Surf’s up: More New Yorkers are catching waves during pandemic, and business thrives

In a rickety periwinkle shed tucked between shipping containers in Rockaway’s Marina 59, Paul Schmidt is turning a profit for the first time in the six years he has been making surfboards. 

While many small businesses have closed permanently in New York City since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, Paul Surf and other surfing businesses along New York’s Atlantic coast are quietly booming. 

Previously the best Schmidt could do was break even. “He had a home, we could eat,” said Christabel Campbell, Schmidt’s girlfriend and business partner. 

“In the beginning I didn’t have a home and could barely eat,” Schmidt said, surveying the modest space where he designs, shapes and glasses surfboards. 

Paul Surf has brought on five new employees since March, and it is not alone. In the months since the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York City, the local surf industry has seen a surge in demand, mirroring the popularity of the sport nationwide.

Paul Schmidt shows off a hand-crafted board in his workshop in Rockaway, in the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo/Grace Benninghoff)

“You can’t really go to concerts or events … so people are catching waves this fall,” said Dylan Moore, a 27-year-old surfer who lives in Long Beach. “With the pandemic people feel like it’s pretty safe out there… there’s so much air, you’re far apart.” Moore is also seeing more beginners in the water than usual. 

“I never really had an open schedule to learn until the pandemic,” said Kate Sneddon, a 26-year-old physical therapist who took up surfing this spring when she was furloughed for four months. “It was a way to look on the bright side and do something I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do.” 

The burgeoning interest has been good for the industry. Sales of wetsuits and hardgoods like boards, leashes and traction pads rose about 30% percent in the U.S. this year, according to Action Watch, a market research firm for the surf industry.

“Business has been amazing,” said Nigel Louis, who owns Station Surf Shop in Far Rockaway. Station’s sales for 2019 were $351,000, Louis said, a number he hit in June this year. Sales so far this year are near $500,000 with a peak in July when Louis sold $98,000 worth of merchandise in a month. 

Soft-top surfboards — also known as “foamies” because they are made of foam — were in particularly high demand; larger and more buoyant than traditional boards, they are ideal for beginners because they make it easier to catch waves. 

“One week we got 42 soft tops on a Thursday, and that Sunday we had six left,” said Louis. 

Natures Shapes Surfboards in Sayville on Long Island has had an exceptional year as well.  Mike Becker, who owns Natures Shapes, reported that business grew by 20% over the summer.

“There are people who haven’t fully gone back to work who are still coming in, buying wetsuits and getting repairs,” said Becker.

Bunger Surf Shop in Babylon, also on Long Island and one of the oldest surf shops in the state, had a solid year, too, despite closing from March through June because of the pandemic.

“Once we opened our doors again, it blew up,” said Charlie Bunger, whose family has run the shop for nearly 59 years.

“People had been cooped up for months and wanted to get out,” Bunger said. “Nobody was working or they were working from home and had more time. Everyone was going to the beach.

Surfers return to Station Surf Shop in Rockaway after a lesson. (Photo/Grace Benninghoff)

Tom Wilson, an avid local surfer and owner of Playa Betty’s restaurant on the Upper West Side, said many of his friends purchased surfboards during the summer. 

“For a while, with relief money from the government, people had a bit more disposable income,” he said. “It’s perfect to spend that extra money on a surfboard. It’s not too expensive, and you get so much pleasure out of it.” 

Surfboards can run anywhere from $180 to $2,500 depending on the size and brand. 

Craig Walker, owner of Aegir Boardworks in Brooklyn, said that more flexible remote work schedules have contributed to the spike.

“One of my mates who used to work in an office, now he’ll go surf from 6 to 9, he’s back home by 10, and logging on at 11 for a meeting,” Walker said.

The demand for surf equipment in New York has been so high that some shops are struggling to keep up. Many major surf brands source materials from China, Walker said, and when the pandemic shut down factories in China, procuring essential merchandise became difficult. The lag in production has continued into the fall, he said. Some shops that source their boards locally or those that could place substantial orders before the pandemic hit may have fared better.

Aegir’s sales are down approximately 35% because the production delay has made it impossible to keep up with increased demand.

“We don’t have any product to sell,” said Walker. “It’ll probably be early 2021 when we’ve got a full shop of surfboards again.

Those in the industry say the demand for surf goods will continue. “Surfing is like a drug,” said Station Surf’s Louis. “When you’re living in a country where you’re seeing so many people die … you start thinking about your own mortality. It makes people want to prioritize their happiness, and surfing fits into that.”