They Found Their Way in the Waves at Ditch Plains

The scene at Ditch Plains Beach in Montauk in August of last year. Michael Heller photos

When Kevin Ahearn was growing up in the 60s, the best part of the summer was when his mother would drive him and a few friends to Ditch Plains in Montauk. They would set up a tent next door to some older guys, and she would drive home to Levittown, leaving her teenage son to fend for himself until Labor Day.

Ahearn was not alone. He soon met John Kowalenko from Centereach, who would arrive in style. Kowalenko arrived at Ditch in the back of a van driven by seniors from his high school. On the side of the van was a message reading “East Island Magical Mystery Tour.”

What came next was a summer of waves, parties and other antics that made the Montauk surfing community famous. Characters like Kowalenko, Ahearn, Craig Lieder, Roger Feit and Randall Rosenthal made up the heart and soul of Ditch Plains.

“The trailer park was a tent camp, you used to stay in there for three or five bucks,” Kowalenko remembers. “Or you could sleep in your car. I used to have a van that I could sleep in on the cliffs. It was a big party.”

Ditch has changed since then. The popularity of the spot has been well known among surfers since Kowalenko, Ahearn, Lieder, Rosenthal and Feit first started riding their longboards (there were no short boards or stand-up paddle boards); but they have noticed several explosions in the popularity of surfing over the years. The first wave came in with the rise of the Beach Boys and the release of surfing movies like “Gidget”and “Endless Summer” — Kowalenko and Ahern admit those movies pushed them toward the surfing lifestyle. Around 1999, there was another explosion, when the popularity of surf classes led to some tension between the old timers and the new recruits.

The original crew includes, from left, Kevin Ahearn, John Kowalenko, Roger Feet and Randolph Rosenthal.

“Surfing was really getting crowded,” Kowalenko said. “People would just go out there, and like ten other people would paddle in front of you and it was getting dangerous. There were some rules, but they were unwritten.”

Now the rules are written down. When Kowalekno, Ahearn and fellow surfer Mike Solomon founded the Eastern Long Island chapter of the Surfrider Foundation in 1999, one of the first things they did was put up a sign that spells out the rules for those who aren’t keyed in to the unspoken code of the beach.

The surfers’ code of conduct at Ditch Plains.

In 1964, Randall Rosenthal had to learn the code the hard way during his first trip to Montauk. Rosenthal drove on the old expressway for four hours until he reached the beach. When he arrived, there were ten older guys in the water. One of them paddled up to him and said, “Who the f*ck are you? You’re too late, it’s already ruined.”

“That was the first thing anyone said to me in Montauk,” he remembers.

Old-timers at Ditch remember the nightlife almost as vividly as the daytime waves. Long days in the surf gave way to epic nighttime parties, like the famous ‘76-keg party by the IGA to celebrate the summer of 1976, and the “employee’s nights” at The Blue Moon, a “surfers clubhouse” on East Lake Drive. Started by Craig Lieder (who now runs the Montauk Surf Shop) and Feit—although he left the business early—The Blue Moon on East Lake Drive is gone now but was once a notorious nighttime hangout.

Lieder remembers crowds five people deep at the inside and outside bars, and 600 people on the patio during late nights. During employee nights they would station bouncers inside The Blue Moon to catch people who fell while dancing on top of the bar.

“By the end of the night on employee’s night, there wasn’t a drop of alcohol left,” he said. “We’d have to wheel in these iced down garbage cans of beer and throw them out to the crowd. Like I said, this place here is mellow now. The parties back in the ‘80s were out of control.”

Checking out the waves during a crowded August at Ditch Plains.

Now, Ahearn believes the community is in the midst of yet another transition. People are looking for that same freedom that existed organically within the Montauk surf community of the ‘60s, when people driving by with surfboards would give strangers hand signals to indicate wave conditions. They want to recreate that feeling of tying together some driftwood, making a hut on the beach and sleeping under the sky after a day in the surf.

“People are kind of seeking that bohemian lifestyle we have enjoyed our entire lives,” Ahearn said. “Back in the day, if you were a surfer, you were a screwup. It was not a positive thing to say. But now it’s shifted. People are yearning for that lifestyle of no pressure, no load.”

These original Montauk surfers have maintained that tight-knit community that they remember breaking into in the ‘60s. When they sit at “the bench,” a wooden bench across from The Ditch Witch where they analyze waves, surfers and life, everyone headed to the beach stops to chat. For these guys, there are no strangers at Ditch. They know everyone, and anyone who is anyone at Ditch Plains knows them.

Long lines at the Ditch Witch last August.

The Ditch Witch Is Part of the Fabric

Started in 1994 by Lily Adams — a former chef at The Dock — and now operated by her two children, Grant and Abby Monahan, the Ditch Witch is as central to Ditch Plains as the surfers are. Now in their 23rd season, they are open for breakfast, but are famous for their lunch burritos and tuna poke wraps that, according to Grant Monahan, are redefining beach food.

John Kowalenko and Kevin Ahearn, who have been surfing at Ditch since the ‘60s, remember a three-year-old Grant running around the beach with wooden surfboards carved by his father. Now he works at the Ditch Witch every day all summer, from the weekend before Memorial Day until the end of September.

“I used to walk around and pretend I was a little surfer — I didn’t go to daycare or anything,” Grant said. “This was my daycare center. I started stocking stuff when I was eight years old and I’m 26. My sister started when she was 13, and she just turned 37. When my mom retired we got together and took the business over.”

Back in their 17th season, the Ditch Witch almost lost their traditional spot at the edge of the parking lot. A new bidding procedure — which is a blind system auctioning food truck spots off to the highest bidder — put another truck in their place. The local community rallied around the cart, starting a Facebook page to help “Save the Ditch Witch.”

“There was a pretty large outcry from the local community,” Grant said. “They found a flaw in the bid system and they gave us our spot back. It was really amazing what people wrote about the Ditch Witch. It made us feel really special.”

The bidding will reopen in two seasons, but Grant believes the Ditch Witch is there to stay.