As Cassidy McClain zipped up her wetsuit and squeezed her feet into her booties, a familiar sense overcame her.
She lifted her surfboard out of her Hyundai Sonata on May 16 and looked toward the Ventnor pier, the cool sea breeze flowing through her short, sunkissed hair.
She knew this place. This beach was her home, where she found her balance and won a few surfing competitions. But McClain, who grew up in Ventnor and graduated from Atlantic City High School in 2013, hadn’t visited in more than a month, since the coronavirus closed the city’s beaches and barred all activities, including surfing. That Saturday brought the first decent waves since Ventnor officials said surfing could resume May 13, and the ocean was calling.
It was 7 a.m. as McClain padded down the wooden walkway. The morning sun shone through the clouds, sending orange, gray, and blue streaks across the sky, the Atlantic City Ferris wheel peeking through the hazy horizon. She sank into the sand as she walked toward the shoreline, each step pulling her closer to home. When that first incoming wave rushed across her feet, she stopped and smiled.
After 45 days without surfing — the longest this 24-year-old professional surfer had gone without the sport since she started at age 9 — she was back.
The first plunge felt euphoric. As she gripped her surfboard and took her first duck dive beneath a wave, the ice cold water was electrifying, sending goose bumps across her skin and recharging her almost instantly. Her face breached through the surface, and for the first time in weeks, she could breath again.
“It’s a rush that goes through your whole body,” said McClain. “This is my deep breath.”
The waves weren’t great, but McClain, a Ventnor native, didn’t care. The breaks were short and barely rideable, so she had to be fast. One second she was up on her board, twisting in the air on top of the wave. The next, she was down in the water, jumping back on and paddling out on the hunt for the next ride.
“It felt different,” she said after emerging from her first 45-minute surf. “I was a little rusty at first, but then it just felt so good.”
McClain, who was named the New Jersey Female Surfer of the Year in 2018, surfs year round — she said snow storms give the best swells — and travels to places like Australia, Puerto Rico and Barbados to compete and judge competitions. She’s usually only in Ventnor for a few months at a time. But the World Surf League canceled all competitions through June and she returned from Puerto Rico at the end of March, likely for a while.
When she found out the pier was closing, she was shocked.
“It was definitely the right call, because there are so many unknowns with the coronavirus,” she said, “But at the same time, you’re taking away something that people use to help with their mental health.”
McClain’s return to the water came after residents pushed Ventnor officials to lift the surf ban, an initiative led by Lou Solomon, a 68-year-old Absecon Island native and Ventnor surfer of 55 years.
Solomon reached out to city officials two weeks ago to make his case about surfing, stressing that other towns, like Margate and Atlantic City, have allowed it. Plus, he said, it’s a sport of constant movement and surfers are territorial, staying away from each other to catch their own waves, which makes social distancing natural.
The city lifted the ban May 13. There are still some restrictions — no waxing boards or changing into wetsuits on the beach — but, as Solomon put it, “you’ve gotta start somewhere.”
Solomon said he surfed at other towns a few times during the Ventnor shutdown, but it wasn’t the same. McClain chose not to, worried about the increased number of surfers being pushed to those areas.
“When you live in Ventnor you wanna surf in Ventnor,” Solomon said.
“Like the Beach Boys say: Catch a wave, and you’re sitting on top of the world,” he said. “It’s the highest high when you get a good wave. I feel like a kid again.”
Managing the stress of the coronavirus without their outlet was tough. Virtual yoga classes at the Zen Den kept McClain centered.
“I’m not myself when I’m not in the water,” she said. “I crave the ocean and I can’t function without it.”
Another Ventnor surfer, Joel Smiler, said no other mental release compares.
“There’s more to it than just grabbing a board and surfing,” said Smiler, 58, a Delaware County resident with a condo in Ventnor. “It becomes mind over matter and body.”
“There is nothing else to think about other than that wave,” he said.
As McClain emerged from the ocean and peeled back her wetsuit hood, a smile stretched across her face.
“You have to experience to understand,” she said. “I just really missed it.”