A Place of Artillery and Waves

One photographer heads to Sandy Hook, New Jersey for an unlikely surf check in the dead of winter
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Jan 26, 2015 | By Sean Madden

he state of New Jersey has never been synonymous with surfing, but when a storm moves up the East Coast, it could be argued that this spot rivals anything you'd find in the West. Every shore town along the 127 miles of NJ's coastline has its own unique characteristics, but it's a singular community that's tough, proud, and looks after its own. 

Back in late August and October, Hurricane Cristobal and Hurricane Gonzalo each gifted prolonged sets of gorgeous waves. But I had stuck to relatively familiar places — beaches I knew there would be huge crowds. For this next storm though, I decided that I needed to get out of my comfort zone and check out some shore I'd never been to before. Sandy Hook was the place — it was close by and I'd never surfed there before. Jutting out into the Atlantic south of New York City, Sandy Hook is home to the country's oldest functioning lighthouse, the now defunct Fort Hancock, and has structures dating to the late 1800s. That's about all I knew. 

When I reached Sandy Hook's entrance around sunrise, I could have sworn I was in some sort of ghost town. The morning had a flat cloud cover, and everything from the road to the foliage had a degree of grey murkiness; everything felt cold and dreary. The parking lots I saw were empty or had just one car in them that looked like it had been abandoned for a couple days, if not months. When I finally got onto a beach, alone, the desolation really set in. Across New York Harbor, I could see that fog had skimmed off the tops of the Freedom Tower and other buildings in Lower Manhattan. I felt like the only person for miles.

I continued down the beach in search of surf before getting lucky — through the ruins of fortifications and World War II-era artillery emplacements stood a group guys looking across the expanse of shoreline watching barrels smashing into the coast. Jackpot.

As the morning progressed, Sandy Hook came to life. Parking lots were filled. Cars with board bags attached to the roof racks were frequent sightings. On several beaches, surfers were sprinting with their boards to see the sets up close for the first time — cheering, excited. Ready to go.

Winter surfing is an entirely different ball game. If this day is any indication of the coming season, there won’t be any blue skies — just piercing cold, rain, and snow. But that’s nothing a pair of gloves, a knit hat, and a couple layers can’t deal with. The sight of these guys braving the conditions just to have some fun is worth any dampening weather. Their hunger for surf is obvious and contagious. The adrenaline rush — even just a few seconds of it — clears your mind and lets you take a break from the hard realities of life. To these guys, it will never matter how freezing cold the ocean gets. They'll be out there. [H]

Sean Madden is a photographer, New Jersey native, and avid Huckberry reader whose most recent work has centered around the New Jersey surf community. Be sure to give him a follow him on Instagram.