Arts | Long Island: The Spirit of Surfing, Caught on Camera

July 6th, 2013

His son rushed him to Brookhaven Memorial Hospital Medical Center in Patchogue, where Mr. Beattie worked as a surgical physician assistant. Upon admission, he said, he was able to converse with staff members. But three hours later he could barely speak.

Mr. Beattie, 62, of Selden, spent the next two weeks in the hospital’s Stroke Center, followed by months of rehabilitation. And though he gradually regained the ability to speak normally, his arm and leg remained weak. Having surfed Long Island’s beach-break waves since age 13, he realized he might never surf again.

He could still hold a video camera, though. For years, Mr. Beattie had filmed surf vacations he took with his wife and children, in locations including Florida and New Zealand. When his doctor finally permitted him to drive again, about 18 months after the episode, Mr. Beattie picked up his camera again.

“I started driving out to the spots I’d surfed as a kid and filming all the new surfers there,” Mr. Beattie recalled last month at Gilgo Beach, one of Long Island’s best-known surf beaches. “Filming surfers was almost as much fun as surfing.”

But it was a group of surfers Mr. Beattie filmed on a trip to Block Island in 2009 that convinced him to make a movie. His repeated treks to Long Island beaches over the next three years resulted in “A Hundred Miles to the End,” which has its premiere at the Long Beach Public Library on July 13 as part of the first SMASH Fest, a surf film and art festival. Spanning surf spots from Long Beach to Montauk — the 100 miles in question — the film casts an affectionate light on the thriving Long Island surf scene and its occasionally intimidating waves.

A self-described amateur filmmaker, Mr. Beattie nevertheless produced, directed and edited the movie, in addition to putting $ 12,000 of his own money into equipment costs. He finished filming a week before Hurricane Sandy hit New York and transformed many of the beaches that appear in the film. As such, “A Hundred Miles to the End” provides a last glimpse of Long Island’s pre-Sandy coastline.

“The beach used to be twice as wide here,” Mr. Beattie observed as he walked along the Gilgo Beach shoreline. He said the dunes, once over 20 feet tall in some places, now rise only to shoulder height.

“But as far as I know,” he said, “the surf is pretty much the same.”

Mr. Beattie grew up in Massapequa Park and caught some of his first waves at Tobay Beach off Long Island’s south shore, gravitating toward Montauk and the Hamptons as his surfing improved. Thanks to his father’s job at Pan American World Airways, which allowed him to fly for free, he visited surf meccas in California and Hawaii while still in his teens.

Hawaiians were often puzzled at how the New Yorker floating beside them learned to surf. “They didn’t know Long Island exists,” he said.

After a short stint at Jacksonville University in Florida — “All I wanted to do was surf, so I didn’t do too well academically” — Mr. Beattie enrolled at Nassau Community College. While there, he and a friend opened a surf shop in Amityville called Surfboard Revolution. If the waves were up, they would hang a sign in the door reading “Gone surfing.”

“We knew surfers would understand,” he said.

After selling his interest in the shop in 1976, however, Mr. Beattie quickly grew up. He got married, earned a bachelor’s degree in physician assistant studies, bought a house in Selden and had four children. In his limited spare time, he surfed at Smith Point on Fire Island, the closest beach with decent waves.

In his film, Long Island looks a lot like Southern California: sunny, warm and blessed with shapely waves. This effect was not easily achieved.

“Usually, the waves were wrong, the weather was bad,” Mr. Beattie said.

Getting to know the locals also took time. When Mr. Beattie informed an old surf buddy of his intent to film some coveted, semi-secret spots in Montauk, he was warned that the reaction might be hostile.

Not true: “I met the new guys little by little, but they were never even not nice,” he said, laughing. The dozens of Long Islanders featured in the film include the young world-class surfers Balaram Stack and T.J. Gumiela, as well as salty veterans like “Pistol” Pete Armata, who has been surfing in Long Island for more than 40 years.

The movie was originally 90 minutes long. But Tyler Breuer, a local surfer and founder of SMASH Productions, which is presenting the festival, convinced Mr. Beattie to cut it in half.

“Tyler said, ‘You want people to come away wanting more,’ ” Mr. Beattie said.

Before leaving Gilgo Beach, Mr. Beattie surveyed the choppy surf and recalled how as a teenager he had dreamed that someone would build an artificial reef off the coast to improve the way the waves broke.

No one did, of course, but he still got plenty of good waves.

“You’d think they’d change over time, with all the storms and new developments,” he said. “But as long as I’ve been coming out here, they still break the same way.”

“A Hundred Miles to the End” has its premiere at the Long Beach Public Library, 111 West Park Avenue, Long Beach, on July 13 at 7 p.m. as part of the inaugural SMASH Fest, a surf film and art festival. Tickets are $ 19 (including service charge). Information: smashsurf.com or (347) 586-9602.

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