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Zak Noyle

Even if you don’t know who Zak Noyle is, there’s a good chance you’ve seen some of his photographs. They’ve been published by ESPN, Transworld Sport, National Geographic and the BBC, not to mention in surf publications including The Surfer’s Journal and Surfer

At just 31 years old, Zak’s career has already included a meteoric ascension to one of the most hallowed positions in surf photography: Zak is now the Senior Staff Photographer at Surfer and he regularly takes on assignments to travel and shoot with some of the best surfers in the world.

We caught up with Zak to learn more about his work and what drives him. He talks very fast - almost breathlessly, sounding like the CEO of the hot new startup that is basically his life, excited to share his story and his plans.

Zak's journey into photography was catalyzed from a young age by his father who was a commercial photographer and who passed on some of his wisdom and a few tools of the trade. Zak began shooting photos in his single digit years and by high school he had had his water photography published in magazines like Sports Illustrated and Transworld Sport, where he took a full time job after graduating. At the age of 25 he started working at Surfer and now combines his day job with running his own photography business and a seemingly endless string of brand collaborations with the likes of water housing company SPL, surf company RVCA and swim fin company DaFin. 

“I grew up on Oahu and I came out of a swimming and water polo background. I had a natural swimming ability, but I hated it. I hated swimming laps and I used to hide in the shower. It’s come full circle now - swimming and learning that discipline has been important.”

Becoming one of the world’s top water photographers means becoming one of the world’s top swimmers by pre-requisite. The playing field  for taking groundbreaking surf photographs is most likely in the path of a 20 foot breaking wave, half a mile off shore and bobbing a few feet above a sharp, potholed reef.

“You want to be prepared,” Zak told us. “I swim 3-4 times a week. I swim a lot of laps, half of them with swim fins on to train to have my feet comfortable in fins. I view myself as an athlete now, so I need to be in optimal shape. A bunch of my friends are doing underwater breath holding training and I want to get into that too. In the end it’s the ocean and you need to respect it!”

Although the list of his achievements is frighteningly long already, Zak pulled off something of a career highlight at last winter’s Eddie Aikau Invitational in O’ahu. Pummelled by 30 ft waves closing out Waimea bay, Zak swam and shot the historic contest for 8 hours straight, capturing through his actions and photographs a truly memorable moment in surf history. 

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The Eddie Aikau ran on February 25th, 2016 in waves that were so big the safety of the contest itself was called into question. That’s pretty rare from the organizers: ‘The Eddie’ demands a minimum of 20ft waves before it will even run, honoring the fearless lifeguard and surfer in whose memory it is named. 

“I had never swum into 30 ft waves but I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think I could handle it,” Zak explained. “A lot of the times with waves, it’s strength and training and the experience that keep me calm. I knew physically I could do it, but mentally you have to be calm.”

Aside from the endurance required for this feat, Zak also truly understands the media demands of the modern surf audience. When The Eddie runs, O’ahu basically shuts down for the day with crowds of thousands gathering on the beach to watch. For those who can’t be there, internet livestreams, social media and TV broadcasts let people tune in from around the world. 

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Zak shot the Eddie on his DSLR in a water housing, but he used his iPhone from the water to wirelessly send the images he was capturing to the Quiksilver social media team. From there, they could combine them with the TV broadcasts or upload them to be shared on social media. “In between the sets, they need something else they can use to keep the excitement going,” Zak explained, “so I could send that to them from the water with my phone.”

We asked Zak how he had prepared for the day. “I had water and snacks packed and ready to go on the jet ski, but I actually didn’t eat or drink anything on the day. I hydrated heavily the day before with electrolytes and water. I packed extra batteries and a bought an extra phone so I could transfer the sim card if my iPhone died,” Zak told us.

With literally no food during the 8 hours he spent in the water, we wanted to know how Zak managed to keep shooting. “I was just fueled by adrenaline on the day. If the surf is good you have to shoot conservatively. You don’t want to have to go in and change your memory card because you might miss the shot!” Zak continued, “I was so mentally spent for days afterwards I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t even look at the images for 3 or 4 days - I just gave the photos to my agent.”

We asked if Zak took any major beatings out in the water that day. “I was nauseous with adrenaline and I did get completely worked. I got worked to the point where I had my hand on my rip-cord, but I didn’t want to inflate it, get dragged in and miss a wave. I’d waited seven years since the last Eddie Aikau Contest ran and I wasn’t going to miss a single moment out there. I wanted to be in the water, and just enjoy it. I have a photo of when all the skis came charging in on that closeout set and I just dived as deep as I could under the rolling whitewater. I had to dive 25 feet to get under that. It was pitch black and I couldn’t tell which way was up. That was a 2 wave set. If it had been a 5 or 6 wave set, I would be washed in on the rocks. For sure,” Zak laughed. 

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We were thrilled to meet Zak and see him participating in the RVCA artists program at the Unsound Pro event in Long Beach. His level of stoke, energy and enthusiasm seem boundless and he talks as if he’s only just getting started. Watch this space!

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Words by Ed Thompson

Photographs by Julien Roubinet

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James Katsipis - Three Frames

James Katsipis, or "Catspiss" only to his closest friends, has a photographic sensibility rather more delicate than his nickname. He is truly dedicated to the craft of photography and has made a name for himself as one of eastern Long Island's leading lensmen. We asked him to share three of his favorite shots from the many years he has spent documenting oceanside life on Long Island and would you know it, he sent us a bonus shot we just couldn't keep to ourselves. Over to James for the back stories. 

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"The winter brings deep blue and shimmering silver tones to our line ups. This is my take on an early morning surf check at out local break, Ditch Plains."

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"Historic winter storm Juno hit the East Coast on January 27th 2015. There was a total travel ban across New York, but we knew the waves were going to be pumping. A few brave souls ignored the ban and fled to the ocean to be greeted by perfect, overhead, barreling waves. It's all about dedication to the love of our sport." 

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"Every surfer knows this perspective: the paddle out, waiting to take the first duck dive and get their first head-freeze to determine how cold the water actually is that day. This was one of the coldest days swimming I can remember. My hands were so cold they actually felt like they were on fire. I was shaking my hands underwater to try to get the blood to circulate in my fingers. The only way I could tell I was hitting the shutter was to listen for the sound of the camera firing."

BONUS SHOT

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"It has been said that the Montauk Lighthouse is our Eiffel Tower. Nothing is better than swimming out off the coast of Montauk and seeing it from a perspective you just can't get from land."

Many thanks to James for digging through the archives to share these beautiful shots. Head on over to his site to see more of his work. 

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Words by Ed Thompson

Photographs by Julien Roubinet

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Mike Nelson - Three Frames

A couple of times now we've convinced local photographers to dig into their archives and share a few of their all-time favorite images with us. Last year were stoked to share selects from Matt Clark and Fiona Mullen who also told us about the extraordinary circumstances that sometimes lead up to making a really memorable image. 

We're kicking off 2017 with another photo series, this time from Long Beach lifer, Mike Nelson, one half of the duo behind Unsound Surf Store. 

Mike's photography is truly rich, showing off the accumulated wisdom from uncountable sessions and endless hours spend shooting and surfing the length of New York's coastline. Yet, his work is so full of passion, excitement, color and drama, you might think he'd only recently picked up his first camera. Mike possesses a quality often found in truly talented artists - the ability to produce accomplished, professional work and yet somehow hold on to the childlike wonder at the subject of inspiration. In his own words, Mike talks us through three of his favorite shots below. 

"Long Beach NY, sunset. Sometimes its just nice to get away from the crowd and watch Mother Nature do her thing. This photo was taken a couple months ago during one of our hurricane swells here in Long Beach, NY. The photo is not cropped or edited at all, just the way the big man upstairs wanted it to look. And it's perfect…"

"Winter storm Mars, 2016. Mars was a significant swell and even though the conditions were challenging I was lucky enough to get a couple great shots. This one in particular is a shot my good friend Vic took with my secondary camera body, I asked him to hold it while I set up my bigger lens in a “sheltered” area near the boardwalk in Long Beach NY. He snapped a couple of photos as I tried to track Balaram Stack out in the water. Kinda cool how it came out and I think it really embodies what we all go through here in NY during the winter surf season." Amen - Ed.

"Sam Hammer, NJ. This photo was taken two winters ago. All of us up here in NY and NJ seem to chase the wind on any given swell event. New Yorkers are always running down to Jersey as soon as those flags turn westerly, and likewise when they swing around to the North all the Jersey boys migrate the other way. Given our somewhat stagnant NY Metro traffic, this can often take 2-3 hours each way. For me that time is spent with images like this one of Sam Hammer running rampant through my head. When I finally walk over the dunes in New Jersey, this is what I'm hoping to see."

We highly recommend you avail yourself of a few minutes checking out some more of Mike's work on his website. 

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Words by Ed Thompson

Photographs by Julien Roubinet

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Mark Cunningham

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Twice recently lifeguards in Long Beach and Rockaway asked one of the best swimmers on earth to get out of the ocean in case he drowned. 

Mark Cunningham has spent the last 20 years working as a lifeguard in Hawaii and is recognized as a world champion bodysurfer. He’s literally in the business of not drowning and his precise expertise lies in un-drowning other people. 

Mark was in New York partly on vacation and partly for two screenings of the movie Dirty Old Wedge, a new homage to the simple art of body surfing (surfing without any kind of craft, using only the body and swim fins). 

The film is focused on the crew of body surfers that first surfed a Southern California wave called The Wedge, known for its almost comically un-make-able close-out waves. When it’s maxing, The Wedge delivers a vertical wall of waveface often over 40 feet high right onto the beach. It breaks more bones and even spines than anyone cares to count and while Pipeline is often cited as the world’s most deadly wave, statistically speaking, you are much more likely to get hurt at The Wedge. Especially if you’re attached to a surfboard. Nonetheless, it’s a body-surfer’s dream - steep, hollow, powerful and about as visually dramatic as things get, pulling huge crowds to the beach every time it goes off. 

 

We caught up with Mark while he was sharing some body-surfing tips on a late summer day on Long Beach and later on over the phone. “While I was in New York I got kicked out of the water twice,” Mark laughed. “Once was at 6pm when the lifeguards got off duty. Apparently it’s ok for surfers but not body surfers. The very next day on Long Beach they kicked me out of the water again - they think it’s too dangerous.” In Hawaii the rules are little more geared towards use of the ocean: “You swim at your own risk,” Mark explained. “Maybe a little more education is needed. Anyway, I enjoyed it!”

Mark loves visiting New York, although he told us he’s not a city person, sometimes overwhelmed by the pace. Nonetheless, he told us that he’s envious New Yorkers get the best of both worlds - the endless diversity of the city and the powerful Atlantic close by. 

Body surfing as a discipline doesn’t have a global competitive structure like surfing, but it does have a core following and, like anything, ‘who does it best’ is fun to try and figure out. “The term ‘bodysurfing contest’ is an oxymoron,” Mark said. “It should be free and fun and non-judgemental, but a contest is an opportunity for everyone to get together. There is a big annual contest in Oceanside, California,” Mark told us. “They call it the World Bodysurfing Championships which is a bit of a stretch. It’s a great gathering of the tribe, mostly California surfers. I don’t really ‘compete’ but I do participate.” We asked him what he likes about the event, and Mark explained: “They clear the lineup and it’s just you and 3 others, so that can be a bit of a treat.”

Mark has established a reputation as one of the best body surfers in the world; but without a formal competitive structure to recognize and publicize it, this achievement is even more unique. We asked Mark what kept him focused on bodysurfing above other surfing disciplines. “I’m a really shitty board surfer,” he laughed. “Most of us like to participate in what we’re good at. I’m lucky here in Hawaii - we don’t have to wrestle into a wetsuit. There are great beaches for bodysurfing never more than 45 minutes away and it worked hand in hand with my lifeguarding career: using the waves and currents is essential in my work.” He continued, “I think people expect me to be there with my fins - if they saw me being a kook they would be vastly disappointed. Let’s not blow the myth!”

Mark has dedicated many years to body surfing Pipeline, the North Shore’s crown jewel. We asked him what makes a good body surfing wave. “I like longer rides. For top-to-bottom close-out whomping, there's The Wedge or the Waimea shorebreak. That’s fun and a discipline unto itself, but there’s also bodysurfing where you’re riding top to bottom, stalling and getting a longer ride before it closes out. I like those longer peeling point waves. At 61 years old I don’t want to surf waves that might hurt me - my heroes are the guys older than me still paddling out!”

Having only body-surfed intermittently, we wanted to understand what it’s actually like at Pipeline. “It’s like body surfing at Rockaway,” Mark explained, “but twenty times the size. It’s a much bigger playing field. There are no jetties or boundaries, so it’s this wide open space. It’s the most famous wave in the world, so at times it’s the most crowded wave in the world. You have to be present to get it good. The magazines always show it 6-10 ft with perfect winds, but there are a lot of options. There’s a lot of water moving out there, so I’m very particular about what I want to catch to give me a good ride and not annihilate me. It’s a good challenge and I still enjoy it!”

Mark has dedicated most of his career to being in and around the ocean, so environmental activism has been a natural extension of his work. He’s involved with the 5 Gyres organization and the Plastic Pollution Coalition among others. “To anyone who reads this, every surfer or anyone who enjoys the beach or the ocean,” Mark said, “you must be a dues-paying member of an environmental organization, whether it’s Surf Rider or Greenpeace, or one of so many other groups working against this stuff entering our water. The ocean is our breadbasket and we have to be aware of what we put into it.” 

Mark comes across as a man at peace with himself: wise, happy, humble, and open minded. It felt fitting to ask him what advice he’s been given over the years that’s stuck with him. “I wish I could give you a great quote: Lord knows, at my age I’ve been given enough advice,” he laughed again. “I think I’ve heard this attributed to Woody Allen, but 95% of success is showing up. I lifeguarded at Pipeline and I showed up 40 hours a week and I’ve lived in a beach house and I think I’ve led a rich and rewarding life. I feel very fortunate. I knew I was taking on a vow of poverty when I signed up to be a lifeguard, but the pleasure and satisfaction and friendships and experiences I’ve had are unfathomable. So I showed up. I feel very lucky to have had this opportunity.” 

Mark paused, thinking for a moment before going on: “The other thing is balance. We’re all trying to find a balance in our lives: trying to pay the bills, trying to make our souls happy, to make our heart happy, our body happy, our partner happy. All these options we have in modern life but you have to pick and choose. What do you have to completely ignore because you don’t have time? I guess the analogy is like surfing. Find the balance that floats your board and keeps all those dependent on you above water too. You’re constantly balancing, trying to find the perfect trim. Trying not to get clobbered and not pearl dive. There are times when you want to share it with a friend and times when you need solitude, to be by yourself.”

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Words by Ed Thompson

Photographs by Julien Roubinet

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Michael Fremont

After we posted the first part of our series featuring some of the surfboards at Beach House Classic shop in Bay Head, NJ, we decided we should contact the shaper himself. That would be one Michael Fremont who shaped under the name Michaels Fremont with his buddy, Tony Michaels (Confused? Us too.) in New York and later San Diego in the early 70s.

At home on Walnut Street, Long Beach, NY

At home on Walnut Street, Long Beach, NY

We caught up with Michael, who now lives in Encinitas, California but grew up in Long Beach, NY. 

"I was born in '49," Michael told us, "and my family moved there in '52. My father had a house built on Walnut street and when I was 13 I started surfing with my best friend and his older brother Mark Weisberg. He was one of the original guys surfing there after he'd been stationed in Hawaii."

At the time, Mark surfed occasionally with a guy name 'Bahama' Pat. Pat's family owned a liquor store in Long Island and he was not exactly an encouraging sight for parents of would be surfers on the beach. "He was one of these guys who all summer long hung out at the beach," Michael explained, "he had a straw hat, looked like a bum. He was a surf bum. So it took me a year to convince my parents that surfing was OK. When I was 14 I learned to surf down the street at Franklin and surfed ever since."

Michael Fremont surfing

We asked Michael what it was like surfing there at the time. "There weren’t surfing beaches," he told us, "so the only time you could go was before the beach opened and after the beach closed and sometimes the cops would come chase you away anyway. I got pretty good at surfing in New York - it was the only sport I was ever good at! I couldn't run very fast and I couldn't throw very far - that eliminated the normal high school sports."

Michael graduated high school in '66 just as a seismic fault was developing in society. "There was something wrong with the civil and social structure," Michael said. "The song of that year was Buffalo Springfield - For What It's  Worth. 'There's something happening here...' That captured the mood. It was a generational shift: it became clear that our generation was not going to follow the footsteps of the generation before. We were true believers in what America could be and we were disappointed in what it was. With the civil rights movement we were starting to get an enlightened history of the United States. We were idealistic but disappointed at the same time, becoming cynical. The definition of a cynic is a disappointed romantic!"

We asked Michael if he had been drafted into the Vietnam war. "I was waiting, and I had done my pre-induction physical but I got a high lottery number in the draft so that ended my problem with the army. I was absolutely opposed to Vietnam. I would not have gone. I would have become an expat. I had friends that were totally screwed up when they came back."

Finding some cover from the sun beating down at Swamis

Finding some cover from the sun beating down at Swamis

After high school, Michael moved to Huntington Beach for college but ended up spending the winter of '68 back home in New York after getting sick. That winter he started making surfboards. "It was hard to get the materials," Michael explained. "I had to order blanks from the west coast. I bought a little planer and set up a shaping / glassing rack in my parents’ garage."

The picture shown here is the first proper surfboard Michael made, in the Spring of 1969:

The first board Michael shaped

The first board Michael shaped

People liked the boards and he continued making more. Although he can't recall, he believes he might even have made a board for Russell Drumm, whom he had known growing up on Long Island and with whom he spent one winter in Puerto Rico. In the fall of '69 Michael went back to the west coast and started shaping under the Michaels Fremont name of the board we found at Eric Beyer's shop, the first board Eric owned. Michael believes he made that board in about 1970. "That was a foil egg shape. For the east coast you had to make it rounder and hippy-er. It would be called a 'foil' and it had a down rail going to to an up rail."

Michael has since stopped shaping and now lives and works in Encinitas, CA, but he was stoked to hear we had photographed one of his boards at Beach House Classic and we're very happy we managed to catch up with him and close the loop!

Michael on Long Beach in 1968 with a Jim Hanley shaped Bunger

Michael on Long Beach in 1968 with a Jim Hanley shaped Bunger

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Words by Ed Thompson

Photographs from Michael Fremont's personal collection