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Testing Testing Testing

Text by Mickie Meinhardt
Photography by John Luke

New York’s surfers are, more than most city-dwellers, particularly attuned to water quality. Yes, kayakers know not to fall into the Hudson; Brooklynites know to only look at the East River. But for the most part, city-dwellers are blissfully ignorant about the quality of the water swirling all around them.

But surfers go where the waves are, regardless of what the beach is like. And the best swells are drummed up from a solid rainstorm—ones that bring toxic runoff from the gloriously dirty city and dump it into the often perfect, post-storm waves.

“Storms in our area spin counter-clockwise,” explains Nick Lynn, head of Surfrider Foundation’s New York chapter. “Their leading edge from the south hits us with rain, onshore winds, etc, making the ocean look like an ad for the Navy. The next day (after the rain), the remnants of the storm bring northerly offshore winds, making the ocean look like an ad for Hawaiian Tropic. The waves are up, the wind is perfect, and we all paddle out.”

Telling surfers not to go out then because it might be hazardous is like telling the rest of New York not to drink in the summer because they might get burned or a little woozy. The negatives aren’t guaranteed, so the possibility of fun outweighs them. 

The better solution is to examine the city’s archaic system for dealing with runoff. The infrastructure is nearly 100 years old, dating to when people still weren’t totally aware of the negative byproducts of human waste; in heavy rains, the runoff systems bypass waste treatment centers and dump it all right into the sea.

Despite the fact that the Rockaways are surfed year round, the Parks Department only tests water quality between Memorial Day and Labor Day. (Results are normally pretty clean, with exceptions after aforementioned storms). So Lynn and others in the organization, including Rockaway local Annie McBride, decided to conduct their own weekly tests throughout the year, specifically focusing on water quality before and after rainstorms. Surfrider is hoping to collect a catalog of data to examine patterns of contamination by rain volume, then use it to issue projected warnings or forecasts about possible dangerous conditions on Surfrider’s site, similar to the way Surfline and other sites project swells.

“We probably can’t fix the system itself,” Lynn explains, “But we can make the public more aware of when it’s unsafe to go out. They can likely know what’s happening when they paddle out, [and we can] apply pressure to affect change.”

Science for surfing’s sake—something we can all get behind.

To get involved in or donate to Surfrider and this testing, visit

This story originally appeared in WAX Issue 5.