He’s known widely on the East End as “Steve the Surfer” or “The-guy-with-the-red-truck-with-all-that-stuff-in-it.” When you meet him, he’ll introduce himself as “Steven”.
You’ll find Stevie White wherever there’s surf—places like Straight Beach, Beach Lane, Georgica, Terrace, Ditch, Radars, The Ranch, Turtles, Alamo, North Bar—sometimes all in the same day, and always dressed in a distinctive mix of colors, plaids, stripes and layers, which no one else can carry off.
He’s taught countless kids and grown-ups to surf. He’s a tireless talker, storyteller and lover of the moment. He teaches his students to observe and adjust to the surf conditions and to their emotions rather than react. Perhaps that’s the key to surfing.
Do you remember your first wave?
Most surfers, I think, if you ask them about their first wave, get all teary eyed. My first surfboard ride was in Florida in the early sixties; I was about 12. My dad had rented some boards and pushed me in front of a wave. I jumped up, stayed on the board, ran to the nose and rode the wave in.
My dad pushed me on another wave, the nose went under and the board perled, that’s when the point of the board drops into the water and the back of the board flies up, catapulting the surfer off, with a board landing wherever it goes.
I perled about five or six more times and then on the last one, the board snapped back, that-a-way, and cut a big chunk, like a wedge of cheese, out of the coolest guy’s surfboard.
He demanded money–cash–from us on the beach, right on the spot. I’ve never seen that before or since, but we were obviously tourists.
The next time I went out, we rented giant surfboards at Gilgo Beach. I bonked my head on my first ride; it really hurt. I don’t know how many times, exactly, but I bonked my head four or five times in a row, so I just went in to the beach crying and put a towel over my head.
How long ago was that?
I was 12 then, I’m 63 now.
When did you realize that surfing would be a lifelong thing?
If I die tomorrow, it’s been a lifelong thing; 51 years is a long time. I’m still fascinated by “the wave”. I’m fascinated looking at it, surfing it, watching it; it still catches my eye and my imagination. That’s the thing. I like everything about it. I feel good when I do it; I feel good afterwards.
When did you start teaching surfing?
About 20 years ago, a friend asked me to give a woman friend a lesson. I suggested a certain amount of money, and after she came in she said that amount was too little–she paid me more than I asked for. It’s been downhill ever since!
What do you teach your students?
Basically everything. I teach people how to stand up; I teach them how to cover their head on the wipeout. I teach them how to push the board through the wave; how to run to the nose, how to hang ten, hang heels. I teach them how to ride the tube. No one does any of that trickier stuff in their first lesson, by the way.
I always tell each student, “The most important thing I can teach you is to cover your head, and you won’t do it until after you’ve been hit in the head. I want you to be the first person to cover your head before you’re hit.” They look at me like, “What do you mean?” I say, “Well, everybody covers their head after they’ve been hit.”
It sounds like a huge job. Where do you start?
I have a certain beginners’ program I give everybody, but I also watch and see what they’re learning and what kind of person they are and what they can take in. I pick up on who’s visual, who’s oral, and who’s more physical–and I explain what to do differently if they don’t get it the first time.
In the end, it’s judgment that interferes with learning. When people start thinking they’re not doing it “right”, they start being hard on themselves. I tell them, “Don’t be hard on yourself because that takes a lot of energy.”
I can save somebody a lot of time in giving them a surf lesson; they’ll spend months trying to catch a wave on their own, and I can get them 30 or more waves in an hour. I push them into the waves–as soon as they get outside the break, I flip them around and push them into one wave after another so they can get a lot of waves before their energy dies.
In teaching how to catch a wave, I explain how you read the shadows as it’s coming, but you won’t know which one is the right wave until you’ve tried to catch the wrong wave a couple of times. The wave judgment thing is something I can explain to people, but everything in the water is so experiential that you have to experience it, even after it’s been explained it to you.
What sort of reaction do you get from most people when they catch their first wave?
It’s everything from adrenaline to happiness. It’s that thing: you’re paddling and all of a sudden the board gets picked up and now you’re moving, and then you stand up, and you’re doing something you couldn’t do an hour ago. So many things go into getting that experience.
Okay, so how do you surf? What’s the best way to catch a wave?
Very simply, you have to be going the same speed as the wave when it hits you. And that’s true whether you accelerate slowly to catch up to the wave’s speed, or whether you paddle really hard just as the wave catches you.
There is a thing called a “no-paddle-takeoff” where you don’t even paddle to catch the wave. But you really have to be attuned to your board and to the wave; it’s a rare thing to do, but it’s fun when you do it.
A lot of people say they want to try surfing. Do you have any suggestions for them?
You want three things: a surfboard, the right conditions–it’s better when it’s small–and a good friend or a good teacher to help you. If you have all three of those, your chances are better.
Getting to the beach is the most important thing. If you get to the beach, you can play. If you get there and just start talking to people, some people might be nasty, but eventually you’ll find the ones who are helpful.
It’s a little simplistic to say, “Intention is the most important thing”, but if you watch the best surfers in the world when they take off on a wave, they look like they’re going to make it. That “look” reflects their intention.
I make about 90% what I set into, and if I don’t, well, I tried really hard. The great thing about surfing is the person who has the most fun wins. And the other great thing about surfing is most people think it’s them, that they’re the ones having the most fun.
What’s the latest on the Montauk surf scene?
The Army Corps of Engineers wants to pile rocks around the lighthouse and fill in 60 feet of rocks into a surf break we call “Alamo”. So the surfing community in Montauk is trying to do something called “Save Alamo”. We’re hoping to have a website in the next few weeks, and there’s already a Facebook page.
You might recall that The Corps came into the village of Montauk last winter and made a mess of the dunes next to the IGA. They’re not going to do any better at The Point where Alamo is; conditions are a lot rougher there, both along the shoreline and in the surf.
Do you have a favorite site for surf forecasting?
I don’t want to plug any or put any down because none of them are 100% correct. Basically, I just try to make sure I’m not inland when a big swell hits. Still, I do check them all: Surfline, Magic Seaweed, NOAA Weather, Weather Underground. I like this sailing site, SailFlow, where it’s easy to see what’s happening with the wind even though one of the things no one can do very well is forecast the wind. It’s funny; I plan my days around those reports although I know they’re not really “on” and then I’m surprised when they’re “off”.
Is there a place you look forward to surf more than any other?
It’s always the closest spot. From here in Sag Harbor, it’s Straight Beach or Georgica. Which one’s closer?
What are your favorite surf spots?
Secret ones like Malibu, Rincon, Pipeline, Sunset, Ditch, The Point, Rockaway, Long Beach. Basically, anywhere I’ve ever gotten a good wave.
I’ve heard you say you love to surf in Hawaii. What are your favorite spots over there?
The thing about Hawaii is you’ve got Waikiki in the south, the gentlest, longest, breaking wave in the world. And you’ve got Sunset and Pipeline on the North Shore, which are two of the most radical surf spots in the world. The islands are small enough that you can go from to the North to the South shore in an hour or so, so you can surf both spots in one day.
Any final thought you’d like to leave us with?
Just this: I was hooked at the first wave I got in Florida, and I’ve been chasing it ever since.