By Tammy Scileppi
You wouldn’t think that New York has a rich surfing history, or that surfing and firefighting are related, but it does and they are. It turns out that generations of Rockaway, Queens and Long Beach, Long Island firefighters, who called these coastline communities home, were avid surfers who passed down their passion for saving lives and riding waves to their children, even while inspiring others to follow in their footsteps.
Rockaway Beach director and filmmaker Thomas Brookins’ new historical documentary, “Fire and Water,” pays homage to America’s Bravest and their brotherhood, with amazing surfing footage, along with interviews and cameos by local surfers and firefighters across America.
“Surfing has been my passion and savior; it truly can change a person. It was on and off throughout my whole life until I moved to New York City,” said Brookins, 42, who found himself spending more time at the beach than at home. “So, we packed up our apartment and moved to Rockaway permanently. I guess it reflects my life and friendships here and its tendrils run deep into our neighborhood’s surfing history.”
The movie explores surfing through wave titan and aspiring filmmaker Don Eichin’s lens. Known for his radical wipeouts, he made waves in Hawaii back in the late ‘60s, surfing with other legends of the sport.
“With never before seen vintage footage Don passed on to me for the film, we see what Hawaii was like in surfing’s heyday,” Brookins said.
When Eichin returned to New York City and traded in his swim trunks for fire-fighting gear, he passed his knowledge to his sons Randy and Eric, and “influenced potentially a large generation of new surfers and, of course, firefighters,” said the filmmaker.
“Fire and Water” is a work in progress and “just too good of a story to overlook,” Brookins said.
“And that’s when it hit me. Before I knew it there was an amazing connection to surfing and the career of a fireman. After meeting Don Eichin I realized the potential this very unique New York documentary had,” Brookins said. “There are connections between all these men that lead back to New York’s premier surfers of the ’50s and ’60s. In the sports industry today, we see big wave New York surfers like the Skudins of NYSea.com; their whole family is the past and present of New York surfing.”
So, the director started putting the first shoot together in 2011, then talked to firefighters Eric and Randy Eichin about it — both work in Rockaway firehouses. They, too, were excited about his idea.
But then a health scare nearly derailed the project. Brookins’ doctors found a lump in his throat and while the director was in Hawaii capturing footage of pro surfers, performed a biopsy and discovered it was cancer.
“It was pretty hard to hear, having a new son and my amazing wife Jessica, whom I’ve been with over 18 years. The surgery and treatments were very difficult but when things got tough, I had the movie to focus on. I was texting and emailing from the hospital bed, trying to keep my mind focused,” Brookins said.
After a couple of rough years, Brookins finally received some good news last fall when doctors told him he had beaten cancer. But the celebration was short-lived.
“Sandy crushed our home and neighborhood. I felt like nothing could go right, but I hunkered down, did what I had to do, and now that we’re finishing up the last of the fixing up in our home, I can jump back in and get my hands dirty,” Brookins said. “We still have some things to shoot and hopefully, with some sponsorship, we can bring it all to fruition within the next year.”
During Hurricane Sandy the film was put on hold while Brookins and his neighbors fixed their homes and tried their best to survive. He says if the film does reflect on Sandy it’s because of his friends who worked that night at the local firehouses.
Fellow surfer Casey Skudin, a highly decorated firefighter who knows the water’s dangers more than most, comes from a historic surfing family, here in New York. He was awarded a medal for his bravery the night Sandy hit. “His firehouse was one of many working through the unthinkable to save people. Another friend and FDNY Firefighter Pete Brady waded through deep water with good friends doing what they could to help anyone they came across,” Brookins said. “Stephen Sullivan helped fix my boiler and hot water tank, with his friends from the FDNY.”
“Fire and Water” has become more than just a project.
“It’s become my life’s work; it’s one of a kind and connects New York to a global history most would never have imagined. We just need financial help to finish up the last portion of the film,” Brookins said.
One thing he says he’s learned since starting the film is that “New Yorkers were always part of something amazing, and this is one more aspect of New York’s history that’s never been discussed.”
For more information on Thomas Brookins’ film, check his website at www.fireandwaterthemovie.com.