Joseph Rocco, the only Long Islander to die as a result of Tropical Storm Irene, was a friend and mentor to many in the local windsurfing scene, said those who knew him.

Rocco, 68, of East Islip drowned Sunday in Bellport Bay while riding the post-storm gusts, Suffolk police said. Friends believe he hit some difficult-to-see debris and couldn't recover. He was taken Sunday to Brookhaven Memorial Hospital Medical Center in East Patchogue, where he was pronounced dead, Suffolk police said.

"He was always helping people," said Irene Abramson, owner of the house where Rocco lived with his girlfriend. "He had such a big heart."

Abramson declined to name the girlfriend, who was not home Monday.

Rocco was a retired contractor. Those in the tight-knit windsurfing community, who often gathered near Heckscher State Park's Field 7, knew him for years, Abramson said.

"I knew him from windsurfing for about 20 years," she said. When he needed a place to stay about eight years ago, she said she had him move in.

"He was selling his house," she said. "He was going to move."

But he was happy in East Islip, just minutes from Heckscher, and never left.

Abramson said Rocco had two sisters, whom she was trying to locate, but she did not know where they are.

Rocco enjoyed writing and had an interest in science and technology, she said, and also was an expert snow skier.

"He was in great shape," she said. "Nobody knew how old he was."

On Sunday, Rocco likely knew that Heckscher was closed, so he and some friends piled their gear into his minivan, adorned with a license plate frame that reads "I'd Rather Be Windsurfing."

They drove 23 miles east to Smith's Landing, a small park at the end of West Parkview Drive on the east side of the bay in Shirley.

About 4 p.m., police said, with powerful post-storm winds, Rocco rode the waves for the last time.