Many people see surfing as a masculine and aggressive sport. Benny’s Club is a community-based surfing collective in New York City that welcomes all folks who love the ocean. It provides an inclusive place especially for people of color and queers — groups who are often overlooked in the surf scene.
In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower. — Audre Lorde
“Benny the sheep is supposed to be a black sheep,” said Momo Hude, one of the founders of Benny’s Club, on Saturdays New York City magazine last year. “… He doesn’t fit in, but he does his own thing … and we’re the black sheep of surfing.” “Benny” is the surf slang for a non-local. Growing up in New York as a person of color, Momo has always found getting into the water intimidating, because other surfers are mainly straight white guys. “I don’t see anyone like me. I don’t feel comfortably being in a place like that,” said Momo, discussing their anxiety on the Swell Season podcast in 2020.
Johnny Cappetta is the other founder of Benny’s Club, who identifies as non-binary gender fluid. They started surfing as a teenager in San Diego and moved to New York several years ago. On the same podcast, Johnny described the surf culture they grew up with as a masculine and aggressive “rip” culture: “If you want to get any waves, you need to fight for them … There’s a big vibe thing that you are either in or you are out.”
Such a culture can be frustrating for someone new to surfing or who simply doesn’t enjoy surfing competitively. But Momo and Johnny found their own way to change the tide. Located in New York City, Benny’s Club is a community-based surfing collective that welcomes all folks who love the ocean. It provides an inclusive place especially for people of color (POC) and queers—groups who are often overlooked in the surf scene.
Benny’s Club is here to make real connections. Besides the weekend surf meetups and beach cleanups, it also organizes occasional movie screenings with surfing, queer, or POC themes. It often collaborates with other local organizations and businesses, such as Brown Girl Surf, The Laru Beya Collective, and Rockaway Film Fest. Benny’s Club events are free and open to the public, which is especially meaningful when there are so many public housing projects right next to the beach. The free events provide an option for people who haven’t had a chance to try surfing, either because of budget or a lack of company. They know there’s someone there in and out of the water. The club invites everyone to look inside of themselves, support each other, and connect with the land, the ocean, and history.
The Bennies are drawing their lines towards a more inclusive and diverse surf culture. By coming out in the lineup, they expand the definition of what surfers should be like and what surfing should be like. When people come to the seaside, they bring their social culture with them without questioning it. The sign “locals only” claims the ownership of the sea, but does the sea really belong to anyone? Some surfers are used to fighting for waves, but how many waves do they have to catch before they feel happy? Is surfing merely a wave-riding competition and are people supposed to feel bad if they lose the game? Can they share the excitement when their friend catches a wave and glides a long way to the shore?
What Audre Lorde wrote 50 years ago still holds true: “In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower.” In other words, differences don’t always lead to division and conflict; they can be forces for change. If you wish for change to happen, don’t just wait, but be the change you want to see.