Entertainment

The Black Surfing Association Is Making NYC’s Waves More Inclusive

We catch up with founder Lou Harris on the importance of mentorship, the future of BSA, and what gear he relies on to hit the waves.
MF
New York, US
February 19, 2021, 12:00pm
Black Surfing Association Surfboard Lou Harris New York Surf
Photo courtesy of Lou Harris / Composite by VICE Staff

By land and sea, there have been many displays of solidarity with Black Lives Matter over the past nine months in New York City. “It’s a beautiful thing,” says Lou Harris, who leads the East Coast chapter of the Black Surfing Association (BSA) in Queens, as well as the paddle-outs for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and all Black lives lost to police brutality. In warmer months, a seagull’s eye view of the city’s Rockaway beach would’ve shown a pod of some 450 surfers, paddling in unity with flowers in their mouths, and words of protest taped across longboards. “The proximity to the concrete jungle is amazing,” Harris told VICE when we chatted with him about BSA, and what it means to build a more inclusive surfing community in New York City. 

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Originally founded in 1970s California by Tony Corley, BSA is more than just a surfing club for local kids. It’s a blueprint for better community living; a support network that isn’t afraid to confront what an insular, expensive, and lily-white world surfing can be. “I just wanted to give kids the opportunity that I have out in Rockaway, because a lot of them don’t and it’s a shame,” says Harris, “Seventy-five percent of youth drownings are Black kids. A lot of the kids in Rockaway, you know, they live on the beach but they can’t swim.” 

The guidance Harris offers can help break through those barriers, because understanding the whole non-verbal language of a lineup is one thing—but dealing with discrimination in the water is another. White privilege is rampant, everywhere. Surf Nazis are real. As recently as this week, a surf and arts community group known as Black Sand' shared news of harassment in Manhattan Beach, California, proving once again that, unfortunately, racists don’t dissolve in water. 

The energy of the Rockaways, while unexempt from that reality, is so unforgettably, quintessentially New York. It sounds like the Rockaway Park Shuttle, rattling above a seasonal taco spot. It tastes like the ice cold relief of nutcrackers. And it looks like the ever-evolving, tight-knit crew of BSA. We caught up with Harris by phone to learn more about the East Coast chapter, how his relationship with surfing has evolved, and what gear he recommends for anyone trying to get out into the waves.  


VICE: Hi, Lou. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Have you been out in the water today? I know NYC is basically Ice Town right now. 

Lou Harris: Well I’m actually just coming off a knee injury. I had surgery in October so I haven’t really been surfing in about five or six months. But usually I’m out there during the winter at least seven or eight times. 

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For those who haven’t had the luck of making it out to Queens, how would you describe the Rockaways community? 

Well, it’s a cool thing because it’s not like, you know, Pleasure Point, California. It’s not like Ventura or Malibu. It’s not like any other place. It’s the kind of spot where you can surf, and then hop on the train and catch a Broadway show.  

And there are nutcrackers. 

Well, I really don’t know if I trust them very much [laughs]. But, yes, a lot of people make nutcrackers in their bathtub, and sell them to you out on the beach so that, for five bucks, you will get drunk

Seriously though, I was totally floored by that big-city proximity when I first moved to NYC. Living feels much denser out here, compared to Los Angeles sprawl. And I wonder how that affects surfers’ lives. 

Well, when 9/11 happened, there were picture-perfect waves that day—you know, head-high—and this one firefighter from Rockaway, who was actually off work, was in the water and saw the smoke from Beach 90th street. He went into the city [to help] and died that day. 

That’s so heavy. You grew up in New York, right? 

Yeah. My parents had my twin brother and I swimming in 1977, when we were five-years-old. I first moved to Rockaway about 15 years ago, and I remember that once, I was walking down the street with my surfboard, and there were four Black kids standing there. Just doing their thing. When I walked by, they were like “Yo, man, Black people don’t surf.” I was thinking, Uhm, what? I spoke to my mother a couple hours later, and she said, “Listen, you don’t understand. A lot of these kids in Rockaway don’t have the same opportunities that you had.” I grew up in a pretty well-to-do Jewish neighborhood on Long Island. We were the only Black family.

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Was that what inspired you to get a chapter of Black Surfing Association off the ground in Rockaway? 

Yeah, I wanted to give kids here the same opportunity that I had. Not to mention, to keep the kids busy and active because when you’re busy and active, you stay out of trouble. 

I loved seeing pictures of the kids last summer on your Instagram. Can you tell me more about them? 

I have kids from ages five to 17, 18. It doesn’t matter if you’re Black, white, gay, straight, Asian, Muslim, whatever you are. That’s [the diversity] I grew up with in the 1970s and 80s. There’s no cliques with my kids. It’s a beautiful thing. And if your parents can’t afford it, that’s OK, too. You just come to Mr. Lou. Doesn’t matter who you are if you come to my surf lessons. 

Having a mentor can be so important, especially in surf scenes. I understand that Rockaway’s Brian “B.J.” James—who has been out there for decades—is a big one for you? 

Yeah, Brian’s a great guy. When I first moved to Rockaway, there was this one Black guy surfing and I was thinking, Woah, who is that? 

How did you get to be close? 

Well, there were all these white surfers, and everyone all crowding around him. [Personally], I’m a big Wu Tang fan, and I was on the boardwalk with a Wu Tang shirt on, so he just walked up and went, “Hey! Wu Tang, man. Wu Tang.” I said, “Hey, what’s up, I’m Lou, I just moved here.” He asked if I was trying to surf, I said yeah, and ever since that day he took me under his wing. Taught me all the do's-and-don'ts about the ocean; the riptides, rip-currents, about how people are going to try and mess with you in the water for being a Black surfer. Everything. 

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You’ve also hosted such incredible paddle outs for Black Lives. What’s next for BSA?

We have our next paddle out on May 25, on the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death. We’re in the works of creating a reality show, we’re getting surfboards, donations, just trying to stay busy. My knee is feeling better, so I’ll be back in the water next month with the kids. 

Thanks so much, Lou. Happy return to the water. 

Thanks very much. 

For all the surfing-curious readers out there, we asked Harris for a little what’s-in-my-bag deets and tips for some the most foundational, high-performance surfing staples in his life, from bathing suits to sunscreen, surfboards, and even shoes that double as a secret murse.

The board you keep for life

Firewire Surfboard

Photo: eBay

I love using Firewire,” says Harris, “When I first started surfing, I got my second big wave board from them and never looked back.” The 1980s Australian surf brand (then known as Nev Surfboards) is legendary for its boards, which bear names like Potatonator, Unibrow, Sci-Fi and more. They’re definitely a solid investment, but often sold out online, so try finding a second-hand board and giving it a new home. 

Firewire Vintage Fred Quadfish Used Surfboard, $329.99 at eBay

That Rocket Power-Type Sunscreen

Zinka Sunscreen


“For first time surfers,” says Harris, “definitely [get] sunscreen. My favorite is Zinka. It’s amazing, and it comes in a variety of colors. Kids that don't like to wear sunscreen love it because it comes in green, orange, and pink. It smells good, too.” 

Zinka Colored Sunblock Zinc Waterproof Nosecoat, 3 Pack, $17.55 at Amazon

The beach shoe that keeps your secrets

Reef Sandal

Photo: Zappos

The sandal that has now ruined all other sandals for us. “My favorite flops and shoes to wear are Reef,” says Harris, “They have this new shoe out there that has a little zip pocket where you can throw your keys in if you go to the beach.” 

Reef Stash Slide, $34 at Zappos

Pearls of wisdom from Lou Harris’s mentor 

The Nautical Negro Book

The Nautical Negro is part-memoir, part-surfer tome. You might not be able to go surfing with Brian “B.J”. James out at Rockaway, but you can learn more about his story in his book. “I'm writing this book as a black man in a sport dominated by white males,” writes James in the book, “I have a unique perspective of that world. I'm writing this in the hopes that other people may understand just what it is I see and love so much about the ocean [...]” 

The Nautical Negro: The Adventures Of A Black Waterman by Brian (B.J.) James, $24 on Amazon

Board short that don’t make us feel like Pauly D

Quicksilver Heritage Check Swim Shorts

Photo: Quicksilver

Why is it so much beachwear feels v Jersey Shore-ready? (Although these are pretty sick, TBH.) “Some of my favorite board short companies are Billabong and Quicksilver,” says Harris, citing the importance of decent stretch. This pair is a Volley fit, so has good stretch, runs a little shorter than your average board shorts, and comes with a wider leg. Dig the subdued checkerboard pattern. 

Originals Heritage Check Swim Shorts, $55 at Quicksilver

So your board doesn’t become a slip-n-slide

Sticky Bumps Zombie Bob

Photo: Amazon

“One of the cool things about [BSA],” says Harris, “is getting to work with all of these companies we’ve loved, like Sticky Bumps,” which has been around since 1971. If you’re new to surfing and don’t have a foam board, surf wax is essential for making sure you don’t slip-n-slide off. Sticky Bumps’ original “Zombie Bob” wax will not only save your ass, but look cool in your house. 

 Sticky Bumps Original Tropical Water Zombie Bob Label Surf Wax, $9.99 at Amazon

That first-love sneaker

Vans SK8-Hi black sneakers

Photo: ASOS

Like many surfers, Harris is also a skater. “The funny thing,” he says about working with Vans, “is that when I was a kid growing up skateboarding and doing BMX, I always wanted to be sponsored by Vans. I got my first pair back in 1978.” Now, decades later, Harris’ chapter is sponsored by the iconic brand, “It was a childhood dream of mine, now it’s unfolding in my forties,” he says, and advises going for the classic-high tops (easy on his ankles when skating).

Vans SK8-Hi black sneakers, $70 at ASOS

We hope this what’s-in-my-bag warmed your winter skin a bit. Check out Black Surfing Association on Facebook for more information on upcoming classes, paddle-outs deets, and information on how to donate.

Vans SK8-Hi black sneakers, $70 at ASOS

We hope this what’s-in-my-bag warmed your winter skin a bit. Check out Black Surfing Association on Facebook for more information on upcoming classes, paddle-outs deets, and information on how to donate.


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