Aimlessly scrolling through Yale-related Facebook pages one November afternoon, half-heartedly searching for Yale Daily News story ideas, I came across a graphic of a bulldog balancing on a surfboard. I clicked.
“The Yale Surf Team is a club that organizes surfing trips, lessons, and competitions for participation by all members of the Yale community,” the “About” section read. The page has garnered 171 likes — including four of my Facebook friends — and 174 followers. A grid of photos depicted wetsuit-clad figures on white surfboards, deftly maneuvering across gray waves with their arms extended. One picture, which I had to enlarge, was of a lecture hall. The focal point was a student who, feverishly taking notes in the photo, had propped his navy and cerulean surfboard against the classroom wall.
The most recent post was from April 28, 2017. The caption read “Yew! The boys hit Rhode Island for a successful Saturday strike mission a few weeks back,” followed by a collage of blue-tinted snapshots: the ocean, two cars loaded with surfing gear, a candid moment of a surfer in a wetsuit. Picture credits were given to Mila Dorji ’20.
“Our status as an official organization just kind of lapsed,” Dorji told me in a series of voice memos. “I’m sure at some point in the future, somebody will reinstate it. It’s kind of gone in and out over time.”
Dorji, who is now earning his master’s of public health at Yale, grew up surfing in California. When he came to Yale, he joined the surf team, which was then still formally affiliated with the University. Today, the surf team is a casual group of Yale undergraduates, graduate students and alumni — completely separate from the University — whose most official connection is this Facebook group.
New Haven’s location presents several barriers to surfing, Dorji explained, in contrast to the sunny, surfer-dominated West Coast. Long Island shadows the state’s coastline, preventing swell from reaching southern Connecticut’s shores. The lack of waves forces surf team members to travel southward to Long Island or further east to Rhode Island.
“Mostly, it’s just a great group of people that has evolved over the years — people who feel most comfortable and at home in the ocean,” he said. “It’s a way for them to connect with each other and access that at a place that doesn’t necessarily offer it as easily as some of the places that we come from.”
When the forecast is promising, surf team members wake up at dawn — or, since they’re sleep-deprived students, usually a few hours later — and hop into willing team members’ cars. Having class is a nonissue; most would rather catch a wave than sit through lecture. Two hours of driving brings Yale surfers to a popular surfing location called Matunuck in southeastern Rhode Island. There’s one small surf shop and a few restaurants in the small town nearby, along with a bar or two. Large, towering beach mansions lean over dune vegetation, like sea oats, where the slate gray Atlantic meets gravelly, slightly lighter-gray beach.
“The nature of surfing is such that we would oftentimes make the decision to go in a split second,” Dorji said. “It wasn’t really compatible with Yale’s way of doing things.”
Qualifying as an official Yale organization requires no small amount of work. Even though the University can supply funds to student groups for various activities, such as transportation, the in-the-moment nature of surfing rendered that support moot. Yale’s policies required team leadership to schedule transportation in advance and mediate liability concerns well before each “practice.”
It came down to the fact that if the Yale surf team was incorporated as an official student organization, they would have to deal with more restrictions. To team members, the hoops they had to jump through to maintain official status ultimately provided few benefits.
There was a way to surf on campus when the team was official, the Facebook page revealed. All one needed was a giant blue tarp and a skateboard for “tarp surfing.” Participants rolled on a skateboard across the tarp while others lifted it, simulating an ocean wave in the middle of Cross Campus. Professors, heads of college and other students would stop to shred artificial gnar.
For now, Dorji has taken the helm of the unofficial surf team and primarily oversees the team’s Facebook page. He fields messages from misguided Connecticut mothers who think the team might be able to offer their children surf lessons. “That’s not a service we actually provide,” Dorji finds himself explaining in response.
Instead, the informal group is composed of already-experienced surfers, like Tasman Rosenfeld ’23. This will be his first season of winter surfing in New England. He grew up surfing in Florida, where the sugar-like sand glows white and the waves are actually blue, but has since persuaded himself to venture into the cold Atlantic waters.
“There isn’t a more radically different experience from being in the Yale bubble than just diving into the cold Atlantic and surfing,” he told me. “It’s the ultimate way to break away from the stress and pressure and everything else that comes along with Yale.”
After arriving at Matunuck, attendees typically start a “session” — surf lingo for an uninterrupted break of surfing — that usually lasts until lunchtime. Spent from the morning session, Yale surfers feast on either previously-packed snacks or dine at a local food joint. Then it is immediately back into the ocean, often until the sun sets or the surfers are too wiped out to keep paddling. As dark settles over the waves, the students remember their assignments, classes and other obligations and reluctantly retreat to the Elm City.
The frigid temperatures require Rosenfeld to don a thick, heavy wetsuit lined with neoprene, thinner at the joints, with a hood. Next are gloves and booties so that every part of his body — except his face — is covered. One day, a kook — surfer language for an inexperienced, unaware novice — at Matunuck let go of his board in the water, rather than holding onto it or ducking under the incoming waves, while Rosenfeld was preparing for the next swell. The fin of the kook’s board clipped him in his exposed face and he started bleeding. Luckily, his teammates were there to administer first aid and, after the fact, laugh.
“I haven’t had a group to surf with since I graduated high school because I’ve been moving around, and your clique as a surfer is a really important aspect of the whole experience,” Rosenfeld said. “Finding that here at Yale has been really special. I have this group of really close friends here to go out with, joke around with and who yell when I catch a sick wave. … There’s so much stoke in that.”
The surf team’s looser structure in recent years has made room for members to try other outdoor activities. When the surf is flat, the team might opt for a day of rock climbing. Sometimes members embark on weekend camping expeditions. The team tends to attract outdoor-inclined Yalies who want to connect with others and pursue many activities in a “decentralized way,” according to Dorji.
One of the team’s proudest traditions is that of the honorary Yale surf team surfboard. According to Rosenfeld, “it’s one of the worst surfboards on the planet.” The board is so waterlogged after years of use that it barely floats. Thinly scrawled on the bottom side in black Sharpie are the words “Yale Surf Team,” which often draws the gazes of fellow beach-goers.
Margot Lee ’24 asked the question likely on the minds of everyone who catches a glance of that old surfboard or stumbles across the group’s Facebook page: “Yale has a surf team?”
The answer seems to be no — officially — but also yes. There is the Facebook page, after all, and there are shared car rides, communal surfing gear and countless stories. If you ask Dorji, “We’re just a group of people that like to go and surf together.”