Text: Ryan Gallagher
Photos by Johnny Goglowski
Let’s be honest: there isn’t anything glamorous about living a surfer’s life in New Jersey. Summers are painfully flat. When swell events do happen during the summer months, there are usually reasons to stay out late with friends the night before. Conversely, the most consistent surf comes during months that require surfers to dress head to toe in 15 pounds of neoprene. The two-mile town of Cape May is a microcosm of what it means to surf in New Jersey. Cape May embodies and exacerbates every disadvantage that comes with being a Jersey surfer.
These conditions (or lack thereof) have created a tight-knit and growing community. The people within it know that riding this wave comes with opportunities for new relationships, passion for nature, overall healthy lifestyle, and more. But they also know that special days occur when Cape May delivers perfect surf that rivals any other break on the planet.
“[Our] biggest advantage is appreciation for waves,” said Cape May local, Tucker Collins. “We don’t get a lot of waves like other people do. When there is the littlest bump, you’re really appreciative.”
At 15 years, Collins out-performs most adults who call themselves surfers. But just like those who have come before him, his love for Cape May and its waves began in the summertime.
Before Tucker Collins ever stepped foot on a surfboard, Billy Scott was working his way into the pecking order of Cape May surfers. Scott grew up in York, Pennsylvania and began surfing in his mid-teens while vacationing with his family. He moved to Cape May right after high school—justifying this transition by attending Stockton College and of course surfing full-time. Now 34, he is a household name in the town’s surf community.
“It’s an awesome community to be a part of,” said Scott. “If you go to The Cove, it’s the same families. They sit at the same spot every summer. Even when there’s no waves, everyone is posted down there. Everyone’s trading boards, kids grow up going to the beach from sunrise to sunset, and there’s a family atmosphere. You say ‘hey’ to 20 people before you even sit down.”
Similarly, Sara Werner’s love for Cape May beaches began during her summertime visits as a young girl from Philadelphia. Her family moved while she was in her teens, and she “To go from Philly to the shore was a dream come true,” said Werner. “People aren’t aware about the killer community that we have here. Cape May is known, but most people only come to surf here when the wind [direction] is perfect. We always strive to show there is a surf community. But there’s also a back and forth between blowing up the [surf] spots and not getting attention.” Werner grew up idolizing local “badasses” like Susie Owen, Kim McKay, and her own Uncle, Bill Bruce, whose shoulders she would ride into the Cape May surf as a child. More recently, Werner has befriended 31-year-old surfer, Anastasia McCann.
McCann represents a group of people who often characterize the Cape May summer community but are not often represented in the surf community. She was born in Russia and first came to Cape May as a 21-year-old looking to work and have fun by the beach.
“You go for a surf check on the bike, and everyone knows each other,” explained McCann. “I’m so happy to be in this place. I feel lucky. I came here solo, and it was all about having fun and meeting new people. Surfing was number one on my list. It took a while but in the last four years, I feel like I’m a local.”
The fall season is often characterized as “locals’ summer.” At this time, the “shoobies” have gone home. What’s left are healthy hurricane swells and warm weather and water temperatures. This combination thrills local surfers whose long summer hours of work are replaced with time spent in the drink. :=
“Cape May is a bit of a hard-knock surf community,” stated Billy Scott. “In comparison to some of the other South Jersey surf spots, it was harder to work into the pecking order. I remember Donnie Piacentine, Eric Halbruner (a/k/a Kanaz), Jason Reagan— who are all slightly older than me—surfing really good, sitting and taking off behind the jetties. But now, they’re some of my best friends. They’ve always been surfing really well—on the same level of [Sam] Hammer, [Dean] Randazzo, and they’re who I looked at when doing Eastern Surfing Association contests.”
When the waves are good, surfers want to see the best waves ridden by the most talented locals. The best take off behind the wave’s peak trying to push the standards of what it means to be deep inside a hollow, left-breaking tube.
“The community that surfs here is very localized,” said Tucker Collins. “If you’re not from here, the wave can be tricky. You will see the locals dominating the peak. Whoever is the deepest and whoever is willing to take the biggest beating will get the wave. I’ve landed on the jetty multiple times, gotten a lot of bruises, broken a lot of boards and fins.”
The culture breeds natural competition and a list of “do’s and do not’s” that are in part consistent across the surfing world and in part a local construct. But there is no rulebook or PSA that comes when buying a new surfboard.
“I embrace the fact that surfing is growing, and everyone is making a little bit of money. I want everyone to get a piece of the pie. But as they sell a surfboard, they should give a lesson of what it’s all about, the safety, and how to get along out there and learn your way,” expressed Mike Owen.
Owen is a 64-year-old surfer from Town Bank. His name is universally respected throughout the Cape May surf community of past and present. Guys Owen’s age were the first generation of surfers in New Jersey. As a result, he has been a witness to the entire history of surfing in the Garden State—from a punk, rough-around-the-edges burnout hobby to a highly accessible and respected sport.
“All the surfers know the rules, but they may not follow them,” admitted Owen. “It used to be a bit more violent, but people have matured a little bit and wised up. I didn’t like seeing it that way, with the arguing in the water. But if you wanted to stay in the lineup you had to do it.”
Now in 2021, there’s much more of a spotlight on surfing and less room for fisticuffs on the beach. Either way, surfers who expect to develop their skill and status must make an active effort to prove themselves to the rest of the lineup.
“You get 100 people at The Cove and you have to fight. It’s not easy to get a wave, especially as a girl,” explained Anastasia McCann. “Once they see you make [a wave] they’re like, ‘Okay, you got the next one.’”
This oftentimes friendly competition has been known to cultivate some stellar surfers. Collins, the grom [under 18], and Scott, the veteran, both have experienced the effects of this competition. “For me, [19-year-old] Kyle Tester was always one or two steps ahead of me,” said Collins. “He pushed me to charge harder.”
Billy Scott admits that he would never sit on the jetty as a young surfer. He opted to take mental notes from the older bunch that he’s still drawing on to this day.
Tucker Collins “A lot of kids come out of Cape May, but not as many get the publicity that Ocean City does,” said Scott. “People around here know the guys that [non-locals] might not recognize. We also have a really good crop of kids coming up right now like [Tucker] Collins and [Kaiden] Cameron. Another is Kyle Tester. Currently, he’s the one that’s out there doing it. He comes home for summers and spends winters in Hawaii.”
Cape May beachgoers might also notice that waves don’t break too far from the water’s edge or any given jetty. This “shorebreak” style wave brings its own challenges and rewards.
“One of the best parts about Cape May is that you can literally run into the lineup—the dry hair paddle out. A lotta people will ask, ‘Is that even rideable?’” said Billy Scott. “I love shorebreak, despite all the injuries and broken boards. Learning to surf that way carries over so much. Your reactions are quicker. That’s why kids are getting so good.”
Of course, school can put a damper on autumn conditions. That is unless you have parents like Jen and Michael Collins, who will check their kids out of school for a good swell.
“When I was in elementary school my Dad would pull me out of school and we’d go surf. A lot of the teachers sup-ported it then. But it’s harder to miss school nowadays,” said Collins—a freshman at St. Augustine Preparatory School and member of the Hermits’ surf team.
Autumn is a highly anticipated time. It’s often such a fun season for the surf community that the excitement carries through the winter holidays and into the new year. However, cold weather has a way of dampening the spirit.’
WINTER AND SPRING
Generally, the water temperature clocks in at about 40 degrees Fahrenheit from January to March. Surfers from tropical locales like Hawaii writhe with pain just thinking about it.
“I hate the fact that I can only last for an hour comfortably,” said Werner. “It straight-up hurts getting my booties off in the shower. The worst part is trying to figure out if your suit’s gonna dry in time.”
“Surfing kept me sane all winter in Cape May. It’s definitely more of a production—donning five-mil-limeter booties and gloves,” said Werner. “But just getting wet can make you happy. There’s momentary discomfort but surfing in the winter is more wild and powerful.
”Wild can sometimes be an understatement. Cape May is notorious for getting the best waves when the weathermen are telling you to stay inside, and the governor is putting out a state of emergency.
In the absence of nasty winter storms, Cape May surfers must largely hunt outside their hometown to continue surfing the best waves.
“Where I live is five blocks from the beach. But 80 percent of the time, I’m driving at least a half hour to surf,” said Billy Scott. “Being down there younger, I didn’t care as much. Ocean City was overhead, and Cape May was waist high—we didn’t care. But as I’ve progressed, we make the joke that we finally went over the bridge.”
And when Jersey as an entire state goes flat (which is often does) surfers cannot sit idly by while waves are just a plane ticket away. Tucker Collins and his family often make trips to Puerto Rico, while Billy Scott has scored waves in places like Indonesia and Australia.
Access to quality surfboards and wetsuits have made surfing in Cape May more convenient over the years. However, there’s been another factor that’s apparently changed the waves just in the last couple decades.
“Beach replenishment is not one of my favorite things, said Mike Owen, who believes replenishment has taken days of surf from the Cape May community. “We used to get waves every Northeast [wind]. No matter how long the wind blew, we’d get something. We used to surf three or four days every week. Now you’re lucky to get one or two.”
Owen pauses. “Beach replenishment took our options away. Stegers and Broadway used to be a peak with a barrel. Now I haven’t surfed there in 25 years. Stockton had long lefts and rights. Convention Hall—we called it ‘The Backyard’—had an excellent left and right. But it doesn’t break over there. We’re locked into three or four beaches now and nowhere to hide.”
Beach replenishment, also known as dredging, often happens during the spring season in preparation for summertime. The process moves sand so that more people can sit on the beach—which equates to more money for the town. Yet, many surfers and locals feel that beach construction and expansion has inhibited their ability to surf and, in some cases, gets people hurt.
“Prior to replenishment we saw more of a natural slope— similar to the Wildwoods. In Cape May, they increased the height of the beach and not the depth. The gentle slope created gentle waves as opposed to the shorebreak we’re experiencing now,” stated Chad DeSatnick.
In 2001, DeSatnick fractured his sixth and seventh spinal vertebrae during a surf session at Poverty Beach. “Doctors told me I may not walk and would never surf again,” said DeSatnick. “I was very lucky to have a support team of friends and family who’ve gotten behind my cause.”
DeSatnick received top treatment and worked hard in physical therapy. Today, he is able to surf again. His injury and the resulting journey paved a new path called the DeSatnick Foundation. This nonprofit helps those who’ve sustained similar injuries live more comfortably and even gives them a chance to surf once more and has evolved to offer education and build community around the issue.
The Army Corps of Engineers and Department of Environmental Protection, “do it for shoreline protection. But the byproduct is an increased number of back and neck injuries,” said DeSatnick. “Cape May leads the East Coast in these injuries. It’s the nature of that shoreline and severity of that slope. The beach patrol knows that it’s two hours before and two hours after high tide.”
Today, Cape May averages about 26 neck, spine, or back injuries in the surf every year, according to aggregated information from Philadelphia Magazine as well as Scientific American.
The complex issue involves public safety, local commerce, and shoreline protection. Cape May surfers have been dropped smack dab in the middle of this controversy. No one denies the necessity to promote public wellness, support better business, and conserve the coastline. However, many people disagree on the plan to do so.
“When I got involved, the administration that was in office was so resistant because they thought about negative press,” told DeSatnick about the early days of his organization’s involvement with the issue. “They treated us like burnouts. But in hindsight, it worked out to be a good thing. [Former Mayor] Ed Mahaney was so resistant that he actually spurred our motivation to make it right for future generations. Individuals came out of the woodwork to help us.”
The situation is unique due to the federal, state, and local investment in the town’s Coast Guard Training Station as well as the nearby Cold Spring Inlet. The current replenishment efforts are part of a 50-year, biannual project that has 20 remaining years. Even so, Chad DeSatnick, members of his organization, and local advocates continue to raise awareness in schools, on beaches, at non-profit events, and in local government.
“In my opinion, replenishment is an ongoing, experimental project, and nature’s been changed,” said DeSatnick. “Give credit to the Beach Patrol and Fire Department for starting the conversation with the Army Corps of Engineers. We have beach safety signs and brochures now. And the patrol goes to schools to educate students.”
Billy Scott has been tossing ideas around that he theorizes could help the situation for everybody.“Since the dredging, they’ve built the beach profile higher. It breaks on dry sand now. Poverty has always been like that, but not the other beaches. For someone that comes down for the day, they’re getting pile driven into the sand like it’s cement.”
Scott spent two years surfing and studying Australian waves at “Snapper Rocks” also called “Super Bank” in the town of Coolangatta, Queensland. He thinks that the same solution could work for Cape May due to the similar terrain.
“Super Bank has a pipe that turns on and off. Over there it created a perfect wave and uses natural currents to work. Nor’easters, we gain sand in Cape May. The jetties collect that. Since the Northern beaches sit higher up, it seems to be a no-brainer that the sand would naturally disperse and deposit by the jetties.”
Billy described the Aussie beach setup that does not require construction, bulldozers, or beach closures. Bare rocks emerge when the pipe is turned off. When the pipe is on, the sand disperses and collects along the rocks, creating a long, sandy beach. Scott admits this plan would require a real engineer to orchestrate. “It would be a long-term money saver and would last a lot longer than just dumping sand on the beach. Plus, our jetties would turn into point breaks.”
In reality, local surfers still largely feel that “our thing” isn’t of too much importance to people in power. Australia and California are places that “embrace their surfers,” said Mike Owen. “They get walkways and pathways to good breaks and often there’ll be a running shower at the end. That doesn’t happen here. You wanna build a soccer field, everyone’s on board. Not so much when you’re building a reef.”
CIRCLING BACK TO SUMMER
For many surfers in Cape May, summer is the chance to bring the community together after the solace of winter. Businesses open full-time and events happen daily.
DeSatnick anticipates the organization’s next event. “June 27th was our Cape-to-Cape paddle board race that benefits spinal cord injury victims,” said DeSatnick, who also coordinates with a similar organization called Life Rolls On.
“We compete against the other towns and bring our family environment up the coast. It is something for anyone who wants to get involved rather than sitting on the beach for five years before becoming a familiar face,” said Billy Scott. “We plan to start running a Cape May contest. Right now, we’re at the grassroots level and I hope it continues to grow.”
For people who want to take that first step to enter the surf community, businesses that offer surf lessons have been there. But for many in the Cape May surf tribe, the pastime was handed down to them from a loved one.
Young Tucker Collins received his first board from the legend, Mike Owen. “He wouldn’t talk to me as a young kid,” said Owen. “And then I put him on the front of my board, and he wouldn’t shut the hell up.”
Speaking over the babble of her newborn daughter, Parker, Anastasia McCann described how her husband, Jordan, taught her to surf and how she plans to pass that knowledge along.
“I surfed all the way up until I was too pregnant,” said McCann who was snagging 42-second-long rides during her pregnancy. “They said I was crazy. I’m very competitive, surfing with the guys and trying for the best waves. But after getting pregnant that went away. I was there to have fun with friends, and if I get a couple waves that’s worth it. Now I don’t want to compete. I just look forward to teaching my daughter to surf.”
Memories made in warm summer water stick with a person. It’s the reason why McCann will never go back to Russia and why Collins (even after he’s a pro in Hawaii someday) will always return to Cape May.
“There are other places that could provide a better surfing lifestyle. So, I could see myself moving away,” said Collins. “But Cape May will always be my home and have my heart. I will never lose sight of where I’ve been and where I’ve come from.”
Whether one chooses a Cape May surfer’s path or falls into this life, it comes with beautiful, sunny highs as well as dark, lonely lows. “Cape May is this two-mile island with so much fun to be had,” described Werner. “Summer is a whirlwind and winter can be depressing, but surfing is a constant. But time still stops for me when I’m on a wave. It’s so special, being so present.” X
Printed in Cape May Magazine MID SUMMER 2021