July 12, 2006

A Day In The Life Catching The Wave: Tony Caramanico

In scientific terms, the movement of a sinusoidal ocean wave is determined by measuring water density, gravity acceleration and wave height.

Surfer Tony Caramanico's description is more poetic. "Waves are kind of like a melody. You remember them, but they're very fleeting," he said.

The Long Island native has spent a lot of time chasing the siren song of the waves — since he first picked up a surfboard in 1963, to be precise. "It was one of those things that gave me a direction in life, right from the get-go," he said.

As he sat in his truck watching the surfers ride the swells at Ditch Plains in Montauk on a recent morning, Caramanico said in a life spent on the water, few rides really stand out — it's more about the mood. "The way the lighting was that day, the way the waves were breaking, just the scene, being in the moment of surfing those waves is more what I remember than the actual rides," he explained.

Though he has surfed all over the world, from Costa Rica to Indonesia to the Caribbean, Montauk has been Caramanico's home base since he moved there in 1971, and he knows its waters well. "You have to put in years and years just to understand what the water's doing, to be able to look out on a day like today and see how the waves are coming in, how they're forming, to understand the breaks, the bottoms," he explained.

"Surfing is made up of a lot of small situations because every day is different, every wave is different," he added.

And how does one learn how to catch a wave?

"Catching a wave is understanding the approaching wave," Caramanico said. "All waves are different, all breaks are different." The wave has to be the right steepness, and the surfer has to paddle hard to get over the edge of the swell. "Basically it's the flow of the wave and how you move on it," he noted.

Caramanico's own flow has shifted over the years. He led "a pretty colorful lifestyle," always surfing, but also trying his hand in a number of businesses before deciding, at the age of 39, to get back into surfing "in a major way." In addition to giving lessons and repairing boards, he began entering competitions. And he began to win.

After settling into his niche in longboarding, Caramanico won a series of amateur regional competitions; in 1991, he placed first in a professional longboard competition in New Jersey. After taking top honors at the Legend's Classic in Costa Rica, he earned his own line of surfboards under the auspices of famed surfer Greg Noll.

There are a lot of good surfers — the surfers gliding along under the overcast sky at Ditch Plains made that clear. But the great ones, Caramanico said, like Noll and longboarder Joel Tudor, are the ones who make a person pause and say: "That's how it's done."

He likened the grace of the best surfers to that of celebrated ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov: "It's an effortless, symbiotic rhythm they have going with their element," he explained, adding, "surfing properly is like a dance."

Caramanico's use of art-related metaphors to explain surfing should come as no surprise. For more than 25 years he has been keeping journals that mixed words, original art, pictures and magazine clippings to chronicle his daily life. Five years ago, some of the journals were featured in an art show in East Hampton, and now they have become his art, transformed into vibrant prints and transferred onto beautifully detailed surfboards, adding another facet to his chosen profession. "Now that's become part of my surfing world, another reinvention," he said.

Caramanico hopes to open a museum in Montauk within the next five years to showcase his collection of more than 100 surfboards, his art, and the mountains of memorabilia he has collected in more than 40 years "as a student of the sport," he said.

And though his surfing world has broadened beyond the straightforward combination of board and wave, Caramanico continues to thrive on the bliss that comes with being "thrown into the moment," in a way he says only surfing can do.

"The bottom line is I've always been a surfer," he said. "The rest of it's been filling in the blanks."

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