Meet Benny’s Surf Club, New York’s queer, BIPOC surfing collective
Founders Johnny Cappetta and Momo Hudes on their efforts to make the sport less white, less straight and more inclusive.
For thousands of native New Yorkers and transplants, surfing in New York City seems like a foreign endeavor — left better suited for residents of The Hamptons or Long Island. Those interested in trying out the sport are limited by a lack of transportation to the city’s beaches, the high cost of gear and an unruly and unforgiving sea. Alongside the logistical challenges, is the notoriously exclusive surfing culture, which has traditionally kept the sport very white and very straight — making it difficult for queer surfers and surfers of colour to carve out space for themselves. That’s why Johnny Cappetta and Momo Hudes founded Benny’s Surf Club, a collective dedicated to spreading surfing knowledge and creating a more accepting environment for queer and POC surfers, who have been pushed to the outskirts of the sport’s norm.
Both Johnny and Momo have experienced the discomfort of feeling out of place while surfing. Johnny, who relocated to California from the East Coast during their childhood, never felt able to express themselves while on the water, surrounded by men who didn’t accept their identity. Growing up in New York, Momo also recalls an uneasiness within the surfing community there.
Benny’s aims to rectify this and reckon with surf culture as a whole, while making surfing more accessible for anyone and everyone in New York. Alongside lessons, surfing meet-ups in The Rockaways and round-table discussions on proper technique and etiquette, Momo, Johnny and the Benny’s crew, are actively fostering a community of surfers who, regardless of experience level, can reap the benefits of the sport in a holistic and inclusive fashion.
Here, Johnny and Momo tell us about their surfing journey, their hopes for Benny’s Surf Club and why the sport is in need of a moral reckoning.
Could you tell us about each of your introductions to surfing?
Momo Hudes: My dad is a local New Yorker, and he grew up as a lifeguard, surfing out in Long Island. I grew up going to Robert Moses [State Park] a lot and being forced into the water, actually, because I was terrified of the ocean until pretty recently. It wasn't really until I overcame my own fear of the ocean that I really got into surfing. I've been surf instructing for the past three years in The Rockaways, and that has also just boosted me so much in my own comfort in the ocean.
Johnny Cappetta: I grew up on the East Coast until I was 12, and then my family moved. Middle school sucks. Moving sucks. My first lesson was like five foot out, six foot out. [My instructor] pushed me into a set wave, and I just — there's that feeling of flying and that feeling of falling — it's this totally incredible feeling. It was the feeling of all eyes on me — it felt like being in a crazy amphitheater of stoke and I was hooked.
When you both started surfing, who made up the community around you?
MH: It was just my dad and my brother and all of these older white men. It was really intimidating. I don't know if when I was younger I realized how uncomfortable I was by that — I think I was more concerned with the ocean at that point. There's that feeling that if I drown, if something happens, none of these people would bat an eye or be concerned. Just being in the water by yourself and not knowing anyone is really scary. The straight, white male energy is the reason why Benny's was created, but also to make it a less intimidating and scary experience to go out there alone. Occasionally at Rockaway, I'd see a female surfer, and those times were so exciting. Any time that would happen I'd always paddle closer to her. That's so much less intimidating, and inspiring to see — a female surfer out there in a crowd of men.
JC: I think the New York scene is definitely more diverse and a little bit more chill than California. California surf culture — people take it pretty seriously. I was lucky that I had some older friends who would surf with me, but as a very small, skinny kid, [I'd] have grown men threatening to fight me on a regular basis. It's just pretty aggressive. Even as you get older and better and become a regular at certain spots, there's very much a pervading vibe in the water: shoulders down, head hunched, black wetsuit, don't say shit to anybody. I felt, and I know a lot of queer surfers I’ve talked to feel [this]: you sort of have to live a double life. You might be out and proud on land, but in the water, you better keep your fucking mouth shut. There's a feeling of keeping your politics out of the water. And what that really means is, don't make any of the straight, white, old men consider things that they don’t want to consider. I think that Benny's for me is a way to open space in the lineups, in the water, to an understanding and an acceptance of our whole humanity as surfers, and to provide access. It's an intimidating and serious place and if you're not white and male passing, it's very hard to even get a wave, let alone feel comfortable.
How are you trying to combat the exclusive culture that has been cultivated amongst surfing?
JC: I feel like it's probably going to grow and change a bit, but initially the idea was just, can we connect queer surfers and surfers of colour with each other and show people that they're not alone?
MH: We're still figuring it out. Our last meet-up, compared to our first, had a turnout of people we didn't know at all. It was a great time. We took up this one block of water and gave people the space and support that they needed. I gave people who hadn't surfed at all lessons, and then everyone else just got in the water and paddled around. We were giving people tips, watching them surf. It was all of us surfing this little lineup.
We're living in a very difficult year — what does surfing mean to you during these times?
MH: It's been a great thing for me. In April, I started going back into the water while everybody was locked-down. It was pretty unsettling to be in the city at that time. But going to the water, just surfing was so relieving, and I forgot about everything else that was going on. I had my own little world right there. I needed that. I think for my mental health and my body it's been the best thing, and I want to give other people that opportunity as well.
JC: Surf culture is the thing I had a falling out with when I came out, and when I left California, I felt like that was a chapter in my life that had to be closed because the community was so conservative. In the last five months, as the nation as a whole has taken a little bit more time to do a moral reckoning with our culture at large and our history, I started feeling like I can't speak to America as a whole — I don't know how to engage with that. But I know surfing. I know this culture and I know what's wrong in the community, and I felt that it was space I could engage [with] at least. I had been writing a lot, thinking more about surf culture, and when Momo texted me about Benny's, I was like, hell yeah. This is such a beautiful platform to help introduce more people to the joy of being in the water, and also a chance to build community within the community to make it feel safer and more welcoming. It's a baby step to get surf culture at large to reflect America in general, which is an extremely diverse and beautiful collection of people.
Photography Alexander Cody Nguyen.