Elizabeth Hayt is a journalist and author on fashion, women, relationships and sex.

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On These Waves, Everyone’s a Local

Posted on Jul.09.2007

ON a sparkling Monday in June, the first session of the Flying Point Summer School surf camp was about to begin, and the beachfront parking lot was filled with cars: scrappy vans and pickup trucks belonging to the camp’s instructors, side by side with luxury sedans and a Maserati left by the mothers and nannies dropping the campers off.

Out on the waves, the students, their hair slick with saltwater, were wearing new wet suits and lying across surfboards provided by the school. Ranging in age from 7 to 17, the students spend their summers in the Hamptons, in estates behind 12-foot privet hedges on pastoral lanes.

As they paddled, the students were being pushed by the instructors, beach bums who had grown up nearby, the sons and daughters of carpenters and shop owners who cater to the summer trade.

At noon the lessons ended, but the mingling of students and instructors continued. At the Flying Point Surf & Sport shop on Main Street, the surfers and their protégés hung out, eating ice cream from the Fudge Company next door. Some nights they all go to dinner at restaurants like Savanna’s, washing down fried zucchini appetizers with San Pellegrino. On rainy days, there are parties or bowling.

For generations, Southampton’s year-round residents and its summer visitors have been distinct populations. Summer people played tennis in all-whites on grass courts at the Meadow Club, while locals mowed the lawns or built roofs on the mansions of Gin Lane. Year-rounders used the white pages to look up a number. Summer people had the Hamptons Blue Book, an exclusive private directory listing homes with names (Westerly and Hydrangea House). There was little if any social overlap.

But today, in the Atlantic Ocean surf, bankers, brokers, lawyers and their children, dressed in Abercrombie & Fitch board shorts or Quiksilver wet suits, are eager to improve in an age-old local sport. Surfing, it turns out, is blurring class divisions in ways that a Marxist could never have imagined.

“It’s a very new thing,” said Jolie Ruben, 20, who grew up in Southampton, the daughter of schoolteachers. She is one of the surf shop’s managers and a student at Hunter College.

“For our parents, it was them working for the ‘city-ots’ — that’s what they called the summer people and rich people,” she said. That generation, she said, still keeps to itself, socializing with one another in the pubs and at home.

“But the surfers here work — and play — with them,” she said, meaning the summer crowd. “The surfers make friends with the families and go to restaurants and barbecues. You don’t see the social barriers as much.”

The Americans who were riding the waves once were mostly made up of social outlaws or dropouts. Today, surfing is not merely a popular sport but a lifestyle, with $7.8 billion worth of boards and related paraphernalia, apparel, watches and sunglasses sold in the United States in 2006 — up from $6.52 billion in 2004, according to a trade group.

At Southampton, the waves are usually mere ankle-busters compared with the barrels out West, and they are less tricky than the reef breaks of Montauk.

But in the five years since Shane Dyckman, 34, opened the surf school, he has seen the number of surfers grow, with enrollment doubling each year, to about 30 campers and 20 private students.

Mark Zucchero, 36, who opened the Flying Point shop in Southampton in 1996, has noticed that business has picked up in the last three years, and so has the celebrity traffic, with Matt Lauer, William H. Macy, Felicity Huffman and Kim Cattrall, as well as stockbrokers and hedge fund managers, stopping by for $250 Prada sunglasses and T-shirts with the name of the shop.

Henry Hildreth, 51, chief executive of Hildreth’s department store, who has been surfing in Southampton all his life, said it has become crowded in the water — “frustratingly crowded” — and it’s getting worse.

“The gentleman sports of playing tennis and croquet at the Meadow Club and golf at the National Golf Links of America, followed by an afternoon of drinking iced tea, have been replaced by surfing and standing on the sand, talking smack,” he said.

Bobbing in the swells, the locals are identifiable by their noses, triangles of zinc oxide smeared across sun-burnished skin. But after camp is over (four days of three-hour lessons at $475) or afternoon private lessons end ($100 an hour), they might be found at the Southampton Bathing Corporation, an exclusive club, as guests of a camper’s family.
“Half the kids live in mansions on the beach on Gin Lane and their families have invited us all, the surf instructors, for lunch at the Bathing Corp and the same thing for the Bath and Tennis Club,” said Mr. Dyckman, who grew up in Hampton Bays.

“We’ll do house calls, pulling up in our pickup trucks with surfboards in the back to $20 million estates, and half the time we’ll sit and have lunch before taking the kids, the mother and the father out surfing,” he said. “It’s amazing how the instructors have bridged the gap between the rich and famous through surfing.”

The worlds converge at the Flying Point shop, particularly at night. The 1,200-square-foot store is crammed with surfboards, skateboards, Croc sandals, pool toys, dive watches, Tommy Bahama camp shirts and O’Neill floral sundresses. When the store is open, so is the front door and Nu-metal music, like Linkin Park and the White Stripes, is on.

The scene continues even past the store’s official 10 p.m. closing time. Surfers and summer visitors wade in and out. Late one night, Todd McElrath, 15, a salesman and Southampton High School student, was wearing a black T-shirt printed with glow-in-the dark green skulls and patchwork Billabong board shorts. He had just finished straightening up and was skateboarding through the aisles.

“It’s not like working at the Fudge Company or the Bathing Corp., where you really feel like you’re serving the summer people,” Ms. Ruben said. “Here, you don’t feel you’re below the customer.”

The visitors are “more intimidated by us,” said Michael Ahearn, 22, a student at Pratt Institute, who grew up in Southampton, the son of a former Suffolk County assistant district attorney. Or maybe people are drawn to them “for knowledge about the ocean.”

It’s more than that, Ms. Ruben said. “The summer people see us hanging out and we create a vibe they want to be a part of,” she said.

The so-called Flying Point Crew is made up of about 10 surfers, most of whom are male, in their mid-teens to late 20s. Their style — which includes shaggy hair or crew cuts, and often a tattooed torso — is seemingly unstudied: Billabong board shorts, Reef sandals, Emerica sneakers and Oakley or Ray-Ban sunglasses.

They speak surf slang: an impressive ride is “ill,” a gigantic wave “epic.” And they give each other quirky, insider-y nicknames: Luke O’Connor, 16, is known as Fetus because he is young, fair skinned with white blond hair and was small for his age; John Margaritis, 21, a surfing instructor, is called Sunshine because of his radiant, pasha-like personality; and brothers, Jason, 17, and Brian Pollak, 14, upcoming competitive surfers, go by J-Po and Bri-Po.

The carriage-trade kids idolize them.

“The townies rock,” said Olivia Jansing, 10, of Old Westbury. She goes to a private school during the year and spends the summer here. “I don’t like the city people because they think they can do whatever they want and think they’re the best, which aren’t the townies.”

Her father, John Jansing, the president of Proxytrust, a data processing service for banks and trusts, is all for the camaraderie. “I can appreciate the class difference thing,” he said. “It exposes Olivia to different types of people.”

Some of the surfers’ parents also appreciate the new socialization. “He’s met all sorts of different people,” said Carol O’Connor, a clerk at Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton and the mother of Luke O’Connor, a k a Fetus, “which is what he’ll have to deal with in the real world when he goes to college.”

On a soggy day last month, Mr. Margaritis, who designs T-shirts, rounded up a group to go bowling. Among them was Alex Seaman, 15, of the Seaman’s Furniture family; her father owns Rooms to Go and her mother is an Emory University law professor. When the weather cleared, everyone played tennis at Miss Seaman’s summer home.

“The surfers are more down-to-earth,” said Miss Seaman, who lives in Atlanta the rest of the year. “They’re fun. I come to socialize at the camp and at the store. It’s like a big family.”

The bonhomie is in the surfers’ financial interest, though capitalizing on the friendships can be awkward.

“Everyone fights for the jobs we have,” said Alex Baranovich, 22, a surf-shop manager and instructor who grew up between New York and Southampton and attends City College. “It’s such good money. You’re at the beach. You’re teaching people how to surf. Sometimes you don’t want to even take the money if it’s someone who’s really tried hard to stand up and they make it.”

“But you have to take the money because you’ll know you’ll regret it come February,” he said. “The money sets people up for the year.”

The Flying Point surfers are kept in line at the shop by its owner, Mr. Zucchero, who is also known as Zuke. “I’m the father figure among them,” he said. The surfers, in turn, keep Mr. Zucchero abreast of the trends; he now has three surf shops in the area. “These guys know what the younger kids want,” he said.

One reason the surfers and the summer kids are better able to connect has to do with the economic shift in Southampton. With real estate prices so high, even the townies tend to be people of some means. Their children are more likely to go to college and to see themselves pursuing careers beyond the village.

“Things have changed,” said Hugo Johner, one of the owners of the Fudge Shop. “The surfers are the children of the wealthier locals. They’ll pull in in a Mercedes with a surfboard on top.”

Yet, for all their elbow rubbing, the surfers see themselves as worlds apart from the summer set, with their pastel polo shirts and sweaters tied around their necks.

“This is the real Hamptons,” Ms. Ruben said. “Our everyday is the beach. It’s a slogan around here: ‘Your vacation is our life.’ ”