. And Will Skudin and cinematographer Nate Best almost missed it.

A flying board to Skudin’s hand in late September cut a deep gash between his pinky and ring finger, on which he wore a yellow glove à la Wardo in What’s Really Goin’ Wrong so he could keep surfing. His hand certainly needed to heal by winter, when purple blobs would lead him across the world, and the sessions that he decided on at home were filled with second-guessing.

“I was on the teetering edge that whole time, wondering if I should even go in the water or not,” Will told us. “I kept asking myself, Am I pushing too hard?

For New York-based cinematographer Nate Best, a broken nose from a session during Hurricane Jose would keep him out of the water until November. As he prepared himself for his recovery at home, Maria arrived. He looked at the charts for September 27th and 28th and realized he didn’t have a choice — he had to be there to film the swell. He grabbed his camera, rented a high-quality lens, and connected with Skudin, Kurt Rist, and other northeast chargers, who eyed the swell just at it turned a reliable outer sandbar into an XL playpen.

“Those two days reminded me a lot of Hurricane Bill [in 2009],” Best told us. “Apart from Maria, I can’t remember a hurricane swell since Bill that’s been that good. We’re going to remember the end of Maria’s swell window for a long time.”

Skudin and Best said their thoughts immediately went to their friends in the Caribbean who endured the storm’s direct hit. New York was on the cusp of enjoying historic surf, while Puerto Ricans were left picking up the pieces of their island, still in the dark with no power. Their friends were on their mind as they launched the skis into the whitecapped lineup.

“That was the biggest I've ever seen New York,” Will told us about that foggy Wednesday session. “Certainly at that spot, but it might have been the biggest I’ve ever seen New York period. It was closed out, it was bombing, and it was hard to find the corners. It wasn't perfect surf. But it was legit energy. We were getting worked, for real [Laughs]. It felt almost like full-blown Puerto closeouts. I remember being underwater, almost psyching, going 'Oh my god, I can't believe I'm getting this pounded in New York!’ On Thursday, where the footage is from, it was slightly smaller and cleaner, and that was when the guys were getting tubed.”

The crew was organized into three groups of two for step-offs: Will and brother Cliff, Kurt Rist and Ocean Beach-regular Ryan Seelbach, and Travis Beckmann and Charlie Weimar. Other surfers rotated in, including Leif Engstrom, Trip Patterson, Tyler Maguire, and Pat Havlik. The waves weren’t of the same size as the blue-blood venues around the world, Will says, not by a long shot. But a version of big waves in his backyard made for a once-in-a-decade kind of session.

“It obviously wasn’t at the level of those big waves,” he says, “but it felt like it crossed that line of energy. It's cool when you get to see your home give you the taste of what you've travel around the world for. You’re looking for waves that will get you super psyched, but your home never gave you that feeling. New York just doesn't have a big-wave spot. So getting the feeling of even launching a ski, putting an impact vest on, hitting big whitewaters — it was really cool to do at home.”