Writer Ed Thompson and photographer Julien Roubinet are collaborating on a book documenting surf culture in New York and New Jersey. At the moment, the project is under the working title Ice Cream Headaches, referencing the familiar feeling of brain-freeze when surfing in the depths of winter.
The work explores the culture that surrounds surfing in the often-frigid Atlantic off the shores of New York and New Jersey. The finished book will feature photographs, essays and interviews with forty cultural innovators, from surfers and surfboard shapers to artists, writers and photographers, young and old – people who have built their lives around their love of the ocean.
For Whalebone’s NYC issue, Julien and Ed introduce you to four of the people they’ve met during the making of the book. This week’s feature: Balaram Stack.
As his pro surfing career begins to lift off, Balaram needs less and less introduction, especially to the New Yorkers he proudly represents. But I do know something you don’t know about him. When he’s not dialing in his skills at Pipe, he shares a house in Long Beach with a number of other individuals, including his English bulldog, aptly named Chunk, and a small alligator. When I asked him what his housemates were planning to do when the alligator outgrew its tank, he shrugged: “I don’t know if we’ve thought that far ahead.” A quick Google search revealed that alligators can grow up to 12 inches a year. I’m no scientist, but I would say that a plan need to be formulated in the alligator department in the near to immediate future. Balaram, however, seems unfazed.
Learning to surf, Balaram took after his brothers, sixteen and ten years ahead of him. They bought him his first board when he was seven and he learned fast under their tutelage. Balaram’s mother was also instrumental in the development of his surfing, supporting him however she could.
“I grew up every day at the beach. She took me to all the contests and drove me everywhere to surf. It was a huge part of growing up for me.”
His progress reflected her dedication. “I was winning local amateur events then went to regionals. If you do good at that you go to the Easterns in North Carolina or Florida. Depending on how you do there, you go out to California for the NSSAs. I did that from age fourteen to sixteen.”
We asked him how he managed to keep the momentum going over his younger years competing. “It was never a crazy mentality for me. It was always just ‘we’re going to surf,’ or ‘we’re going to Montauk to surf.’ In the pro juniors and the QS it started to get more serious, and I had to train to keep up.” Balaram still competes occasionally in QS contests, enough to qualify for the Volcom Pipe Pro run by his own headline sponsor, but he now spends more time on trips than competing. “There’s a reward to scoring an 8 in waist-high waves, but there’s a lot more reward to getting 10 second barrels at Cloudbreak,” Balaram mused.
Although he travels extensively to free-surf perfect breaks with a roster of top-notch photographers and videographers, Balaram always makes the effort to come home when there’s a swell, even trading his board shorts for a 5 mil and heavy snow. “This year I flew back three times from Hawaii,” he told us. That’s serious commitment given most swells last three days tops. “The people here are the people I grew up surfing with, so it feels good to come home,” Balaram told us. “Spending time in California and traveling to surf makes me more proud of being from New York.”
Keep up with Bal here, and follow Ice Cream Headaches ongoing story via their Instagram. Stay tuned for another interview next week and if you haven’t already, check out last week’s interview with NYC-based shaper, JW Falcone.