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Surf Shacks 031 – Justin, Liam & Jimi

As surfers, we don’t need much. A board, trunks, wetsuit (depending on ocean temperature), and a place to crash near a beach with waves. Even though Manhattan is geographically very close to waves, city-based surfers still depend on a long subway ride out to surf the closest spot: Rockaway Beach in Queens. A place to stay by the beach is a nice little luxury for New York City surfers, it’s just another detail that makes being a surfer there unlike the experience of any other surfer in the world. That common bond between fellow NYC surf addicts can run deep. Justin Jay, Liam Tracy and Jimi Ayers are three very different surfers in NYC who embody this. These three friends live in the city, but met through surfing and now share a small bungalow in Rockaway where they can keep warm while they change in and out of 5 mils and have a place to crash whenever the waves are on.

Who are you guys? Tell us a little about yourselves.

Justin Jay: My name is Justin Jay. I’m a professional photographer. My client base and interests are pretty diverse. After photo-assisiting for 5 years after college, I tried to shoot fashion, but my heart really wasn’t in it. I eventually ended up working as a personal photographer to Sean “P Diddy” Combs for several years on and off. I got to travel with him and document his life for a book project. This opened a lot of doors in the music industry. As a result, I shot tour projects for The Strokes, Outkast and a few other acts. For the past 9 years, I’ve been working on project documenting candid moments at the team houses on the North Shore. I rarely shoot “surfing”, but instead wanted to tell the stories of the “surfers” that happen before and after they paddle out. It’s an amazing place to shoot because once you put your time in and earn respect, it’s a very small community. If you can get access, there’s really only a handful of houses where every pro on the planet either lives or hangs out on the lawn. I’ve developed great relationships with Hurley, Volcom, Reef, Rip Curl, Red Bull, Matuse, Quiksilver and have pretty good access to capture all the moments that go down during the Triple Crown.

Jimi Ayers: Well, I grew up really liking fireworks which progressed into liking girls, surfing, skating, and more recently I added beer to that list.

Liam Tracy: I am a graphic designer, artist, surfer living in the Lower East Side.

Where are you from? How long have you lived in NYC?

Justin: I grew up in Santa Barbara and moved to NYC after high-school. I’ve been living on the Lower East side ever since.

Jimi: Jacksonville, Florida. I have been in NYC for 12 years.

Liam: International Man of Mystery AKA a schmuck from Long Island. I’ve been living in NYC since I was 18, in 2007. I moved to NYC to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology, majoring in Graphic Design and finishing up in 2011 with a BFA. What an amazing experience. Chelsea was the original stomping grounds, then started hanging downtown shortly after. My roommate (Sean Maguire) was older than I was and from Queens. He had the plug and took me around club kid style. I had the best fake ID, found it on the floor in a club. The ID was from Finland, people couldn’t even read it. Bouncers and Doorman would be like, this is a kid. Check my ID… “Oh, he’s just foreign, cool.” 

What first drew you to Rockaway? Describe your first experience surfing there.

Jimi: Surfing drew me to Rockaway, literally nothing else (at least at first). The first time I went to surf there we attempted to drive from Manhattan to Rockaway and we could not find the beach. Before we had iPhones and it was a little bit of culture shock to get within 5 or 10 miles of the beach, all ready to surf and not being able to find the water. We ended up turning around and driving home without getting wet. Now I just take the A train out there.

Liam: My roommate Sean Maguire at F.I.T. grew up with Jimmy Dowd in Howard Beach. He kept telling me, “yo, my boy surfs in Rockaway and has a bungalow out there.” Being from Suffolk County on Long Island, Long Beach was the most West we would go to surf. I didn’t know anything about Rockaway. Jumped on the confusing A Train route and met Justin Jay, Jimmy Dowd, Jim Jim, Florida Dave and Pat The Rat. They are significantly older than me, but couldn’t be nicer. I remember Jimmy Dowd came to my F.I.T. dorm one day after his shift from the Bronx on his way home to Queens, for my birthday. A girl friend in the lobby stopped us and said, “awwww how cute, Liam you brought your Uncle to visit you for your Birthday.” Uncle Dowd ever since! I can’t remember my first time surfing there, although my earliest most profound memory was Hurricane Bill. NYPD tried to force us out of the water with helicopter spot lights. (Justin may have the photo of that, it’s around online) Although, I can definitely remember the first party out there with out a doubt. Three guys, three girls and minimal clothing. Under pants party…

Justin: Around 15 years ago, I was introduced to Rockaway by some friends and I started surfing there fairly regularly in the fall and spring when there were waves, but when the water wasn’t completely frigid. The lineup was pretty uncrowded back then, and there were very few amenities in the neighborhood. If the tide was wrong or it started raining etc, there was a super dingy diner that we used to post up in and wait it out. Other than a few Chinese take-out spots and pizza, that was about it for food.

When did you go in on the apartment out there?

Justin: About a year later, I started hanging out in Rockaway in the spring and summer even when the waves were flat. I became close friends with a few people that lived there year round. In the early 2000’s a close friend who had a bungalow on 88th St ended up needing an extra roommate. I jumped at the chance to go in on the bungalow and to have a spot to leave my boards and change after surfing. At the time, the bungalow was pretty ramshackle, and the neighborhood was pretty rough. We had a good profile on the block and never had any problems, but sketchy stuff definitely went down – you learned pretty quick to just mind your own business. 

Liam: I went in on the apartment there in 2008. I was 19 years young. Originally, I split it with someone because I couldn’t afford the whomping yearly rent. I was a student, I was broke as a joke. Previous to Sandy, we didn’t have heat or an indoor shower. I remember I surfed one day in November. I crashed over to surf the next morning. I couldn’t warm up for the life of me. I got so sick for about 2 weeks. 

Jimi: I went in 2 years ago. I finally graduated from dumping all my gear on the beach and praying it did not get stolen.

How did you find the place?

Liam: This Bungalow has been within the circle of friends for I believe 15 years. The current landlord was a teenager and her mother was our landlord, now she has three kids. She holds down the block if it gets a little nutty, which it does.

Justin: In the beginning, the bungalow used to be primarily just a summer spot. It had no insulation and only cold water. When the weather was warm, it had everything that we needed: board racks, bunk beds, VHS player and a bbq. After November, it basically became uninhabitable. We would pay a winter storage fee, leave our stuff there, and basically only go there to change and pick up boards during the winter. 

Eventually the landlord decided to “winterize” our spot so we could use it year round. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a renovation, but we did end up getting hot water, a new stove, a coat of paint and some insulation. It was actually a huge improvement at the time. It inspired us to step up and really fix the place up. One of our roommates at the time was an extremely talented craftsman who specialized in making custom Japanese cafe motorcycles. Between his expertise and a close friend who was a Craigslist savant, the bungalow was soon dialed with an ice-maker, flatscreen TV, surround-sound stereo and a meat smoker. We were living large…

Then came Superstorm Sandy. The entire bungalow had to be gutted to the bones and redone. We lost literally everything except our boards and a thrift-store clown painting. But I still felt lucky. I had so many close friends that lived in Rockaway full-time that had their entire homes destroyed. Even though I spent so much time in Rockaway and felt so connected to the community, the bungalow was always simply a place that was strictly for leisure. It was my ghetto pied-a-terre. I always had my apartment on the LES to go home to. 

After several turnovers of roommates, we have a pretty solid crew again. The place is furnished and tricked out once again. Over the years its status has gone from “exotic camping” to what it is now, which is basically like a “shitty REAL apartment”. If you were 20 years old and this was your first spot, you’d be super stoked on it. 

What are your favorite parts about the area?

Jimi: Surfing. I am still partial to drinking beers at RBI’s for nostalgic reasons… It will be a sad day when/if that shit-hole closes.

Liam: The most obvious is the proximity to the city. Surf dawn patrol, jump on the A train and make it to work on time. Or surf sunset and get a nutcracker on the A Train ride out. (Nutcracker is an illegal boozy mixed drink people make at home) Nutcracker flavors are purple, green, orange all down the rainbow, but there’s no real flavor. They are around $5 and look like a kids drink. 

I also like the tight community of surfers here. It’s always great to know there are endless friends around who I don’t get to see all that often to grab a beer after a surf with. Lastly, I dig our block. The house next to us has been abandoned since I’ve been here. Apparently, the dude was a pimp and still pays his taxes from jail. The cool little alleyway on old 88 Street, the dog shit on the side walk, the section 8 housings on the block, it’s all love. 

How have you seen it change over the years since you’ve lived here?

Justin: The fact that Rockaway now has TWO WINE BARS is a pretty apt metaphor for the changes over the past several years. Watching the Rockaway Beach Surf Club go from an empty lot to what it is today is pretty amazing. I had the first photography show there when they opened. It was basically just a community space for neighborhood friends. I’m super proud and stoked on what Brandon and Brady have created there. It’s foolish to try and go there for tacos on a weekend afternoon, but lunch there during the week after a surf session is super mellow and Andrew’s tacos are stellar. I also love Umas – it’s amazing homemade food that’s always above average.

Liam: When I first started coming out here, it was much more rough. The boardwalk shops weren’t active. The bungalows across the street were HIV Positive Section 8 homes. I remember a guy got stabbed in the chest one day and walked out to the street when it happened yelling. One morning, I woke up to get a bagel and there was crime scene on the next block. Let’s just say, I would have never been here if it wasn’t for the beach. There was one pizza place for food options. Now, we have Uma’s, Rockaway Beach Surf Club, Play Land, Whit’s End, The Wine Bar, The Boardwalk options. There are a lot more people out here to surf and to hang in general. As bad as Sandy was, it created awareness of the area. It’s special to have this place so close to the city on the ocean. I have met some really amazing people who do and don’t surf who have moved out here full time! Years ago, I could count on one hand the people I know who lived out here full time. The bungalow was the point of contact previous to all these venus being open. We had some big crowds and ultimate parties. 

How did you meet your roommates?

Jimi: Epstein’s (RIP)

What has been your best day out at Rockaway?

Liam: I had an amazing day this past Sunday, May 22. Clean, pumping lefts. I decided to skate downtown to surf. I have not surfed down there in a long time since I don’t have time during the week with work. People kept telling me to go surf down there, it was the move – so good! Less kooks and less crowds. It was a conveyor belt. Take off in front of the jetty, get a long left, go to shore and walk back around the opposite side of the jetty. I surfed over 3 hours until I couldn’t move my arms.

Justin: Sometimes you get lucky and get a hurricane swell that rolls through in August. It’s 90 degrees and the waves are solid. It’s like a playground out there. Those days are very far and few between. Usually summers are 2-3 feet and onshore if you’re lucky. I’ve had my best days in Rockaway during the fall. I do appreciate all of the summer beach days, the BBQs etc, but post-season RB is really where it’s at. After Labor Day, you can surf wherever you want, the crowds drop, the water is still warm, and there are usually a handful of solid hurricane swells. I’ve had some of the funnest days of my life in September when it’s 6 feet, glassy and you recognize every face in the lineup.

The changes and improvements that have taken place in Rockaway and our block since I started coming here have been such a positive force for the community. I have a great love for this block and the people that I’ve gotten to become close friends with because of this bungalow. Our spot is a hidden treasure, and we all feel super lucky and grateful for the way the landlord has always taken good care of us by allowing us to throw parties, store our boards and always made us feel super welcome. The vibe has changed a lot over the years. Nowadays, there are way less drunken blowouts at our bungalow and more afternoon BBQs with everyone’s kids playing in the driveway. The astroturf floor has been replaced with kid-friendly carpet and the place is looking great. With so many new people discovering Rockaway, it’s nice to feel connected to a bungalow with so much history and have a comfy place that always feels like home away from home.

/ Photography by Patrick Dougherty
/ Interview by Matt Titone

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