It’s Sunday night in coastal New Jersey. The sound of the steady rain is interrupted only when it turns to even harder rain. Then, still dark on Monday morning, a fierce wind replaces the downpour. Temps in the mid 30s: all typical of late winter in New Jersey.
I pack up two surfboards—my 5’9 shortboard and a 5’7 groveler—and start driving. Rain begins to fall on the Garden State Parkway. It’s still raining and dark gray as I pass the gorgeous Linden Cogeneration Plant on the New Jersey Turnpike.
While the coast can have its moments all year, the reality is that winter surfing (wearing a hooded 4mm wetsuit or more) is a five-month ordeal here. But for the first time in my life, I will be surfing indoors.
This is Skudin Surf at American Dream, the 3 million-square-foot mall that recently opened in East Rutherford, NJ, just across the Hudson from New York City.
This chlorine dream named for and run by Will Skudin, an elite big-wave surfer from the unlikely shores of Long Island (who I’ve been covering since he was a fired up 18-year-old), is the world’s largest indoor wave pool.
As my first time, Skudin ushers me in through the DreamWorks Water Park, showing me what they’ve got going. A group from the East End of Long Island has the wave pool rented for the morning session. There’s a handful of groms and moms taking off on a well-shaped peak every 20 seconds or so with music playing.
Paul Francisco, a ripping young New Jersey surfer, is both DJ and MC: letting the surfers in the water know what’s happening via loudspeaker, curating the playlist, and most importantly, controlling which waves are coming to the surfers. He’s got this wave figured out beyond the visiting pros at this point.
“You definitely want a little more volume in your board and something that fits on the wave,” he explains.
There are waves customized for all levels. The wave can be tuned to allow for a surfer to build speed for about two to three pumps and then hit a relatively soft oncoming section, or in the case of the better (and lighter) surfers, to launch an air. To keep it in perspective, after the initial opening when the Garden and Empire states’ pros and most high-profile bros got their licks, most of the patrons so far have been beginning surfers. Crews from different beach towns in New York and New Jersey have been booking Private Dream Sessions ($3,200-$3,800) since it opened last fall. There are also two-hour Open Sessions you can book on various evenings (around $290 per person.)
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The current crew has been in the water since 7 a.m., a dawn patrol in every sense. The surf sessions run early until the pool goes back into rippling water park mode for the general public from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. The surf fires up again in the evenings, sometimes until midnight.
When today’s morning session ends at 9 a.m., the crew comes out of the pool with dripping, happy faces. Skudin tells me to hop in and then busies himself with some R&D.
I grab my small-wave rider, a short and chubby bat-tailed 20 ¼-wide grovel board set up as a quad with a Nubster fin, making for five fins altogether. I walk down the steps and paddle to the far wall where CA-to-NYC transplant artist Mark Paul Derek, aka Mad Steez, is enjoying one crystal-chlorinated bump after another. He smiles and waves me over to the takeoff spot.
“You’ll feel this little pulse. That means the wave is coming in about three seconds, so you want to start paddling. It’s a pretty weak takeoff, so get as much speed as you can,” he advises.
The pre-wave ripples through the pool and I start paddling for a wave that I can’t even see. I just have to trust that it exists.
And I miss it.
Rather than alternate this one, Steez has me try again. In less than 20 seconds, the pre wave passes underneath. I paddle like a maniac and this one lifts me.
There are several combinations of wave types. This is “The Classic,” a peak that breaks left and right. I take off frontside and work to keep momentum, wobbling down the line. Steez picks up the next one. He’s got it down to a quick frontside bottom turn, a pump and a hit. Gradually I start to sit deeper. The takeoff is easy, and I can use the peak to generate a little more speed from the bowl. Now we’re alternating every wave and after just a few minutes, I’ve got somewhat of a handle on this waist-high wonder. We split the peak a few times as well, which can double the amount of rides you get.
Most experienced surfers have been riding twin fins or some version of a quad. The wave isn’t punchy enough for standard shorties, (and saltwater is more buoyant than fresh) so you generally get the feel on a shorter fishy craft and then dial in dimensions and fins setups for higher performance.
But for now, I’m riding a little peeler in warm water, in New Jersey, in the late winter. There’s a giant Shrek and Po Ping the Panda looking down from the rafters. It’s surreal. But it’s fun as hell.
And because of the frequency….I’m also winded.
The beauty of this machine is that it doesn’t take long to reset. Air pressure begins to build up as soon as the previous wave peters out. It’s only 15-20 seconds until the next wave.
The pool is here because North Jersey and New York are a huge population center, full of people who want to surf. But it had to be inside because the elements here are a daily morale challenge unlike anything in the more temperate regions of the West Coast or the South. But being inside means the conditions can only be so big, hence the wave having a limit to its size and power; the technology makes up for that by producing more waves, more rapidly.
In short, a bunch of people can enjoy these waves together and everyone still gets a decent wave count in an hour. A two-hour session, you’d be fully drained. There are almost 20 different waves and combinations to try out including waves that can get a few people on them. One has a tiny, quick little barrel that’s ideal for a grom.
And if you blow one, no worries. There’s another wave coming in a few seconds.
We stayed on that split peak as Skudin and crew got in the pool with a giant plastic cube used for storing liquids. His idea is to mimic a reef to make the sections on certain waves break harder for a steeper air/hit section. The wave gets turned off as we all lend a hand in helping to sink this thing (getting the cube to burp the air was more challenging than any of us thought). We finally get it on the bottom of the pool and Skudin test-pilots a few waves.
The immediate results aren’t earth-shattering. They’re not meant to be.
This is simply a first look at the potential for shaping the wave by adjusting the bottom contour. This won’t change the experience for a family from Rumson booking out the pool for a Sweet-16 party. But it could be a game changer as an indoor surf ramp for the region.
Skudin has us haul his makeshift reef out of the pool. The waterpark staff has arrived and is already turning the facility from surf spot to theme park. We all get dressed and spend a few minutes discussing what will best create a section and what materials/techniques to use. Skudin and his staff head to Playa Bowls at the mall and I head back to the coast to work.
The short take: This is not Teahupoo off the Turnpike. It’s not Lower Trestles or even Long Branch or Long Beach on any given swell. It’s a novelty. But during a long flat spell, with the right crew, the right music, the right beverages and the right attitude, it’s a novelty that will bring a lot of smiles to a lot of faces.
I’ve already rounded up a crew and booked a date to go back.