Rockaway: Surfing Headlong into a New Life

Finding happiness where you’d least expect to (Rockaway Beach, New York, 2010 – 2017): Inspiration can be found in surprising places. So you don’t have to be a surfer, an athlete, a sports enthusiast, or a beach person to think of former New York Times reporter Diane Cardwell’s memoir, Rockaway: Surfing Headlong into a New Life, as a motivational tool for all of us wanting to, or needing to, pick up the pieces of a life gone awry. Extraordinarily timely.

During the seven years Cardwell tips-her-toes in, then goes headstrong all in, to dramatically change her high-pressured New York City lifestyle into a more carefree surfing life on Long Island – a “roll-with-the-swells life” – she was a journalist who covered numerous beats: politics, business, the arts, entertainment, hospitality, the real estate industry.

Prior to 2010 – when her story begins after a reporting assignment in Montauk, at the tip of Long Island, that got her fantasizing about a life around beaches and surfers – she’d been the Times Bureau Chief to Mayor Bloomberg’s office; journalism fellow at Stanford University; and a founder of Vibe magazine, and other writerly endeavors.

So up until forty-five, she wasn’t that laid-back, riding the waves person. She’d grown up in a household where “achievement was the reigning narrative,” and yes, she’d achieved a great deal. Her transformation, a different kind of achievement, is a delight to read.

Inherent in that high-achiever focus was believing “failure would not be an option.” Which is what makes Cardwell’s story so powerful and inspiring. After she found herself learning how to live after a marriage that seemed destined not to fail ended in divorce and childless, finding herself terribly lonely, living alone for the first time in twenty-years, having felt she’d failed at achieving her dreams, she then undertook surfing. Which meant she then chose to take on failure after failure, disappointment after disappointment, to learn a sport that may look “simple” but is anything but.

No matter how many teachers she sought out, first at Montauk’s Ditch Plains prime surfing spot, at Rockaway Beach, and after all the muscle-aching fitness training she had to do to develop the strength needed to paddle the waves (like standing up on the surfing board or pop up in “surf-speak,” a lingo that runs throughout that sounds like another language), she learned surfing is a formidable sport. It’s one thing to learn on sand, quite another in the ocean.

Rockaway shows us what happens when you set your mind, body, and heart to achieve what may seem impossible. The author went from being a “daytripper” to a full-time resident. She took her time making this all-important decision, but when she spotted a charming, century-old bungalow among three others overlooking a garden they shared in Rockaway, she fell instantly in love with it. Bought it despite much financial angst; then renovated, furnished, and adorned it with “sea glass decorations” without hemming-and-hawing.

To see the author and her surfboard, her bungalow and community garden, Rockaway beaches, streets, and shops, this article she recently contributed to the Times gives you a good picture, though the memoir’s expressive prose already does that.

Not surprising, the author writes with a reporter’s eye for detail and a water-lover’s heart, with the warmth and friendliness of someone you’d like to hang out. It’s hard to pick out one paragraph that doesn’t meet those descriptors, but for all who’ve never been to Rockaway, an outpost in the borough of Queens on Long Island, here’s how she describes the coastal area:

“If you imagine the entirety of Long Island as a giant fish, with Brooklyn and Queens as the head swooping underneath Manhattan and the Bronx toward Staten Island and New Jersey to the southwest, its body and tail would stretch one hundred miles northeast into the Atlantic. Montauk would sit at the southeastern tip of its tail, and the Rockaway Peninsula would form the bottom of its jaw, with Jamaica Bay filling its open mouth.”

Cardwell’s grit, perseverance, passion, courage, resilience, and authenticity led her to find the kind of belongingness she hadn’t felt before. The friends she knew and makes in this surfing community left her “dumbstruck.” “I felt as though I’d stumbled upon a secret tribe of magical creatures – fairies and nymphs frolicking in a hidden bay.”

If not for Cardwell’s inner strengths and the friendships and camaraderie of surfers she might not have survived an “extratropical” catastrophe: Hurricane Sandy. Expect to read about weather conditions, meteorological predictions, the science of waves and tides, as this reporter made sure she understood what she was dealing with. 

Another aspect of the author’s childhood instrumental to her surfing story is that she spent happy summers on the beaches of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. So while Cardwell has fears and insecurities she doesn’t fear the ocean, though respects its power. Most of the time she’s in awe of it, although a Prologue opens the memoir with an event in 2013 when she realized she’d gone too far out, beyond the “outside.”

Cardwell’s gumption and discipline is impressive, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t stop questioning herself. “Why do I always have to be this way?”What am I doing wrong?” And yet, when she experiences a fleeting moment riding a wave, she feels a “rush”: “a “powerful high – cosmic, euphoric, liberating, addictive.” Overcome by the beauty and freedom she feels. 

As someone born and raised in Queens, whose parents were one of those daytrippers to Rockaway Beach, the memoir is nostalgic of days gone by, although this “frontier” started to change in the early 2000s.

Surfing boards have evolved into works of art. The beginner board is not pretty, designed for safety at the expense of fast. So you’re in for a treat when the author feels ready to buy a sexy, new, faster board. Expect lively descriptions of longboards and shortboards. 

The residents of Rockaway Beach were considered “hipsters.” After Hurricane Sandy, they became “helpsters.” Rockaway pays tribute to some of the “toughest” people Cardwell says she’s known. 

If you’re life feels stuck, Diane Cardwell shows us it doesn’t have to be that way. A phrase we’ve been hearing a lot lately about COVID-19. The message is that when we feel despair, Keep at it, Keep at it, Keep at it. Eventually, happier and freer days will come. For Cardwell, this meant discovering “a place where a lot of people constructed their lives around their lives . . . rather than trying to shoehorn a little happiness in between all the obligations.”

As America gropes its way through a flashing-red-light catastrophe on so many levels, Rockaway is a must read.

PS You can see more pictures of Diane Cardwell’s new life on her website:


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