Skudin, who grew up in a surfing family in Long Beach and started riding big waves at 16, is considered one of the best East Coast big-wave surfers ever. “He puts in so much time and work, and he’s very focused,” said renowned big-wave surfer Garrett McNamara, a friend of Skudin’s who is best known for setting a world record for the largest wave ever surfed — a 78-footer — in Nazaré, Portugal, in 2011. “I would imagine this is a huge honor for him. It’s an amazing feeling when what you’ve been training for is validated by your peers. … [P]eople will definitely take surfers from New York more seriously.”
Will and his brother, Cliff, 31, are well-known locally: When they’re not home in Long Beach during the summer months, teaching children and adults with special needs to surf through their nonprofit organization Surf for All, or operating the Skudin Surf school, the brothers chase big waves around the world.
Will is currently taking part in the 2014 Big Wave World Tour, which runs from January to March 31. As the Herald went to press this week, he and his brother were in Hawaii, and Will is on the invitation list for the Todos Santos Big Wave contest off the coast of Mexico, home to some of the biggest waves on the planet, known as “killers,” which can reach 60 feet. He has been an alternate for the contest in the past, but this year he moved up to the field of 24 competitors. “I was over the moon when my name was on that list,” he said.
Cliff, meanwhile, is an alternate in the contest and is also working his way up professionally.
Will said that as a New York surfer, he feels the need to work harder to be competitive against pro surfers who grew up in regions with big waves. “I grew up in a surfing community, but at the end of the day, the more big waves you catch, the better you are,” he said. “We come out to Hawaii every year for training — it’s like a training ground for big-wave surfing … I have to compete against some good, raw-talented surfers, and for me, if I don’t dot all my i’s and cross all my t’s, I won’t have the opportunity to even compete against these guys.”
Catching a handful of good waves can mean spending hours in the water, and as Skudin describes it, in the moments before he commits to a wave, he doesn’t think about the possibility of being sucked down 70 feet after a wipeout, as happened in Todos Santos in 2007, where he nearly died and almost gave up big-wave surfing altogether. He emphasizes the spiritual connection he has with surfing — and staying 100 percent focused in the water.
“When prayers get answered, it’s not a coincidence for me,” he said. “If you talk to anyone that had a near-death experience in life, it’s brought you closer — one way or another — to God. You realize how precious life is, and on a yearly basis I’m in a life-or-death situation. If there’s one thing about big-wave surfing, it’s going to keep you humble.”
Skudin has become a well-known big-wave surfer at a time when New York surfing — especially Long Beach, which hosted the Quiksilver Pro New York in 2011 — has attracted international attention. “There’s no doubt that there has been a greater acceptance of New York surfing … especially with Quiksilver coming into town,” he said. “The mainstream media has picked up on it and there’s more attention to the sport now, and that brings more eyes and shows the Big Wave World Tour that somebody from this area of the world can earn a slot as one of the top 24 guys in the world.”
And sometimes this area of the world can generate some life-threatening surf of its own — like it did during Hurricane Sandy, which damaged Skudin’s home. The local surfing community banded together after the storm, and Skudin helped friends and family members rebuild. Through the three organizations he has cofounded — Skudin Surf Camps, NYSEA and Surf for All — he also helped raise more than $100,000 for Long Beach’s Martin Luther King Center, the West School and other community centers.
“We knew we could get the surf community behind the rebuilding of our hometown,” he said.