You don’t need much to go surfing. Just a board, a bathing suit, some wax and an ocean. But for professional surfer and vlogger Ben Graeff (aka Ben Gravy) the ocean isn’t a requisite part of the formula.
Earlier this year, Gravy surfed in Alaska, completing a three-year endeavor to catch a wave in all 50 US states. In doing so, he became the first known person to tick them all off. Surfing in all 50 states is as difficult of a task as it sounds, and Gravy experienced plenty of ups and downs in the pursuit. Then there are those obvious, lingering questions like, where the hell does one “surf” in a flat, oceanless state, like Nebraska?
“I ended up surfing in a wave pool in a water park,” Gravy admits. “In the beginning, I didn’t want to do any wave pools, I wanted to keep it 100 percent natural. By the time I got down to it, Nebraska was so impossible and so flat that I literally just had to settle for a wave pool.”
Finding waves to surf in landlocked states was obviously the biggest challenge of all. Rivers and lakes can offer up surprisingly good waves from time to time, but they can’t be counted on in every single state.
Gravy has long been infatuated with weird waves, but in recent years he’s found a niche for himself in the surfing world as the guy who is known for seeking out what traditional surfers might call novelty waves. Gravy regularly surfs on – and films, because he’s a YouTube vlogger with a channel of 90k+ subscribers – abnormal waves that break behind ferries or in unlikely places as well as unique waves like the one under the Golden Gate Bridge or Kelly Slater’s man-made swell.
But even for a veteran novelty wave surfer like Gravy, the 50 state challenge became a difficult multi-year mission. Missouri required three separate trips, and his final visit served as the moment when Gravy thought the journey might come to an abrupt end. While surfing a standing wave — a stationary wave that continuously breaks in one spot — in the Missouri River, Gravy experienced an intense hold down that almost had drastic consequences.
“Thank God I held onto my surfboard – it spun me out and spit me out the back of the wave. Afterward, I lost it.”
“It’s a super, super wide river and the wave was three or four feet tall — pretty gnarly. It’s a kayaking wave. It’s like this big foam ball and then this really tight transition. So I hopped on my 8-foot soft surfboard just thinking I was going to pop up and little did I know once you get into the wave it just nose dives you because the transition is so tight. You need a really shortboard.”
Gravy ended up getting sucked over the back and pulled down into the hydraulic — the turbid, violent eddy that creates a standing wave. “It flipped me upside down and spun me around a couple of times. Thank God I held onto my surfboard – it spun me out and spit me out the back of the wave. Afterward, I lost it. I had a panic attack, broke down crying. And I was in Missouri by myself, 20 hours from home with no one I knew anywhere near me. I just hightailed it straight home.”
While anyone might’ve rightfully given up on the journey then, Gravy pushed forward. The unusual uniqueness of each experience kept his spirits going — no two places were the same and no two waves he came across were alike. And surfing in each state brought with it memorable interactions with locals, many of which who had never witnessed surfing. When Gravy eventually broke his rule and surfed the wave pool in Nebraska, he incidentally introduced a group of kids to surfing for the first time.
“There was this little summer camp going on and I introduced like 50 kids at that camp to surfing for the first time,” Gravy says. “The experience itself really made up for the fact that it wasn’t a natural wave. They had never even seen surfing before.”
Most people won’t visit all 50 states in a lifetime, let alone surf in every single one in three years’ time. But even having traveled to all of them, Gravy realized over the journey that he can’t picture himself anywhere but his home state of New Jersey.
“When I started the journey,” he says, “I really wanted to get out there and live on the road. And throughout it, I learned that I love where I came from and I love where I live. When you’re in Montana and you get sucked over the falls and hit a rock in a river and your leg is bruised and you’re hating life, you can’t drive home because it’s 30 hours away.”
The endeavor also showed him anything is possible: “This mission taught me that anyone can accomplish anything they want to. I set out on this journey thinking it was impossible and I did it through hard work. Whatever you want, it’s doable.”
To surf a novelty wave in just one state, Gravy had to outfit himself with the proper gear. Hauling surfboards, cameras and all kinds of wetsuits around the country for three years, Gravy dialed in his kit precisely to the necessary items. Still, it’s not a short list. As Gravy describes it, “You need your entire quiver and you need to be ready for anything.”
Ben Gravy’s Packing List
Sony Alpha a6300
“I shoot on a Sony A6300, their mirrorless DSLR. And then everything else is on a GoPro Hero7. That’s basically my main camera set-up. I mean, they’re just so easy. At any moment I can bust out either those cameras, turn them on and I know that they’re ready to go. When I’m doing the vlog, it’s I have to be in the moment and ready to shoot at any point.”
GoPro HERO7 Black
“I love the GoPro because it’s so small I can take it on the board with me because it’s waterproof. On a lot of these rivers I had to paddle out into the middle of the river to find the wave and I couldn’t bring another camera with me. I would do the mouth mount and sometimes I would do the nose mount on the board facing at me. And that was really good for me because I can capture a lot of talking points as I was going.”
Apple 15-Inch MacBook Pro
“My laptop of choice is a MacBook Pro, 15-inch. I bring that everywhere I go. I learned [to edit] in Final Cut, and I actually went to film school. But I’ve been editing for the past year in iMovie. It literally cuts out all the stress of rendering and makes it that much easier for me to put a vlog out. I export at 1080, I don’t even do 2K or 4K. It does the job.”
Wave Bandit Easy Rider x Ben Gravy 8’0″
“I used it on most of the rivers, it’s the perfect board for small river waves.”
Wave Bandit Performer Mini x Ben Gravy 4’10”
“This is also a Ben Gravy model and I use it for the bigger river waves when you need a shorter board. My problem is I hit the bottom a lot so the softboard can withstand that better.”
Super Surfboards El Slammo Semi Pro
“The good thing about my board is it’s an all-around small wave board. It’s for waves that are two to five feet. It’s got a nice wide tail and has enough volume to carry you through small waves, but it also can perform if the waves get to head high or a little overhead. I ride it as a Future Fins quad setup most of the time, especially when it’s barreling.”
Hyperflex 3/2mm VYRAL Wetsuit
“I would also always wear 2mm reef booties because of the ground in the rivers. They’re from Hyperflex, the VYRAL. It’s their new lightweight suit. I love that hometown vibe.”
Creatures of Leisure Board Bag
“This is a really nice bag that easily fits three or four boards and it has little rollies on it. The coolest thing about it is it has these clasps that you can pull so the bag is smaller and tightens down. Then when I roll up to the [check-in] counter it looks like maybe I do only have one board in there, instead of six.”
Wave Bandit Ben Gravy Pineapple All Day Trunk
“I literally never take them off.”
Wave Bandit Ben Gravy Pineapple Backpack
“I can put my laptop in the laptop slot. I have all my cords in the top and my camera can go in the front and then my clothes in the bottom part. I actually went to Alaska with the boardbag and just this backpack.”
Sector 9 Dream Gravy Semi Pro Skateboard
“I usually bring my skateboards. It’s a pool board but it’s got cruiser wheels on it. I love skating, it just hurts too much. I bring it everywhere I go.”
Yamaha APXT2 Guitar
“I bought this for myself for my birthday for like $200. I bought it because it’s small and compact — I absolutely love it.”
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