New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Aug 22, 2013
MONTAUK, N.Y. » Quincy Davis never dreamed of becoming a professional surfer because it was not the sort of thing little girls dreamed about here, even those like Davis, who had the Atlantic as her backyard and a 5-foot, tri-fin thruster as her swing set.
Outside hurricane season when the waves are as good as anywhere on the professional tour, the rides here are usually too short to train on, and there can be long stretches of glassy flatness. And, besides, there was just no precedent for it. The best guys here — and they were mostly guys — surfed for fun. Their fame rarely stretched beyond their home breaks.
Yet there was Davis last Saturday morning, the third-ranked junior surfer in the world, packing her Toyota 4Runner with her stash of short boards and heading to Kennedy Airport from Montauk for a late-day departure to France, where she is competing this week in the Swatch Girls Pro for a spot on the world professional tour.
"I'm just going to go do my best," she said, presenting a laid-back demeanor that could not completely mask the nerves peeking through.
After all, she's embarking upon a mission that may be daunting, but it is well within reach: To become the first New Yorker, male or female, to break into modern competitive surfing's top tier.
There are only 17 slots on the women's world championship tour. As of now only three of those contenders hail from the continental United States; none is from the East Coast.
Davis, 18, with sun-streaked blond hair and a slight build that belies the power behind her style, says that she does not focus on the pressure that goes with carrying such hometown hopes in her board bag.
"It gets me amped up, I guess, more excited," she said sitting outside her brother's acai bar in Montauk, Happy Bowls. Nonetheless, the pressure is there.
In this, her first year out on the qualifying circuit, Davis acknowledged she had been too deferential to competitors. She said she was working to develop a toughness that does not come naturally but that she would need if she is to reach surfing's pinnacle in the three years before she ages out of the Association of Surfing Professionals' junior division. Sometimes, waves must be stolen; ocean etiquette must be forgotten.
That she has even come this far is cause for wonderment in the world she is seeking to conquer.
"All the surfers I knew were from Hawaii and California," said Coco Ho, Davis' best friend on the tour and a member of Hawaii's famous Ho surfing family. Ho is ranked among the top 17. "I was like, 'Where do you surf?'"
New York may see itself as the center of many things, but until quite recently it was considered little more than a travel hub with good restaurants and shopping for those on the professional circuit.
And Davis would not be where she is had it not been for an outpost mentality that motivated her family to carve its own way, prizing resourcefulness over perfect waves, and the beach over the classroom when deemed necessary.
Over the past two decades, they have bound themselves with another Montauk surfing family, the Engstroms. Together they went as far as the Long Island Expressway would take them and then well beyond that, turning their perch on professional surfing's periphery into an unexpected advantage — minting two of the sport's most recognized young stars between them (and two others with their own share of contest wins).
WORK AND SURF
Paulette and Paul Davis moved to Montauk as high school sweethearts in the early 1980s from Brentwood, another Long Island community. Paul Davis had been going to Montauk since childhood. He was drawn there full time for surf and work in the home building trade, Paulette said. Paulette was happy to go along, even if it meant commuting more than two hours to JFK or LaGuardia for her assignments as a flight attendant.
A surfing renaissance was well underway by then. Rick Rasmussen of Westhampton Beach had won the U.S. Surfing Championship contest in 1974 — before the modern circuit started — promising to give New York a real toehold in the professional ranks. But four years later he was charged with cocaine possession in Bali; in 1982 he was killed in Harlem during a drug deal that turned violent. No one from New York would go that far again.
For Paul Davis it was enough to be one of the big names at the family beach, friends said.
"He had a really good backside off-the-lip; really good backside surfer," said John de Sousa Jr., another name at the break, who still runs his family's plumbing business in Montauk.
Their spot was several miles from the main surf destination in town, Ditch Plains, and they established it as their own. Outsiders were not necessarily welcome.
"We kept it for the locals and the kids," de Sousa said.
Paul Davis was not available for an interview.
In the beginning, Paulette Davis would watch from the beach. But, after a couple of years, she noticed an appealing anomaly: A female in the lineup, and a pretty good one at that, Kathleen Engstrom. Engstrom's family owned a motel in town, and she started surfing soon after moving here in fifth grade.
"Paulette was looking for another girl to go surfing with," Engstrom said during an interview at her shop, Montauk T-shirts. In her telling, Davis approached her as a stranger on the beach and, "She said, 'I want to surf with you,' and from that day on, we always surfed together." (Davis said that her recollection was foggier but that she believed Engstrom approached her).
Then, as they started families, their children started surfing too, beginning with the boys, Tyler Davis and Leif Engstrom, followed by Engstrom's twin girls, Ariel and Alexis.
With her mother, brother, and father constantly in the water, little Quincy, four years younger than Tyler, would find herself alone on the beach, bored. Not long after her sixth birthday, her mother gave her an ultimatum: "You can sit on the beach or come with us, come surf," Paulette Davis said.
"She was so little I had to push her on the board," she said. "She looked like a little bird on the wave."
The wave at the Davis' main surf spot is not slow and forgiving like those of the better-known spots; it is a fast-moving, sometimes hollow shore break. When it is at its best it demands speed and agility from those who ride it.
At times "Quincy was scared," said her brother Tyler, an accomplished tube-surfer in his own right. "I always had to get her to go in."
Yet she had some immediate advantages.
"First of all, she's Paul Davis' daughter," Tyler said. "Everyone wanted to see her get waves."
Secondly, she was surfing with the Engstroms, whose mother was bringing them into the competitive circuit at an early age. Kathy had harbored her own competitive dreams but said she gave them up early on, after a surf accident put her into intensive care for four days.
Quincy would tag along with the Engstrom children to contests around the region, finally entering them herself when she was old enough, in second grade.
"And she started winning," Paulette Davis said.
Kathleen Engstrom was a strong-willed parent-coach, and she was intent on keeping anything from getting in the way of her children's athletic development. When Leif, now 24, was in 10th grade, she drove to school to pull him out of class to catch a perfect storm-produced swell.
"The principal walks out and says, 'What are you doing? You can't take him surfing,'" Engstrom said. "I said, 'Yes I can, he's going to be a pro."'
The Engstroms — whose business was seasonal — were already testing the limits of the system. They were taking their children out of school in the winter for prolonged visits to Rincon, Puerto Rico, where they had a second home, allowing them to surf year-round. The Davises followed them there.
"Paulette knew if Quincy was going to be a better surfer, she needed to be in the water more than the other New York kids," said Pat Emery, the coach of the Eastern Surfing Association's all-star team.
HEADED TO PUERTO RICO
The two families split the cost of a full-time tutor who taught the New York state curriculum — a Montauk native, Brittany Thompson — giving the children time to surf between lessons. Morning, noon and late afternoon they could be found at Rincon's main breaks.
When Davis informed the school of this arrangement, it was willing to go along if her coursework was completed.
"School's important, but how do you deny someone that opportunity," said the Montauk School principal, Jack Perna.
Perna understood the town's surf ethos. His family had owned the Pizza Village restaurant in Montauk, and, he said, employees were told, "If surf was up, 'You want to go surfing, that's fine, as long as your shift is covered.'"
Leif Engstrom was developing into one of the surfing's best young aerialists — shooting off the lips of waves and doing skateboarding-style turns high above them — and he constantly goaded Quincy and his sisters along.
"It probably helped her — watching someone that's older — how they set up and do turns," Leif said.
But the Davises decided that if Quincy was going to make a real go of it, she would need a coach in her formative years. They signed on with Martin Dunn, an Australian surf coach, whose services required Davis to move to his hometown, Old Bar, for several months. Her family hired Thompson, the tutor, to go along.
"She needed work on all her basic movements," Dunn said in email. "Bending, twisting, where she was looking, and fundamental decision-making skills."
Dunn had never coached a New York surfer before, but he said "that the most successful surfers don't usually come from famous breaks. Ultimately it is up to the individual how they develop. It's their intrinsic motivation that fuels their drive."
Dunn would send Quincy out to surf while he videotaped from the shore. He pointed out her flaws afterward and sent her right back out.
"It was a lot of the basics," Davis said. "Getting speed, cutbacks, just the foundation of my surfing."
Friends immediately noticed a difference.
"The spray and the power and the style she was putting into her turns was incredible," said Leif Engstrom, who now has an international reputation in the sport, although he has opted for the video and freestyle circuit over the mainstream competitive tour.
More important, Quincy was racking up contest wins and recognition. In 2007, at 12, she surprisingly made the finals of the ASP's East Coast championships in Virginia Beach and eventually earned a berth on the PacSun USA surf team. She won the National Scholastic Surfing Association's Eastern championships in 2009 in Sebastian Inlet, Fla. (Vanity Fair included her that year in its "new female stars of surfing" article. The photo from it hangs in the foyer of the Davis home here).
Quincy was traveling so much that eventually her tutor could not keep up, so she switched to online coursework. (She completed her math credits two years early and she graduated in June.)
All the while she picked up sponsorships with Volcom, where she has her own clothing line, and with other companies that helped her defray costs and put her onto a part-time modeling career, which she now has more time to pursue post-graduation.
"We're only hitting the beginning," her manager, Justine Chiara, said.
Entering the qualifying rounds for the world tour this year, there was little doubt in the greater surf world that she could break into the top 17. But the stakes are higher at that level, the competition fiercer. No one is giving her waves the way her brother, the Engstroms or her parents did.
In one of her first qualifying outings, in Newcastle, Australia, she won her first heat but found herself outmaneuvered in the next round.
"The girls were just paddling around me," she said.
Her first heat in the Swatch Girls Pro is slated for Thursday. It will likely be her last qualifying contest in a season in which she said she was just getting her feet wet. She is ranked 30th overall. Before the first contest of the 2014 season, she said, she will work to get more aggressive in the water.
"It's not something I want to do," she said, "but if the other girls are doing it you have to." But she added, "I'd rather just surf."