We met Russell at his home in Montauk on a weekend in March, 2014. A powerful South East swell was driving perfect overhead barrels onto the shores of Eastern Long Island. Turtle Cove was packed with thirty or more surfers in full cold weather gear and the small cliffs to the South West of Ditch Plains bathed in sunshine, facing set after set of perfect waves, lined up in a breezy offshore wind. As we pulled up outside, Russell was smashing an old cast iron stove into pieces with a huge post mallet, throwing the slabs of metal in the back of his truck. "Most fun I've had in ages", he laughed.
Russell recently retired, after a 30 year career writing for the East Hampton Star, one of the oldest local newspapers on Long Island. You’ll also find plenty of his writing in the Surfer’s Journal. He’s a calm, friendly and open character, a natural storyteller.
We asked Russell what he knew about the beginnings of surfing in Eastern Long Island. His credibility to discuss this history is solid - he’s recently been appointed to curate a new Museum of Surfing which will be located in the Montauk Point State Park, by the oldest lighthouse in New York state, built under President George Washington in 1792.
"I came with the second wave of surfers in the early sixties, probably ‘64, ‘65, then I moved here full time in ‘73. I was born in Syracuse and grew up in Levittown. There was a whole group of surfers from Levittown. Mr Levitt had the foresight to build olympic size swimming pools, so everyone in Levittown knew how to swim. They had competitions, everything. Then it was easy for us to make the move to the beach. We started surfing at Jones beach, Rockaway, Gilgo beach, Long Beach, all around there. I knew about surfing from my father who grew up in New York, a marine during the war who had never seen the ocean, who got shipped off to Hawaii, so he was stationed there for a while and he went crazy for surfing. When I was a kid we started body surfing because there were no surfboards around except for the lifeguard paddle boards. I started body surfing with my father. Then we went to air mattresses. They were a lot of fun, I'd love to do that again. What's great about them is they side-slip!
So anyway, my dad was a hospital administrator who was dying to get back to Hawaii. And he got a job consulting for a hospital on Oahu. And when I was a kid, I spent three summers there when I was 13, 14 and 15. So I saw it first-hand when I was really young. I really learned how to surf because I was watching the Hawaiian guys. I fell in with a little group of surfers called the Tongs gang. Their home break was right under Diamond Head. So when I came back I was like a hero: I'd been to Mecca. That's how I got into it.
Things really started here in Montauk because the surf was so much better than anywhere else on Long Island. We started coming out here on the weekends. Back then, Montauk was empty. It was a really small fishing village. So we raised hell, you know. Then came the summer of 67, which was the summer of love, right. That's when it really started. The only place we could live that was cheap was the trailer park over by Ditch Plains. The only people in it were surfers and fishermen. I think my rent - we lived in tents and there were some cabins - I think my rent share with 4 of us on this plot, was $20 a month. And that summer, the place was awash in very good drugs, lots of acid, lots of pot. So the word got out that Montauk was the place to come. By sixty-seven and sixty-eight all hell was breaking loose in the country. You were either going to Vietnam or you were going surfing. That was the start of Montauk as a surf town. Nobody surfed out at the point much, it was just Ditch Plains. We followed what was going on in Hawaii: we had surfer Magazine, there was East Coast Surfing and by that time there was competition on the East Coast. It was the soul surfing era and you were kinda weird if you competed, but you know, things change.”