The sun hangs high over lower Manhattan and blinds; you should put on sunscreen but the thought doesn’t stay in your head long enough to produce action. Gusts of wind snatch floppy hats, pull at clothes and hair; a shocking blast of sea spray to the face chastens. A seagull effortlessly keeps pace, flapping languorously – we’re no longer weird, he sees this every day. Wave back at a group of conspicuously tanned middle-aged yachters lolling on their deck. “Remember when we used to take public transport, Brian?”
I grew up in easy reach of the Pacific Ocean. Though never the outdoor type, I liked knowing I was never more than an hour’s drive away. In fact I always prefer being close to land’s edge– I start to get anxious when I get too far from the coast– I’ve been told that’s not unusual for Australians. And the Pacific was the only ocean I knew. But after nearly 20 years in the northern hemisphere, my allegiance has shifted. In my mind, the Pacific is clear and sunny and friendly, made for happy beautiful people. The North Atlantic is dark and deep, mysterious and brooding, and infinitely more interesting. A couple of times every summer I grudgingly agree to spend a day at the beach– it’s not that I particularly dislike it there, it’s just that grudgingly is how I do things. It’s kind of my “brand.” Until few years ago, a trip to Rockaway beach meant 45 minutes on the A train, which possibly sounds romantic to non-New Yorkers, but it is decidedly not. But in 2017 the Rockaway ferry was launched, and it changed everything. For the price of a subway ride, the ferry takes you from Wall Street, south around the bottom of Brooklyn, under the stately Verrazzano bridge, and back up the other side, past Coney Island with its ancient creaking fairground rides, and into lovely Jamaica Bay. If you’re lucky, or pushy, you might grab a seat on the top deck, but I usually settle for leaning over the back railing and watching the city disappear.
Entry to Rockaway is rough. The free shuttle to the beach is too horrific to consider: small, clapped-out vans with no suspension, torn broken seats, airless and stinking; on their last tour of duty before the knackery. I opt for the walk across the peninsula– it’s only ten minutes, but it’s an adventure though an almost cinematically rundown industrial horrorscape. Under crumbling rail bridges, past abandoned lots, burnt out cars; the gangs of beach-bound teenage girls in flip flops huddle tightly together, tote bags clutched nervously. But mixed with the stink of exhaust and urine, the ocean air holds a promise; and the rumble of the Atlantic infiltrates the sounds of traffic and wailing winos.
Finally up the ramp to the boardwalk, and the sea breeze immediately blows the city off you. The pimps and hustlers make a final desperate grab for your pockets as they’re blown back into the shadows. Now it’s safe to stop and look around– the beach and the boardwalk stretch forever. The water is inviting, but food and drink are the priority– the promise of eating good food with my feet in the sand is really what gets me out here. This summer only half the stalls are open– I dearly miss my ceviche place– that was dynamite. But a new favourite is the Caracas Arepa bar, dishing out Venezuelan flat patties made from corn flour, split and filled with delicious things: sweet fried plantains, fresh cheese, homemade hot sauce. Take a couple down to the wide wooden steps leading down to the beach, plant your feet in the sand, cold beer at your side, and inhale. If you tire of the ocean vista, swivel around and watch the parade of weirdos sliding along the boardwalk, reminding you that while you’re in another world, you’re inescapably still in New York City.
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Everyone goes to Rockaway. It’s free, easily accessible, very egalitarian. Be careful posting on Instagram that you’re there– you’re bound to get a message from someone you don’t want to see who’s just down the beach. Pegging a spot in the sand can be a challenge– I recommend parking your towel where there are lots of women, singly or in pairs– they’ll generally be reading or chatting quietly, and your day will be peaceful. Try not to get stuck near a gang of young single dudes– they’ve had a meeting and decided that the mating rituals of the animal kingdom carry the best chance of success with the ladies– they’ll be barking and preening and putting on overt displays of strength and athleticism and competitive stupidity. It’s these fellows who also seem fond of blasting Hot97 to cover up the annoying sounds of gently lapping waves and laughing children. Shouts of “Cerveza! Pina Colada! Nutcrackers!” announce the arrival of the drinks guy dragging his cooler of booze through the sand. He’s got beers and premixed cocktails, the nutcracker being a homemade NYC specialty of liquor and juice- sugary and powerful. It’s all presumably illegal, but the cops turn a blind eye.
Loaded up on sugar and booze, it’s time for a dip. I will never understand Americans at the beach– maybe 10 percent go in the water– but it just means more water for me. Your aquatic experience depends on the mood of the Atlantic– she may be serene and relaxed, tolerantly allowing you to float on the gentlest of undulations; or she may be in a foul mood, sucking you under and spitting you out for having the impudence to leave the boardwalk. Either way, as a city dweller, a dunk in some salt water is one of the most revitalising experiences still available; it’s an immediate connection with the unknowable forces of the universe. I find it reassuring to put myself at the mercy of something that immense and powerful and mysterious, and the salt makes my hair look cool.
Dry off in the sun, stroll back to the food stalls for some fried clams and just one more beer. When it’s time to call it a day, try to time the return ferry for sunset (in high summer, you can’t beat the 7:15). It’s a very different experience to the ride out– everyone’s exhausted and sunburned, and the beer buzz is wearing off– in the old days the grubby subway ride back to the city would just make you want to cry. But on the back deck of the ferry, sun going down over the bay, head filled with salt air, splashing wake, and engine rumble, it’s about the gentlest reentry into reality you could hope for.
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