I walk on the sand at Beach 69th Street in Rockaway Beach on a balmy September day feeling nervous, but I shouldn’t be.
Sure, I’ve only surfed twice in my life, but I’m about to paddle out with club98, an all-women surf crew with a non-judgemental, have-fun attitude.
I meet some core members—Thembi Hanify, Helena Dunn, Nikki Scrivener, Jenny Wichman, Mackenzie Wagoner, and Mckenzie Dowler—and there’s a reunion spirit since Hanify recently moved to Venice Beach. Dunn, a fashion designer, was the first to move out to Rockaway five years ago after surfing in Nicaragua. “I thought if I’m going to make one change, I’d like to surf as much as possible,” she says.
She inspired her friends—who then galvanized their friends. Over the next few summers many first-time surfers sublet their apartments in Brooklyn and Manhattan and moved in together in a house on Beach 98th Street, or got their own places elsewhere. Club98 formed organically: weekends they’d surf and have backyard parties; weekdays they’d workshop during sunrise sessions, then rush home to make the 8:00 a.m. train to their fashion jobs in Manhattan. “Everybody was non-judgmental because they’d been in the same shoes,” says Dowler, an art director at rag & bone. “I remember asking, how do I carry this damn thing? How do I put wax on my board?”
Hanify, a freelance art director who lived in Rockaway for four years, says early on she felt self conscious navigating the etiquette and “intense male energy” in the water. Club98 had allies, she says, but “we knew this group was invaluable because the lineup was pretty male dominated and a little dismissive of female surfers. The number of women out in the surf has increased in recent years and it’s nice to see that happening in Rockaway.”
Those summers sparked a lifestyle overhaul for most of them. Some members moved out to Rockaway full-time and started local businesses. (Dunn founded women’s sustainable surfwear brand, Tuulikki NYC, and Wichman has ceramic pipe line Yew Yew). Wagoner moved back to California, and Scrivener quit her job and went on the first of many nomadic surfing adventures. All the members have since gone on surfing trips together, and Scrivener and original member, Avril Loufrani, recently went surf van vacationing through the south of France. Club98’s small sisterhood has grown to include neighbors, friends of friends, and boyfriends—a creative community of ocean lovers that hosts surf, yoga, and meditation retreats, paddle outs, beach clean-ups, and parties to support Rockaway’s women-run spots. Hanify, Wagoner, and another Venice Beach-based member, event producer and DJ, May Kwok, hope to start a West Coast crew.
“These girls changed how I felt about myself in the water,” says Wagoner, a freelance writer who’s surfed since she was a teenager. “I’ve always loved surfing, but I never knew it could be so fun. It’s important to have more yin energy out there.”
When we get in the water the waves are choppy and the women take turns dropping in. Hanify knee rides and everyone cheers. As for me, I keep nosediving but no one cares—I’ve found a safe space.
Ahead, a few c98 members share their surfing advice and lessons.
Thembi Hanify, 29, Venice Beach,
lived in Rockaway Beach for four years
Hometown: Brisbane, Australia
Maneuver/trick she’s working on: Cross stepping
Currently riding: A 9′ single fin longboard from Rockaway-based shaper Paul Surf
Freelance art director, has worked for brands like Beautycounter, rag & bone and creative agencies Laird+Partners, Wednesday and Chandelier
How c98 changed her relationship to surfing:
I started to learn to surf in Australia where I grew up, but it never stuck. I was a total novice when I started in Rockaway, but we’d go in the mornings, and it felt nice to have space to be a beginner. On weekends when it got busy I remember feeling overwhelmed, like accidentally running into people if I wasn’t thinking: am I dropping in on someone? We’ve all dealt with personal issues in Rockaway, so surfing and being there has also been part of our healing, and being vulnerable in learning something new made us a family. We all come from desirable fashion jobs, but when we’re in Rockaway, we don’t ever talk about that. In New York a lot of the time when you’re interacting with people you’re thinking about their status, but surfing strips all that away and you just see someone for who they are.
What she’s learned from failure:
I’ve sliced my heel open on a fin and had five stitches. Injuries happen. And then you get those moments of ecstasy when you’re on a wave and you’re like “Oh my god, this is the best thing ever.” That’s why you keep doing it. There’s a mixture of other people, natural conditions, and your mindset that create the experience. I always try and remind myself to surrender to things I can’t control. If the waves aren’t great or other people are catching them, I’ll just stop and say that I’m grateful for the ocean. I calm myself down and things usually get better.
Why grassroots surf communities are important:
I love the magazine, The Surfer’s Journal, but I’ve noticed issues where they only have one to two photos of women in the whole magazine. It’s disheartening to still not see a greater representation in surf media.But on the local level in Rockaway there’s the New York Women’s Surf Festival every year, and women making surfwear for women like Helena’s Tuulikki. Like club98, there’s a lot of small grassroots surf communities of women and girls around the world, like Brown Girl Surf in Oakland, Babes on Waves in Portland, and Arugam Bay Girls Surf Club in Sri Lanka. It’s nice to know that people are banding together in different areas to support each other.
Mckenzie Dowler, 29, Rockaway Beach
Hometown: Bountiful, Utah
Maneuver/trick she’s working on: Turning right (like Zoolander, I can only turn left)
Currently riding: 7’11.5 single fin funboard shaped by my fiance in our basement (shout out to Poem Surf Craft)
Art Director at Rag & Bone
What fall and winter surfing is like in Rockaway:
We call the summer “Lake Rockaway” because there’s hardly any waves. The fall (“Local’s Summer”) is much better and quieter. We call it Local’s Summer because it’s quieter, but it’s prime hurricane season. Same in winter; the snow storms can produce tumultuous waves. It takes longer to put on gear, longer to take it off, longer to defrost your body. But I like surfing in the winter. It’s a good way to get Vitamin D if it’s a sunny day, and it’s your saving grace to survive seasonal depression.
Ingredients to catching a wave:
I’m still learning every day. You need an acute awareness of what you’re doing and what other people are doing because half the time it’s actually trying to dodge people and not hurt anyone. I think confidence or fearlessness is necessary. It’s a daunting arena, and if you really want to execute, you have to take the plunge and go for the wave. It’s hard to do when you’re first learning, but a sense of calm helps. It’s calculated risk: You want to be calm, and at ease, and mindful. But you also want to be able to take the risk and do it.
Helena Dunn, 39, Rockaway Beach
Hometown: Swindon, England
Maneuver/trick she’s working on: Steeper drops
Currently riding: A custom 7’ Fun Gun from Nature Shapes
Senior designer at Aerie Apparel and founder of women’s sustainable surfwear brand Tuulikki NYC
What she loves about surfing Rockaway:
You can have many days where the waves are like one or two feet. But, at the same time you can come back in the evening after work, and surprisingly, the winds can shift offshore, and you could be getting glassy, beautiful three-foot swell and there’s hardly anyone out here. You can get some unplanned special surf out in Rockaway because people don’t expect much of it. If you’re out for a surf at sunrise it’s absolutely sublime. You go into the city after that kind of morning, and it’s like your own secret. You’re seeing dolphins and whales, and an hour on the A train and you’re in SoHo.
Why she started Tuulikki:
I wanted to create something modern and elevated, but accessible. It’s the easiest thing in the world to use recycled fabrics, so that was a given. At the time I also felt there was a lot of sexploitation going on within the surf industry, and there was room for empowering female athletes. It was before the [World Surf League] did level setting with prize money, so things are moving forward. But I thought if I could create garments that would stay on and help female athletes just focus on their sport, that felt like a way that design could be a tool for female empowerment within the patriarchy of surfing. I’ve gotten so much from surfing, so the more women I can get in the water—that can be my entrepreneurial offering.
Jenny Wichman, 30, Rockaway Beach
Hometown: Grand Island, Nebraska
Maneuver/trick she’s working on: Literally actually just surfing
Currently riding: Still on a 9’ catch surf foamy 🙂
Founder of modern smoking essentials brand Yew Yew and prop stylist
Her surf M.O.:
When the waves are perfectly little and clean, that’s my ideal day. Out of everyone in the crew, I’m the least surfy. I’ve never graduated to a hard top board; I still have this giant catch surf. I try to take it easy and not to get too stressed out if I’m not catching waves. But then when you go out one day and catch a bunch of waves, you’re like, I want to do this every day!
Advice for a beginner:
It can be discouraging to go out there and just rent a board and a wetsuit and try to figure it out on your own. Whether you know somebody who’s willing to give you lessons or you buy lessons, I think that’s the best way. They’ll give you a rundown of the etiquette, the pop-up, what you need to know. Rockaway is a great place to learn because it’s a sand bottom. It’s a really easy paddle out and there’s a lot of people learning.
Jessica Militare was born and raised in Miami, and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and terrier mix puppy Stevie (after rock queen Nicks). She was an editor at Glamour and has written for Elle, Marie Claire, New York Magazine, Airbnb Magazine, and American Way.
*These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity. Photos by Matt Clark, Sara Jendusa, and courtesy of club98.