Riding Ventnor waves to become a pro shortboard surfer

Cassidy McClain, on the beach under the Ventnor Pier.
Cassidy McClain, on the beach under the Ventnor Pier. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 01, 2014

Most mornings, Cassidy McClain, 18, can be seen barefoot on her skateboard, dog jogging beside her, headed for the Ventnor Pier to scope out the waves. But it is on her surfboard that McClain is making a name for herself.

She has been surfing since age 9 - her mother made her wait until she was old enough to carry the surfboard herself. A 2013 graduate of Atlantic City High School, she recently won the open short-board division at the Eastern Surfing Association's Northeast Regional Surfing Championships and is working her way up in the world of professional surfing, from her home base of New Jersey.

Her mother, Christine Sagnis, nearly always on the beach watching, still keeps the same rule. "She still does not, to this day, carry my surfboards," says McClain. "It's all me."

Question: People are sometimes surprised to hear there is this large surfing community in New Jersey. Can you really surf these waves?

McClain: When I travel to places like Costa Rica and California, I'm like, oh, I'm from New Jersey, and they're all like, really? There's waves in New Jersey? And I'm like, yea, check out Dark Fall, the movie. Check out videos of the guys like Sam Hammer. We get really good surf, especially in the wintertime. This past winter, it was just bombing surf, like all barrels, it's so sick. The waves get really good here, not so much in the summertime, but in the wintertime, it goes off. It's kind of cold, but the best part is, no crowds.

Q.: So has surfing those waves toughened you up?

McClain: I think it's made me a better surfer because, when I go away, I'm more thankful of surfing actual waves. When I was in Costa Rica the other day, it was maybe waist high. Everyone else was so bummed because it was small. I'm like, hey, whatever, I'm not in a wet suit. I'm out here.

It really comes in handy, especially like when you're surfing against kids from California, and it's small surf. Because I surf that every day here, it's really no problem for me.

Q.: What is it like being a female in the world of competitive surfing? Is that still a thing?

McClain: I think girls are kind of creeping up on the guys in surfing. I compete in a lot of boys' divisions, and I actually do really well. I won the Northeast Regional Free Shortboard. I beat all the guys. I think that girls are almost on the same level as some guys, if not better. I made history again by winning again, the first girl ever winning it. It's kind of funny because everybody says I surf like a guy. I guess it's kind of true. I turn a little harder than most girls, and I can take out a bunch of guys in competition. That's speaking volumes. I go full out in my turns. I think surfing with guys all these years has really pushed my level of surfing.

Q.: What is the scariest place you've ever surfed?

McClain: I have to say New Smyrna Beach in Florida [where the National Scholastic Surfing Association East Coast Championships were held in early April], because there's so many sharks. One day, I saw eight spinner sharks jump out of the water. And then one jumped out of the water like 15 feet away from me. It was just so scary. I just walked on water to get out. But then wave-wise, I think Barbados, surfing Soup Bowl. That's the heaviest waves I've ever surfed in the world. I took some nasty beatings. I was there for a contest, and I tried to just suck it up and take these massive drops, but I was just so scared of wiping out and being hauled under.

Q.: Hurricane Sandy must have been scary in a different way.

McClain: We stayed during the storm. Lucky for us, the eye of the storm came over us for like 10 minutes, and during that time, we built like a barricade. We sandbagged our front door. We blocked off the crawl space. We ended up with maybe one or two inches of water in our house, whereas our neighbors got five to six inches.

It was so surreal, really eerie. I know the ocean is very powerful. This just reestablishes my feeling: Don't mess with the ocean.

Q.: How long can surfing be your life?

McClain: I'm going to surf the rest of my life. It's something you cannot take away from me. Right now, I'm trying to make a career out of it, traveling all over, doing contests, competing against some of the top girls in the U.S. I'm hoping to take it to the next level in the junior ASP [Association of Surfing Professionals] contests, the next step to trying to get on the pro-circuit tour. So we'll see where that takes me. I'm going to push myself to a higher level of surfing.

Q.: I assume you're done with New Smyrna Beach, Fla.?

McClain: The shark bite capital of the U.S.! The kid who got bit on his leg, he actually paddled back out, told his fellow competitors to get out of the water. He caught a wave, surfed in, got the score he needed, and then just collapsed in shock on the beach.

I vowed when I was down there to never go back there again, but I tied for first place, and they had to go back to our first wave, and her score was higher than mine. So I came in second. So I want to go back and win that East Coast title. I want that so bad. What if I didn't try to do this? I have to try.


Interview has been condensed and edited.

arosenberg@phillynews.com

609-823-0453

@amysrosenberg

www.inquirer.com/

Downashore

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