Ben Gravy, 34, of Ventnor, is one of the coolest locals you'll meet down the shore. You might have seen him on YouTube, where his "novelty surfing" has attracted hundreds of thousands of followers. Ben's surfed all 50 states, the wake of the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, every Jersey Shore town in one day, and three coasts (New Jersey, California and Hawaii) in one very long day. Sponsored by Red Bull, he likes to think of himself as "semipro."
He's also got an amazing sobriety story, detailed in a documentary, "For the Dream." When he got thrown out of Maynard's in Margate after an argument with the bartender, he asked himself while walking out, "Am I that really that dude?"
Here's an excerpt of a recent conversation with the exuberant Gravy, just back from Alaska, where he'd surfed waves formed from a calving glacier, no big deal. He's planning for some more global adventures and the Red Bull Foam Wreckers anti-surf surf contest in Margate on June 24.
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So you really live in Ventnor.
My mom's family is from Longport. I was born in Pennsylvania. We moved down here when I was still in middle school. I was homeschooled. I was on the United States Surf Team. I originally tried to become a professional surfer via the traditional way. I fell out of it.
YouTube was the reason I got back into surfing. I quit competitive surfing when I was 19. I ended up going to film school.
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It was after you got sober, on Christmas Day 2015, that your surfing career exploded.
I had a spiritual awakening. I started making the YouTube videos to help me stay sober. Surfing was reintroduced to my life. I had a lot of time on my hands. I wasn't partying. I was just living my life. I surfed every day.
I became the novelty guy. I think I popularized it.
I was surfing the bay, when the waves got big enough to wrap around the island. My big breakthrough performance was when I surfed the Cape May ferry. It puts out a little wake behind it, so I did that. Emotionally, it was something that I felt like was impossible but I did it.
You described the day you surfed every New Jersey beach town as the "gnarliest" day of your life. You've surfed all over world; what can you say about Jersey surfing?
I really love New Jersey. My grandparents are still in Longport. My dad's back and forth in Pennsylvania. My brothers live here. All my friends. This whole surfing career, it was such a late bloom in my life. I wasn't a "professional surfer" until I was 30 years old. I look at myself as a very normal person who still happens to do this.
I was in Alaska last week. I have content for probably a week or two. I'm in Margate right now preparing a summer rental, doing a dryer installation.
I would say that Jersey is a lot more of a beautiful place than people give it credit for. There's a lot of unique beaches. Going from Cape May to Asbury is definitely a different vibe. You're able to ride a wave here more often than you think.
How do you steer clear of the drinking culture at the shore? It seems so ingrained.
I'm completely not involved at all. I don't go out at all, I go to sleep early, I surf almost every day. I'm focusing on being physically fit. There's so much going on with me. Most of my friends drink. They go out, they live their lives. It's just not for me.
How did you get the idea to surf three coasts in one day?
My initial thought was, we're going to Hawaii, we're stopping in L.A. anyway, what if I just caught a wave there? Then I realized, with a couple extra hours of light, I could pull it off. I told a couple people about it, they said, "That's impossible. That's not even an idea." When I finally realized that technically I could do it, we figured it out.
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What advice or insight do you have into the Jersey Shore that people need to hear?
Obviously it's home for me. When I come back from a long trip, I feel so relieved. Especially this time of year, it's beautiful out, pretty empty still. The water has been crystal clear blue.
I think if you get it, you get it. If you understand it, you understand it. If I could just hang out in New Jersey all the time with my wife and my dog [Dennis], I'd be the happiest guy ever. There's no better feeling for me than surfing in September or October in New Jersey during hurricane season when it's still warm out.
Your following has transcended surfing.
My message goes beyond surfing. What I'm saying is, if you want to do something, you can do it. In the documentary, I'm surfing the 50 states: river surfing, Great Lakes. It reached a lot of people outside of traditional surfing. No one had ever known you could surf in Iowa.
For me, my sobriety was the catalyst that allowed me to think outside the box. When I was drinking all the time, I was not thinking about how I was going to change the world.
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