Surfing USA – All Year Long: Ben Gravy Rides the Tide of Optimism
Ben Gravy rides the tide of optimism
By Felicia L. Niven

Ben Gravy knows a thing or 2 about finding waves in unusual places. He’s surfed a shipping lane in Texas, navigated a low-head dam in the shadow of Mt. Rushmore and rode the wake of the Cape May Ferry here in South Jersey. In the hyper-competitive world of surfing, 33-year-old Gravy is an icon. Yet it’s his bumps and bruises, his fall from grace and his emergence to infinite possibility that has captured the hearts of fans. Gravy’s inspirational story is depicted in “For the Dream,” a recently released Amazon Prime documentary about overcoming his problems with alcohol and his quest to surf every state of the nation.

His exploits have a huge following. He currently has 169,000 subscribers and over 48 million views. But those who grew up with Gravy know him as Ben Graeff, a Pennsylvania kid who spent time at his grandmother’s house at the Jersey shore. That’s where Gravy had his first surfing experience at just 8 years old. He was with his older brother Hob.

“My dad took us out in Longport,” says Gravy. “Surprisingly, we went out there, no lessons or anything, and we both stood up right away. We were hooked for life.”

Gravy’s dad got excited and signed the boys up for surfing competitions. “I was 9 or 10, and I would get dead last every single time,” says Gravy. “Then something clicked. By the time I was 11 or 12, I started winning. Eventually, I won some regional events, then some east coast events. I competed in nationals.”

At age 14, Gravy qualified for the U.S. Surf Team and scored the alternate position at the World Championship in Tahiti.

“That’s the point when my parents said, well maybe we should consider moving to the beach so these guys can chase their dream of surfing,” says Gravy.

Raised in a family that initially didn’t allow video games or television, Gravy spent his share of time outside chasing new adventures. He loved to skateboard and ride his bike. He made videos for NUB nation, as he called it. NUB stood for “Nobody’s Unliked Buddy,” and was meant to highlight the underdogs, the people who weren’t the most famous, high-end skateboarders. Even at a young age, he was pulling for the average Joe.

A move to the shore in his teens shifted his focus more toward surfing though he still enjoyed making movies and playing in a punk rock band. The moniker Gravy came from a fellow band member who called him “Chicka, Chicka Ben Gravy.” The nickname stuck and Gravy used it for his Instagram account long before anyone knew who he was.

Gravy always expected to make surfing a career, but not exactly the way it panned out. But by the time he turned 18, he wasn’t having much success as a professional surfer. His parents insisted on college, so he attended the Art Institute in Philadelphia, majoring in digital film and production. That’s when the heavy drinking began.

“I felt I had failed at surfing, and even though I was doing something important and learning this craft, I had failed,” he says. “I allowed it to eat away at my soul. After college, I was working, doing video production. I let the alcohol replace that feeling of failure, and became a binge drinker. All I cared about was getting wasted.”

He hit a low point at a party when he found himself standing by the keg, alone in the garage. “I was just filling up my Solo cup and draining it, then filling it up and drinking it again.” Then when he got into an argument with a bartender on Christmas Eve, it was a pivotal moment. “Deep inside, I knew that’s not who I am,” he says. “I woke up the next morning, and I never wanted to drink again. I actively started focusing on the positive things in my life.”

Gravy was having some success staying off alcohol, but also had relapses. Then he needed surgery for a knee injury that gave him a nice taste of sobriety. “I wasn’t allowed to drink for 4 months during recovery,” he says.

Newly sober and healing from the injury, he started documenting his surfing adventures. “I made a video every day for 3 years,” he says. “Every single day. That’s what I needed to keep me sober in the beginning. I focused on making that video every day.”

He soon noticed that people gravitated toward videos of him surfing novelty waves, waves that are unique because they’re in unusual locations or they break infrequently. “The waves weren’t always good and the wind wasn’t always good, so I would surf in these little inlets anywhere I could to try to find a wave,” says Gravy. “I became known for novelty waves.”

He set his sights on a famous local one, the Cape May Ferry wave. “I had heard about that wave when I was younger,” says Gravy. “I knew that was a goal I wanted to try to achieve. The ferry is a really heavy boat, so when it leaves the harbor, the water displacement creates a wave. It’s a pretty good quality wave. You can ride it. It’s like a phenomenon. Once I did that, that became one of the biggest videos I put up on my channel.”

As Gravy started surfing in different places, his viewers joked that he should surf in all 50 states. Gravy thought it was a brilliant idea; no one had ever done that before. He worked with sponsors Wave Bandit and Hyperflex Wet Suits to make it happen. “They really backed me for the 50-state challenge, and they still support me,” he says. “I’m truly grateful.”

The challenge took Gravy to some pretty unique surfing spots. “I caught some waves in Minnesota on Lake Superior that were absolutely astounding. They were 12 feet tall, something you would never expect. I’ve had the ability to go tanker surfing, which is surfing in the shipping lanes in Texas and South Carolina in the big waves behind the tanker boats. Then I’ve also gotten to enjoy a lot of these new wave pools that are popping up around the country and the world. It’s been an amazing experience to be someone who is lucky enough to go surf all these unique waves and change people’s perspective on what’s possible and what defines surfing.”

The Amazon Prime documentary chronicles his 50-state adventure. “We’ve been able to tie a beautiful story together about overcoming addiction, changing the surf industry and making surfing fun, not such an exclusive sport,” says Gravy. “I knew the documentary would be special, but it went so much deeper than I ever could imagine. It was amazing creating that film.”

“Through the editing process and the storyboarding process, I actually learned a lot about myself. For the first time, I was able to look at myself from the outside and see all the things I accomplished.”

Gravy continues his surfing journey with his wife Jordan at his side. His parents remain supportive, and his siblings sometimes join him on surf trips. His YouTube Channel and his fame are growing. He made waves this summer by surfing all 43 Jersey beaches – from the very bottom of NJ in Cape May all the way up to Sandy Hook in the Highlands – in one day.

“My bottom line for all my messaging is positivity – work hard and good things will happen to you,” he says.

As for the next wave, Gravy already has plans. “I’m going to slowly dip my toe into surfing every country in the world,” he says. “I just came back from Nicaragua, and I’m on my way to England next week.”

“More important than saying I surfed every country is connecting things and ideas and opening people’s minds,” he adds. “For me, it’s more about, let’s get out there. Let’s see the world. Go out, whether you can travel the world or only travel in your local neighborhood. Get out there, and embrace what’s in front of you.”

November 2022
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