Observations Part I: Balaram Stack
From the Stab 2013/2014 Big Book: Balaram Stack and the different ways and various kinds of New York state surf…
Interview by Tom Fjord | Portraits by Nick Hudson | Action by Mike Nelson
For half-a-decade now, the most dynamic, vibrant corner of surfing has been geo-coincident with the most dynamic, vibrant corner of all western civ: New York! It’s all happening here!
The Apple’s surf scene has exploded, more grenade than nuclear, as this is still the East Coast of the USA, where a broad continental shelf halts swell like the grouchy bouncer ‘hind velvet rope, and furthermore it’s an icebox half the year… but still, explosion!
Surfing out east may never reach Californian levels but it has, in one last gasp of this metaphor, blown right up. And then there is Balaram Stack. Twenty-one years old. Raised and based in Point Lookout near Long Beach, New York, 45 minutes from Wall Street and a block from the sand, since age five, and before that in a Florida ashram.
Comfy at big Pipeline. Quick to boost. Adored by the women of Gens Y, X, and surely some later Boomers. Dropped last year by Quiksilver and subsequently pocketed by Volcom with such fervour you’d think Bal was a 20 they spotted on the ground. He’s probs the best surfer from NY ever.
But when Stab reaches Balaram he’s out of town, out of state, out of country and hemisphere, in Bali. Which ain’t unusual. Every pro travels but East Coasters all the more so, especially in summer when the flat spells do so linger on.
Stab: How often d’you get home nowadays?
Balaram Stack: I’ve been going every chance I get even just for three days or a week and it’s been the best time ever. ‘Cause I don’t really get home that often and every time it’s for just a couple days, and I don’t get to settle in or do what I want to do. So it’s been fun, hanging with my friends a bunch, going out, partying…just being home. Being in my own bed.
What season’s your favourite there, when you’re sure to get home for a while and stay? End of August, September, October is pretty much the best season ever, for not only waves but for everything. It’s the best weather, best time to meet up with all your friends, best party scene. You’ve got Fashion Week and Fall follows that. Fall is my favourite time of year. I’m always home for that.
D’you have your own place? I’m based out of my Mom’s but I mostly stay at my friend’s house in Long Beach. I’m not really at our house that often. My mom lives, like, half-a-block from a beach, but not the beach I surf at, I’ll surf down Long Beach, Laurelton Boulevard or any of the jetties down there.
Describe it at its best, when it’s just doin’ its thing. It’s definitely changed since [Hurricane] Sandy but it’s pretty much beachbreak barrels and air sections, rippable waves. I guess it’s similar to France a little bit but with jetties.
D’you migrate into the city much? The past three years or so I’ve been going in a lot more. I’ve gotten to know more people and have a little better knowledge of everything there, so I’ve been trying to go more. A couple times every time I’m home, just to go party, usually in SoHo or occasionally in the Meatpacking [District] or whatever, just anywhere downtown. Or to go visit friends.
What are you driving out in Long Beach? Y’have wheels? I did, my brother sold me his Lexus a couple years ago and I drove that for a bit, but I just sold it actually because I never used it. I was basically paying car insurance for nothing. But going to the city I’ve always taken the train, I think I’ve driven once in my life and it was pointless. And then when I’m in Long Beach all my friends have cars so I just ride with them.
A quick interjection about this lil’ patch of sand: Long Beach, Bal’s Long Beach, is well removed from the swirl of Manhattan and we don’t just mean as the crow flies. It’s two different worlds, urban against the subbest urban, steel carnival vs. quiet beach town. They’re linked like your cousins, technically so, though not by choice and with little in common save the York family name, and even their surf scenes are distinct. Manhattan has boomed, sending a new rush from the boroughs to Bal’s doorstep. We ask about this.
Have you noticed the scene change around home, with how surf’s popped in the city? There’s definitely been a lot more people, I know that. And you see more people coming off the trains with boards and things like that. But what I see where I live is still the same crew, same people that’ve been there.
Would y’say the urban surf boom is felt more in Montauk and Rockaway than it is in your zone? I’d say it’s more Montauk and Rockaway, but you definitely see a little bit of it in Long Beach. You see guys come out here and there. But since Rockaway is so close [to the city], and since Montauk is… I don’t know, more relevant to them maybe, those are the two places they mostly go.
Describe, for the unfamiliar, the differences: Rockaway vs. Long Beach vs. Montauk. I mean, the waves are pretty similar at home to Rockaway, but it’s definitely a different vibe in Long Beach. Rockaway’s closer to Queens and it’s part of that, and Montauk’s just a whole different world out there. I would almost say more country club. Like, it’s more spread out, more rural. There’s a lot more trees out there than in Long Beach and Rockaway.
What about Jersey? D’you dip there too? Yeah, always. I mean, a lot of times the swells will come and the wind is either good the first day in Jersey and the second day in New York or vice versa. So Sam Hammer, [Mikey] Gleason, all those guys will come up to my house if it’s good and I’ll go down to their house when it’s good. We’ll just trade off on spots.
Is there a real gap between New York and New Jersey in surfing, culturally? Is it just a line on your maps? I mean, a little bit, there’s a bit of a difference. There’s so many little surf towns in Jersey compared to New York, where there’s, like, Long Beach, Rockaway, Gilgo, the Hamptons, Montauk. Whereas in Jersey there’s too many to name. I guess you could say there’s a lot of different Long Beaches down in Jersey, you know? There’s a lot of different little towns with their own crews. Which is pretty sick to see. I went home over the holidays and actually went down to Jersey for a couple days and it was going off. It was so good. And of course it was freezing, you know, there was ice on the beach and shit. But it was going off. We were getting drained. Me and Sam were trading off.
The …Lost videos used to have the very best East Coast sections! Icy, just like that. Yeah, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen, like, North of Nowhere or Couch Tour, two videos I grew up on that were made by unSound, the surf shop I ride for in New York. They have a lot of old stuff but most of it’s in the cold and the snow and all that, and I miss seeing that. It’s not your typical fucking blue water offshore stuff.
Talk about unSound a minute. How important is that shop? It’s an institution really, no? Yeah, unSound was not only a huge part of getting me into the surf world but getting New York into the surf world. For Long Beach they’ve been the foundation of the surf community, and it’s pretty fucking sick what they’ve done. Pretty much gotten me everything I have, which is fucking cool to say about just a little surf shop in New York.
How would you compare it to, like, a Saturdays, the new raft of shops in the city? For someone who’s never ever been? I’ve never really gone to Saturdays. I’ve heard a lot about it. And the guys over there, I’ve talked to a few guys there and they’re super cool. The vibe, it’s more of a hipster city vibe, whereas unSound is more doing it for surfing, doing it because they grew up surfing cold waves and had, like, no one to go to. So they started this shop. And they’ve provided the little community with connections to all the brands, getting good product in. They’ve had the best relationship with …Lost, as you’ve seen in the videos. They’ve done really well with it. They actually got destroyed in Sandy. They had to redo the whole shop without any insurance. They got a little help but for how much they lost it’s pretty crazy that they’re open again. Same spot but they had to redo the whole space, and they lost like two hundred grand worth of product.
How’d you weather the storm at home? Any damage? It was crazy. Luckily my little section of our town was one of the only places that didn’t get flooded. We’re one of the only towns anywhere along the coast. All my friends in Long Beach, pretty much every single one of their houses got flooded and had to be redone. And the boardwalk, I don’t know how long it’d been there but long before I was born, that thing is completely gone. So they’re trying to rebuild that now, which is a huge change in our community, ‘cause I’m pretty sure half my friends if not all lost their virginity under that boardwalk.
And you? Nah, I didn’t, but I’ve spent some time under there.
Were you at home when the storm blew in? No, I was actually in Hawaii. I went out for Reef [McIntosh’s] wedding and I was trying to get back because the waves were going to be good. And my Mom was, like, “Don’t even bother, you won’t be able to fly out for a couple days.” So I just stayed in Hawaii and the airport ended up being closed for, like, three weeks.
What was it like, stuck on the rock and watching it unfold through the news? Fuck, for two days I couldn’t get hold of my Mom, because there was no power or anything. I was tripping. I was trying to get a flight, to Philly, to Jersey, to Connecticut, anywhere, and nothing was open. I literally couldn’t get a flight anywhere. And I finally got in touch with my brother who was out east and he drove to my Mom’s house and she was, like, “We’re fine, no power, but nothing’s wrong. We didn’t get flooded or anything.” We got pretty lucky, I guess.
Will you buy a house there? Will you stay forever? Yeah, I couldn’t really see myself ever leaving New York. I spend a lot of time in California but I don’t think I’d ever want to live there full-time.
What do you love about New York compared to California? Just the people, mainly. I don’t want to generalise all of California but I’ve spent all my time in Orange County and I definitely couldn’t see myself living there full-time. It’s a totally different vibe, totally different people. It’s just not what I grew up with, not what I’m into.
Long Beach, might you say, is more down-to-earth? Yeah, absolutely. It’s just a tight community. Everyone knows everyone and everyone’s cool with everyone. I feel like Orange County’s got so much money that everyone’s in their own world.
Will you buy soon? Fuck, I hope so.