Saturdays NYC: First off, what's a benny?
Momo Hudes: So a benny is anyone who isn't a local and, in terms of surfing, is usually someone who isn't a straight white man, just because that’s what is usually seen in surf culture and media. So for me, a benny is just anyone who doesn't fit into that. I found the term through trying to come up with a name for this club that I wanted to start and also just trying to integrate some sort of queer terminology.
SNYC: How did you each get into surfing?
Johnny Cappetta: I got into surfing just living in Southern California. Surfing is kind of everywhere, and I was just a water kid. I loved being in the ocean and eventually you're like, “That looks super fun, getting on waves.” So I was just kind of around it all the time and ended up trying to do it.
MH: I got into surfing through my dad, who grew up on Long Island lifeguarding and being in the water at Robert Moses and Jones Beach. I actually grew up being really afraid of the ocean and swimming in general, probably because my dad was forcing me to do something I was a little scared of. He would take me out to the outside on a boogie board and leave me out there. So it was a little traumatic (laughs), but that's how I got into surfing. I remember going to a surf camp when I was really young and not enjoying it (laughs).
SNYC: Tell us about your early experiences with the sport.
JC: I think my early experiences were a weird mix of extreme frustration—the first two or three years surfing you're just paddling and you're barely catching any waves, you're tired, you're cold and there's scary man yelling at you for getting in the way all the time. And then sometimes you catch one good wave—I probably for so long I could catch one wave an hour, that was it. But those few seconds were pure transcendent bliss. There's no gravity, and you're just in flow with what feels like the whole universe. Just huge energy that you're in rhythm with and that was this amazing space that you get obsessed with. I think all surfers can relate to that. Then as you get better, you're sort of learning the rules and you get kind of greedy. You want that feeling as much as possible. So it was a mix of chasing that bliss and also getting threatened by these older more experienced guys and trying to avoid that. People would yell 'Take one more wave and I'll see you on the beach!' And you're just this scrawny 11 year old. Like what are you going to do? (laughs) That kind of felt like detention, and that's how you learn to shut up in the water and keep a low profile.
MH: My early experiences with surfing consisted of me and my dad and my brother going out to Long Island and surfing, and my dad's actually a boogie boarder, so it'd be my white dad and me and my brother who were both Asian. And then my dad's also on a boogie board (laughs). I noticed that no one out there looked like me and it was mainly white Long Islander dudes. We actually went back recently to a spot that I used to go to growing up and everyone was super friendly. I think that's what it was like when I was going there as a kid, too, but I was mainly concerned about the waves and how scary it was for me. But I definitely felt uncomfortable all the time. I don't know how much of it was just the general fear of the ocean, or just me not feeling safe unless I was near my dad.
SNYC: How did you two meet?
JC: We met at one of the paddle outs that Black Surfing Association put on at Rockaway last summer after the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. We'd known of each other and had some mutual contacts, but never met until then.
MH: Johnny and I really started talking after the paddle out. They DM'ed me about a queer surf meet up, and at that point I had already been thinking about starting a queer club. So I was like, “Oh there's someone else out there who wants to do this, and I know this is just a one time up but maybe I can talk to Johnny about actually starting something.” After the paddle out I texted them and was like, 'Hey, so I have this idea for a club' and I guess that's how we met and how Benny's Club started.
SNYC: What's the goal Benny's Club.
JC: I think the first goal of Benny's Club is to create community. We're out here to connect people. The best feeling coming out of a meetup is when you're leaving and saying goodbye and you get six people's numbers and you're already planning to hang out next week. We're here to help people to not feel alone. Growing up I've had straight-passing privilege and cis-passing privilege, and I was able to fly under the radar. As I grew up people stopped bothering me in the water, but at the same time, I also felt like I couldn't be myself in the water. I kept my surf life and my land life super separate, and Benny's Club exists to make sure people don't have to do that. I don't want people to feel like they have to hide themselves away while they're surfing. We're also here to increase access for native New Yorkers and for people of color who live up in the Bronx or in deep Queens, who don't really think about the ocean is something that's in New York City. We want to provide a space and a time for them to come down and surf. This is their city, the beach is here for them, and they can surf if they want to or just hang out on the beach.
MH: Yeah, I would say Benny's club is purely community in every sense of the word. It's meant to connect people and bring in people who live here to introduce them to surfing and give them that option. Also connecting people to the environment. Getting more people into surfing creates more love for the ocean and love for the environment, which creates more awareness for the shit we're doing to our environment and the world. So it's all connected.
SNYC: And what are you looking forward to in 2021?
JC: I think we're going to do a lot this year. I'm pretty psyched. We're working on a storage solution so that boards and wetsuits are just down at Rockaway all the time. Currently Momo and I are just schlepping them back and forth. We're also working on an equal educational program for a youth group from Bed Stuy. We'll bring them down to do a beach cleanup with Laru Beya, which is an incredible organization also based in the Rockaways. We’ll do a bit of an ecological talk, clean up the beach, and just connect kids from the far Rockaways with kids from Bed Stuy. We're also so excited to do meet ups again.
MH: I'm really excited for our meet ups. Also, we started in August of 2020 and then it already started getting colder. We did get in a good amount of meet ups, honestly, up until December, but I'm really excited to start off the spring just doing meet ups as often as we can. Making it an official club activity once a week—gotta put in your time (laughs). I'm really excited for what this year is going to bring for us.
JC: It's so special, just being together on the beach. It's indescribable. Paddling out with ten other people who are trying to be together and sharing waves and being so generous and encouraging each other, supporting each other, teaching each other. We taught Yaz and Omar to surf in August and they were so down to just come out whenever they could. It's the best feeling to see someone as passionate and excited about surfing as we feel about it. I just want to share surfing with everyone. Seeing people push themselves also is awesome. Yaz and Omar were out on that five foot day in October, which was definitely too big for them (laughs). It was so good. I'm so proud of them.
SNYC: What's a lesson you've learned that's really stuck with you? Both with Benny's Club and surfing in general.
JC: I think the lesson that I learned with Benny's Club is that the energy you bring into a space can help change the energy of that space. We go out with good vibes, and it's a little bit of a faux pas to paddle out with more than three people anywhere, so we're breaking that rule. But it's been really nice knowing people are generally happy to soak in that good energy. Maybe people get fewer waves because there's more people out, but everyone's having a better time. I was really nervous about that—what it would be like to bring a whole crowd of queer and POC people into a lineup. But it's been great.
MH: Now that I hear you say that, that is something that I've been bringing to my surfing a lot, just good energy and being out there to have fun. I think for beginners surfing can seem a little hostile or aggressive, and it's because the energy out there is usually so intimidating. As long as you're being safe and not harming anyone by dropping in, and if you're just having a good time, it totally changes how people interact with you. I'll go out with a friend or two and just be so silly and notice that others will also open up and start cheering people on. It just totally changes the vibe. I think that's a great lesson.
SNYC: What's something that's been really precious to you?
JC: I think one thing that's most precious to me in life is community. But all types, not just the Benny's community. I went through kind of a hard Covid breakup, and I keep making jokes like, 'Oh I'm making peace with the fact that I'm going to die alone' (laughs). I said that offhanded to one of my friends who's a little older and she's like, 'Don't say that. Even if you're not with a partner, look around you, look at all the friends you have. There's always people there.' It's easy to overlook the communities that are in your life and how important they are. No one's really alone, and that's been giving me a lot of strength recently.
MH: I would say the same also. I guess maybe it was something I needed and felt like I didn't have, but I definitely just created this community for myself and for others that I love, and I feel like we all support each other. And I feel like I have that support from everyone else, too, and it's based off of our shared love for something.
SNYC: OK last question. What's up with the sheep?
MH: (Laughs) This goes back to my little drawing. Benny the sheep is supposed to be a black sheep. His whole character vibe is that he doesn't fit in, but he does his own thing. It just fit so well with someone who isn't a local or someone who's not accepted. He's a black sheep, and we're the black sheep of surfing.■
Be a Benny! Head to https://bennysclub.com/ to learn more.