To promote his latest venture, Niels Neudecker invites me to meet him at the All Saints Old Catholic Church in Ridgewood. Along with his wife, Viola, he runs the Brooklyn Surf Club out of their somewhat new home in Bushwick; as German nationals, they first landed in the Upper West Side but they eventually found it to be stifling. Now, they’re here and selling surf lessons – starting at $85 – promising paying customers that the money lets Neudecker, a Walmart executive by day, afford to give free lessons to kids from historically underprivileged communities. At places like All Saints, where Father Mike Lopez runs a local charity group called Hungry Monks, Neudecker tries to get word out.
Outside of the church, on a balmy Saturday morning, I see a long line of immigrants waiting for food. Soon, I’m able to find my way in church and Neudecker appears, wearing a branded t-shirt, as well as jean shorts and a pair of Adidases. “I’m glad you can join us today… let’s find Father Mike,” Neudecker tells me in a sharp German accent.
On the day of what is to be my first surf lesson in 16 years or so, I can feel my knees creak.
Lopez soon ambles forth, with broad shoulders, a great beard and sleeves of tattoos. “I’ve been with Hungry Monks for over six years,” says Lopez, who was born and raised in Bushwick. On some Saturday mornings, Neudecker says he visits All Saints and stands outside to encourage parents to sign their kids up for his company’s free surf lessons.
Neudecker tells me that he met someone from a sports-themed nonprofit called the Chill Foundation, who happened to be in touch with a donation group that Lopez works with, EV Loves NYC; that’s how they got in touch. Before he was a surfer, Neudecker says he was “a marathon runner.”
“And you can’t really take your daughter and wife on the concrete road with you. The beach though? It’s such a nicer place to spend time with family. It makes a lot more sense,” he says.
Along the ride to Far Rockaway, Neudecker goes on to say, “On days when we need to bring surfboards out here, we can fit seven foot boards, easy. Eight foot boards, no problem. But nine foot boards, don’t fit. It’s a real challenge sometimes, but if you try hard enough, you can fit the nine-foot board on too.”
As the morning nears 11 am, we hop off the train at Beach 67. It is there where I meet Neudecker’ wife Viola and their daughter. They introduce me to Dell, over at the Breakwater surf shop. He’s athletic in the way everyone anticipates from a swimmer, with toned and tatted arms and a great mustache.
“The waves have been a foot and a half. Good for learning the basics. But after that point, people are generally looking for slightly bigger waves. Two footers, three footers,” Dell advises.
At last, on Beach 67, I spot Neudecker and one of his employees, an instructor named David, who sports a full-body wetsuit, standing by surfboards layed out in the sand. Among the bunch are two students and a volunteer; Oliver is the youngest, Camille is a teenager; and Avery is the volunteer among the bunch. Per David’s instruction, each student paddles in the sand and practices their pop ups.
“Your turn to practice, let’s go,” David calls out to me.
Neudecker then gives me a rash guard to put on, and I suddenly get the feeling that he’s putting me in the game. My own salad days of youthful athletics flash before my eyes.
On our way to the beach, there’s Camille and David holding one board, Oliver and Neudecker holding another, and then Avery and I walk along the sand, holding surfboards on our heads. As we go, I ask Avery how she got involved with the program.
“I booked my first surf lesson ever with Brooklyn Surf Club,” she says, “Niels and I kept in contact and he said I could volunteer if I wanted to. Because I just really believe in the mission of Brooklyn Surf Club.”
Our entire surf troupe got in the ocean moments later. The waves lap at our legs and then our hips as we go further out. We’re not too far from the shore. We’re still close enough to hear jumbo airliners roar as they fly the nearby JFK airport.
Down here in the water, the waves are swelling bigger. They come rolling in one after the other. Soon, David, our instructor, is pushing Oliver, the youngest among us, to stand up on his own and of course, he does it on his second try with near perfect form.
When it’s my turn, he pushes me to catch an oncoming wave, but I quickly wipe out.
Images taken by Max Rovo for Bushwick Daily.
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