Every morning at 5:30, Lou Harris heads to the beach for pushups, situps and a quick check on the surf conditions. The 49-year-old skateboarder turned surfer is the founder of the East Coast chapter of the Black Surfing Association (BSA), an organization founded in California in 1974 by Tony Corley to provide unity and community for Black surfers in the predominantly white sport. In 2016, Lou launched the East Coast chapter in Rockaway Beach, N.Y., a surf community in Queens that juts into the Atlantic Ocean.
Lou moved to Rockaway Beach 15 years ago and instantly became infatuated with surfing. One day as he watched the news, Lou saw a story about Marcell Dockery, a Brooklyn teenager who, out of boredom, set fire to a mattress in the hallway of his apartment building, sparking a large fire that killed a police officer. Lou was shocked and decided he would provide an outlet for kids in Rockaway to be productive, active and healthy.
So he started the East Coast chapter of the BSA to provide free surfing, skateboarding, swimming and cooking lessons for kids who otherwise would not have had access to these activities. To Lou, it’s all about keeping kids busy and active in Rockaway and to educate them about their environment.
“If you live here, you should know the drop offs and how to get out of a riptide,” he says. “This is your backyard.”
“Getting out there is really hard. The waves are huge and if you can’t find a good one, it will nosedive you,” exclaims 11-year-old Bayan Mossallam. “It’s amazing with these ginormous waves.”
The kids learn about ocean conservation, and Lou teaches them to clean up the water by sticking garbage up their wetsuit sleeves when they see it float by. BSA also gives away free surfboards, wetsuits, skate shoes and more, to kids who attend frequently — equipment that is donated by community members and companies (the nonprofit is sponsored by Vans, Red Bull and Sticky Bumps Surf Wax). And for the past five years, Lou worked an overnight job as a doorman on the Upper East Side, taking the long commute back to Rockaway in the morning and immediately jumping in the water with his kids.
On any given day, you can find Lou out in the water with 10-15 kids, and he has taught and mentored more than 200 over the past five years. Lou does not discriminate in who he teaches — although the organization is called the Black Surfing Association, he’ll teach any kid who shows up. They come from varied backgrounds, many from broken families, and many of them have autism or cerebral palsy.
“They really inspire me,” says Lou.
For Lou, the ocean is also therapeutic. When his younger brother died at 26 from a highly aggressive cancer, he turned to surfing for respite.
“I remember I was sitting out there in the water on 122nd St,” Lou says. “What gave me serenity was the water. You forget yourself. You forget any bills, divorce, abuse, beatings. When you’re out on the water, it’s all about you catching waves, looking out for yourself, and for your fellow surfers.”
In May of 2020, as the nation reeled after the murder of George Floyd, Lou organized a paddle-out. Paddle-outs are traditional Hawaiian memorial tributes for someone who has passed where surfers paddle into the ocean with flowers in their teeth, form a circle, splash and throw flowers into the water. Nearly 400 surfers gathered for the paddle-out at Rockaway Beach, and Lou led four more paddle-outs protesting police violence that summer.
“Surfing is all about opportunity,” says Lou. In eight years, he says, the eight year olds he teaches could be in the Olympics. “This gives you hope in the future,” he says with an indefatigable smile. “It’s a beautiful thing for these kids to be here.”