Curl Power: Surfin' the Garden State

A surfer catches a wave on Long Beach Island, N.J., a top East Coast surfing spot.
A surfer catches a wave on Long Beach Island, N.J., a top East Coast surfing spot. (By Chris Pfeil /

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By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 25, 2007

On a recent rainy day on Long Beach Island, most sun-seeking folks were driven indoors, cursing their misfortune. Not Mike Lisiewski. New Jersey's stormy seas were optimum for surfing. Plus, the philosophical surfer mused, "You're just going to get wet anyway."

So true, Big Kahuna. What's a little spit from the sky when you're getting doused by the Atlantic? Moreover, I reasoned, if I stayed inside playing Skee-Ball all day, how would I ever experience LBI's waves, which have quite the reputation among surf rats?

"We're a top spot on the East Coast," the 37-year-old surf instructor said as he yanked on a full wet suit inside his Brighton Beach Surf Shop in Beach Haven. "We have consistent big surf because of the way the island sits."

Those who religiously track swells and weather systems know that because LBI is a barrier island, it juts out like an extra-long toe, getting slammed by waves from various directions. "The more an island sits out," he explained as I struggled with my Neoprene girdle, "the more oomph you'll have."

To be sure, LBI doesn't rank high on surfers' wish lists; Jersey is a pipsqueak compared with the giants of Hawaii, Indonesia and the Maldives. But the 21-mile island does have its draws: accessibility (Exit 63 off the Garden State Parkway), surf shops (nine), amenities (loads of restaurants and hotels in eight townships) and surf for every skill level.

During the warmer months, for example, the waves are ideal for beginners: mellow with long, clean breaks. "Summer is a good time to learn how to surf and how to get your balance," said Chris Pfeil, a local surfer and photographer. Come winter, when storms roil the Atlantic, LBI's waves can offer quite a challenging ride for even seasoned surfers. "I've surfed most hurricanes," said Lisiewski, who started surfing at age 8, "but they can't compare to our winters."

Since the island has 18 miles of beach access, surfers can pick and choose their spots. My appointed break was off 86th Street, a section near the surf shop that is good for novices because its sandbar tames the waves' power. Before we hit the beach, though, Lisiewski took me on a quick tour of LBI surfing history, starting at the front counter, where his father, Richard, sat tending the register.

The elder Lisiewski is a small legend in these waters: The 78-year-old built his own wooden surfboards in the 1940s and started manufacturing and selling boards in 1961 under the name Matador, a business his son now runs. (An even bigger local legend is Ron "Ron Jon" DiMenna, who turned a humble LBI surf shop into a McSurf empire.) In a nearby shed, the Lisiewskis keep more than 300 surfboards, many built by Richard, that track the evolution of surfboard design. (Mike hopes to open a museum on the island to showcase his treasures.)

Photos lining a stairwell inside the shop display a much younger Richard standing on the beach with his two prizes: a hottie in a bathing suit and a longboard. "I was the only one out there on the water during the Korean War," said the veteran surfer, who had to quit the sport because of knee problems. "I always had an audience on the beach."

There were no fans on the beach during my outing. The strand was eerily abandoned and shrouded in a ghostly mist that blurred the line between ocean and sky. It was a perfect day to write dark Plathian poetry, not jump into 50-degree water with exposed ears and fingers. Yet Lisiewski was waiting -- and my wet suit was getting hot.

While Lisiewski set up my eight-footer on the sand for ground training, I ran down my surfing résumé for him. It's short: I have taken two lessons, one from a former pro on Australia's Bondi Beach and another from a Jersey expat in San Diego. I have stood up (the crowning glory for neophytes) . . . and crashed down.

Lisiewski teaches in building blocks. Nail one step, then move on. Within five minutes, I was hanging 10, carving the, er, sand like Kelly Slater. On the water, I was less graceful.

I nailed the boogie board phase, coasting like a dolphin. And I earned a big thumbs up from Lisiewski when I rode the wave to the shoreline in the "proposal" stance. Twice, I even experienced a surfer's high when I glided atop the wave, letting it lift me like an air bubble. Step 3 was more of a struggle. As my toes started to feel like frozen fish sticks, my right foot would stall while trying to pivot and support me behind my left foot. I would be half up, then fully down.

But Lisiewski's enthusiasm never waned. For more than a half-hour, he played the attentive parent, standing behind me, setting me up for the wave, then giving me that big push-off. Yet for all of his encouragement -- "I know you can do it," he'd shout over the waves. "One more, okay?" -- I couldn't shake the paralyzing cold.

I wish I could say that my surf lesson had the perfect Hollywood ending, where I stood up, crouched and carved, then sailed into shore with a flourish. Instead, I unceremoniously toppled off my board. But as Lisiewski and I walked the one block back to the shop, he carrying my board and I dragging my glaciated feet, he gave me reason enough to get back in LBI's waters.

"If it weren't so cold," he said optimistically, "you'd have been standing." If my arms hadn't been frozen stiff, I would've hugged him.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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