For decades, these mostly retired men have been meeting weekly to share their passion of surf kayaking on the East End.  Credit: Randee Daddona

Bobbing up and down in waves that sparkle in the morning sun, the Boys of Late Summer — as they don’t mind being called — look like mechanical toys, as if an unseen hand wound them up on the beach and then let them go, chugging off into the Atlantic. That’s how seemingly effortless and smooth their machinations are, their paddles windmilling over the waves breaking across Ponquogue Beach in Hampton Bays.

From left, Herb Arbeiter, 72, John Guido, 63, and Peter...

From left, Herb Arbeiter, 72, John Guido, 63, and Peter Schaller, 64, all of Hampton Bays, Bill Parry, 61, of Westhampton, and Richie Guerrero, 51, of Huntington, gather at Ponquogue Beach in Hampton Bays. Credit: Randee Daddona

Standing on shore, Herb Arbeiter smiles as he watches. Nicknamed The Big Kahuna (because of both his 6-foot-2 frame and fondness for big waves), Arbeiter has remained on the beach to help interpret for a visitor just what’s going on out there, about a hundred yards offshore. But he’s eager to join his buddies in rolling surf.

“Riding a wave is just so exhilarating,” he says. “There’s nothing like it.”

Especially when you’re doing it while ensconced in a surf kayak, a modern version of the watercraft first used by people who lived far from the picturesque shores of the Hamptons — and long ago. The history of kayaking begins in the Arctic, where Inuit hunters used the small but nimble craft as far back as 2,000 years ago. According to Pamela S. Dillon and Jeremy Oyen in their book, “Kayaking: Outdoor Adventures” (Human Kinetics, 2008), they were originally made of wooden frames covered with sealskin. A hole in the middle provided a perch for the hunter as he navigated northern ocean waters, using something resembling a wide stick to steer.

“It’s a great workout,” says Bill Parry, a former college...

“It’s a great workout,” says Bill Parry, a former college football player and retired Westhampton Beach High School coach.  Credit: Randee Daddona

Of course, the sport of kayaking has evolved into something far broader. A 2019 report by the Outdoor Foundation found that 22.9 million Americans (or about 7.6% of the population), participated in at least one form of paddle sport, kayaking being the fastest growing segment.

But there are many types of kayaking. The form that gets Arbeiter and his friends into the water is different from the experience one might enjoy while, say, gliding down a river, getting close to nature. Although the Boys of Late Summer appreciate the outdoors, tranquility is not the main attraction.

‘That’s inspiring!’

Desider Rothe, 85, of Eastport, says, “I’ve been out here when it’s...

Desider Rothe, 85, of Eastport, says, “I’ve been out here when it’s 10 degrees.” Credit: Randee Daddona

Surf kayaking is less about placid waters than roiling waves. Indeed, these coastal kayakers seem closer in spirit and attitude to surfers, a fact that Arbeiter, 72, revels in.

Growing up in Ridgewood and, later, Middle Village, Queens, he said, “I started body surfing at Rockaway Beach, and then got into Boogie boarding. I wanted to surf, but never had the nerve to do it, or the friends who could show me how.”

When he bought a summer house in Hampton Bays, the now-retired engineer heard about a group that used kayaks specifically designed to ride the surf. Surfing while sitting down? That sounded interesting. So, one morning in the winter of 1988, he ventured out to this Town of Southampton beach on Dune Road just east of the Ponquogue Bridge. “I froze my butt off watching these guys,” he recalls, chuckling. “But I went out and bought a surf kayak.”

The group has expanded over the years and now consists of about a half dozen men, most of them 60 or older, who live or have summer residences on the East End — and who seem to enjoy one another’s company as much as they do the breakers that drew them together.

“When you’re riding the waves, you’re not thinking about life’s...

“When you’re riding the waves, you’re not thinking about life’s problems,” says Peter Schaller. Credit: Randee Daddona

“They’re just a great bunch of guys,” says Pete Wenner, 64, a surfer originally from East Patchogue who now lives in Cocoa Beach, Florida. “I really admire them.” Wenner has stopped by Ponquogue to see his kayaking friends on this early November morning while visiting Long Island. “They’re out here pretty much year-round. That’s inspiring!”

Because it’s west of Shinnecock Bay Inlet and near a sandbar offshore, Ponquogue is known for its superior waves that, on this day, roll in clean lines of white foam about 50 yards offshore. In the waters off Ponquogue, the Boys of Late Summer are navigating the breakers, using their compact sea kayaks and paddling skills to catch the intersection of waves created by the waters rushing out of the inlet colliding with the sandbar.

They call this convergence of forward and horizontally moving waves “the vortex.”

“A kayak can get into that vortex and get shot out like a cannon,” says Arbeiter.

“Every wave is different,” agrees his fellow surf kayaker John Guido, 63. “Bigger, smaller, steeper. And every one is a challenge.”

Guido, who like Arbeiter has a home in Hampton Bays, has been kayaking out here for over 20 years. And it’s not just the love of waves, or the challenge of learning to keep the craft stable and positioning it just right to ride them, that keeps him coming out. “We see wonderful things out here,” says Guido. “Dolphins, whales, seals.”

People, not so much. Although a social group of guys — they typically end their early morning paddles with breakfast at Hampton Bays Bagel — their existence remains a bit of a secret, even in high summer, when Ponquogue is filled with beachgoers. The kayakers arrive at dawn. “We’re usually leaving when the parking lot is just filling up,” says Guido. “We’re not known because we’re not really observed. We like it that way.”

Rolling with the surf

The friends meet up for surf kayaking at Ponquogue Beach...

The friends meet up for surf kayaking at Ponquogue Beach in Hampton Bays. Credit: Randee Daddona

Not that they aren’t proud of their kayaks and happy to show them off: The kind of high-performance surf kayaks the Boys use are built with composites of fiberglass, carbon fiber and Kevlar. And, underscoring the connection between surfers and surf kayakers, Paddling Magazine notes that “much like a surfboard, a surf kayak can be shaped to incorporate various hull, nose and tail designs.”

The best of these kayaks are not cheap: Arbeiter’s was $2,500. At 30 pounds and 7½ feet long, it’s slightly heavier and longer than typical surf kayaks (extra weight is needed to keep the Big Kahuna from capsizing out there). But all of these wave-riding craft share the traits of agility and maneuverability.

Despite that, “there are days when it’s a little scary,” admits Bill Parry, 61, of Westhampton. Parry, who knew some of the Boys socially before getting involved with the sport, claims that “these guys talked me into” kayaking. A former college football player who went on to coach Westhampton Beach High School to a Suffolk County Championship in 2017, he appreciates the athleticism of his new sport. “It’s a great workout,” he says.

And like football, it’s not without its risks: Flipping is an occupational hazard for the sea kayaker. While the Boys are adept at performing the so-called “kayak roll” — basically, using paddle and muscle to spin a capsized kayak back to an upright position — even with this experienced group, accidents can happen. Earlier this year, Guido says, “I was going over and collided with Herb’s boat. Herb broke his hand.”

The best thing to come out of that mishap, as far as the group was concerned, was a new nickname. “I’ve been ‘The Crusher’ ever since,” says Guido with a chuckle. (An improvement on his previous moniker, the Italian Meatball, Guido says.)

The adrenaline rush is certainly part of the attraction — but so is the opportunity to escape land-bound reality. “Being out there gives you a little peace of mind,” says Peter Schaller, a member of the group who has been kayaking these waters since the 1980s. “When you’re riding the waves, you’re not thinking about life’s problems.”

And this group is out there, almost year-round. With the onset of winter, however, most of the Boys of Late Summer will hang up their paddles sometime this month for the season.

Most, but not all.

Desider Rothe — at 85, the senior member of the group — says he kayaks here all year long. “I come every day, all year-round,” said the retired physician. “I’ve been out here when it’s 10 degrees.”

“He’s crazy,” says Arbeiter, laughing.

“I am crazy,” responds Rothe with a wink, before sinking into the cockpit of his kayak and pushing himself off the beach and into the water. “I love it!” he calls out, as he paddles toward the sun-sparkled waves.

Desider Rothe, 85, meets the water where it is, no...

Desider Rothe, 85, meets the water where it is, no matter how cold.   Credit: Randee Daddona

Find out more 

Richie Guerrero at Ponquogue Beach in Hampton Bays.

Richie Guerrero at Ponquogue Beach in Hampton Bays. Credit: Randee Daddona

•See more at facebook.com/groups/surfkayakwaveskiusa, where Hampton Bays surf kayaker Richie Guerrero shares photos and posts.

•For surf kayaking basics and a guide to buying a surf kayak, visit gokayaknow.com/the-basics-of-surf-kayaking and paddlingmag.com/boats/kayaks/surf-kayak.