Long Beach remembers a surfing legend

Hundreds attend paddle-out for late surfer and firefighter Brian Ward

Etan Blatt Digital Media

When he wasn’t saving lives, coaching soccer or spending time with his two children, Long Beach firefighter Brian Ward was most likely surfing, often at Laurelton and Washington boulevard beaches. He was considered by many in town to be one of the best, and his enthusiasm for riding waves never waned, even as he grew older.

“He was like a 60-year-old grom — always smiling, at every surf-related event, always pumped to surf,” Ward’s friend Mike Nelson, co-owner of Unsound surf shop and a professional photographer, told Surfline. “And he was one of the best surfers in the water on any given day. Legend.”

The retired firefighter, who died while surfing in Puerto Rico on March 6 at age 57, was known around town for inspiring generations of kids to hit the waves, including local pros such as TJ Gumiela, Will Skudin and Balaram Stack. And many said he just got better with age.

“He definitely did his best surfing now,” Ward’s son, Shane, told the Herald. “He was in better shape when he was younger, but as far as the performance aspect of surfing, he was 100 percent better, doing more critical maneuvers. As surfing progressed, it never really passed him by.”

Hundreds of friends and family members attended funeral services for Ward last month, which was followed by a memorial paddle-out on March 25 at Clayton Avenue beach in East Atlantic Beach, where Ward lived. There was also a paddle-out in the Puerto Rican surf spot Marias last month.

“It was amazing — there was a phenomenal turnout,” Shane said of the local memorial. “For what could have been a somber day, we celebrated as he would have wanted. He was an integral part of the surfing community. I’m sure every surfer from Long Beach has some sort of story about him.”

“He surfed the hurricane swells and was always out there for the big East Coast waves,” added Cliff Skudin, co-owner of Skudin Surf. “He was always about having fun in the water and sharing waves with others. He really brought good vibes.”

Ward is survived by his children, Shane and Kaysi; brothers Mikey and Gary; a sister, Joyce; and his mother, Gaye.  

Ward, who would have turned 58 on April 26, died while surfing in the Rincon area, possibly from a heart attack, though a cause of death has yet to be determined, family and friends said. According to Surfline, those who were with him attempted to give him first aid under extreme conditions, and stayed with him until a Coast Guard helicopter arrived.

“He was the picture of fitness,” said Shane, who grew up surfing with his dad. “It was sudden, and it sucked because no one got to say goodbye to him. He was surfing one his favorite waves in the world and he was surfing good.”

Ward was a lifelong Long Beach resident and a Long Beach High graduate. He played soccer in high school and at Ulster County Community College, where he won a national championship, Kaysi said. He went on to coach soccer for the Long Beach Lightning Bolts and at the Recreation Center after his children were born. 

“He was a really good coach, and he loved coaching kids and making people better, whether it was surfing or soccer,” Kaysi said. Ward was friendly and approachable, according to family and friends, but often “told it like it is.”

“He had that ability to motivate and inspire people,” Kaysi said. “I played soccer in college at Towson, and definitely wouldn’t have if it weren’t for my dad. He never let me keep my participation ribbons as a kid — he wasn’t a believer in participation ribbons, and I got my competitive nature from him. He encouraged people to do their best. As long as you tried hard, that’s what mattered.”

Ward began surfing in the early 1970s, Shane said, and was among a group of young surfers who were open to new techniques at a time when most surfers rode longboards.

“I found these surf diaries he wrote when he was in school, and how surfing became his life,” Shane said. “He and his friends were on the cutting edge; he was shortboarding. He had actually written about a new board coming out. As surfing progressed, he was part of all of it. He started when all the product and equipment was very basic, whereas nowadays wetsuits are top of the line.”

About 15 years ago, Ward founded the popular King and Queen of the Beach contest for surfers 18 and under, an annual event that attracts hundreds of participants and is run by the Recreation Department and Skudin Surf.

“He started it, and it’s a contest that the surfing community really took a hold of,” said Cliff Skudin. “It’s something people look forward to every year.”

Ward also volunteered for Surf for All, a local nonprofit that organizes surf outings for veterans, disadvantaged youth and children with a range of physical and developmental disabilities.

“Brian was a special person,” said Skudin, who co-founded the nonprofit. “He was very respected in the community.”

Saving lives

As a career firefighter in Long Beach for 20 years, Ward moved up the ranks and earned the respect of his colleagues.

“As both a firefighter — and later as a lieutenant — Brian not only impacted, but saved, hundreds of lives in the community,” said firefighter Billy Piazza, president of the Long Beach Professional Firefighters Local 287. “When you worked under him, he expected a high level of public service, and never accepted complacency.”

Shane recalled how his father got a letter 20 years ago from a woman thanking him for saving her pregnant daughter’s life.

“We found this letter going through his stuff,” he said. “He saved a pregnant woman who was having an allergic reaction, and her throat swelled and he intubated her. My dad had told me some crazy stories, but this one we didn’t really find out about until we read the letter. The lady actually came with her family to the wake and said, ‘I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for your dad.’”

On another call, Ward also helped a woman in labor give birth in a car, Shane said.

“They named their daughter Brianna, a play on his name,” Shane said. “He was very humble about his job.”

A second home in Puerto Rico

Ward retired 10 years ago, and was an avid golfer. For nearly a decade, he spent his winters in Puerto Rico with other surfers.

“TJ was like a son to him,” said Kara Gumiela, TJ’s sister and a friend of the Ward family. “He lived downstairs from TJ in Puerto Rico. My dad, Tommy and Brian were the original surfers of Long Beach, so for Tommy’s son to become a pro surfer, he was so proud. Brian was definitely a character, always smiling and making people laugh.”

In 2013, Ward was featured in the documentary “100 Miles to the End,” which included footage and interviews with some of New York’s best surfers, including Will Skudin, Gumiela and Stack.

“Brian loved surfing,” Will Skudin said. “He didn't just stand on the boardwalk and talk about it, he spent more time in the water than anybody. He also gave everybody time for a talk no matter who you were. He really respected people that worked hard. He was a brother and father to all of us. It's going to be tough not having him around.”

“He had told me hundreds of times that if he could go out surfing, that’s how he would have wanted it,” Shane said. “I’m glad he didn’t suffer, but at the same time it would have been nice to say goodbye.”