When Longport native Ben Graeff was in his early teens, he was competing in pro junior surf contests and was poised to make it big in the sport. But a few years later, he was drinking heavily. By his mid-20s, he had turned away from contests and ended up in the hospital after performing a dangerous stunt, with the possibility that he would never walk again.
No one then could have guessed that the now 33-year-old, who is widely known in the surfing world as Ben Gravy, would have become one of the most popular surfers in the country, entertaining masses of followers with an unconventional approach to riding waves.
That approach? Riding and filming novelty waves—usually small waves that break in unexpected spots when certain conditions align, such as inside local inlets or in the wake of the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. He started using an 8-foot foam board to surf river waves and explore the Great Lakes, building his following on an infectious optimism that led him on a mission to surf in each of the 50 states—even those without a coastline.
A 2022 documentary, For the Dream—which Graeff produced and Sean Davis directed—focuses on Graeff’s unique undertaking, as well as his personal story of overcoming alcohol addiction and spreading a message of positivity. “I didn’t want to be that person” he tells New Jersey Monthly of his struggles. “I started considering how I could take that poor trajectory of my life and turn it into something more inspiring.”
For better or worse, Graeff, who now lives in Ventnor, has been making his own videos for decades. As early as 2006, he began filming his and his friends’ antics—falls, fires and crashes—for his YouTube channels. But by his mid-20s, Graeff knew he had a drinking problem. In 2015, during a stunt that launched him off the hood of a moving car (he was not drinking at the time), he fractured his patella, leaving him with the grim news that he might never walk again. Just like everything else in his life, Graeff’s surgery and rehabilitation were documented on video.
He recovered, and while he was inspired to surf again, he couldn’t put down the bottle. When Graeff finally quit drinking on Christmas in 2015, he began sharing that journey online and eventually found comfort again in the waves. “I have people reach out to me to say they’re inspired by what I’m doing,” he says. “Now I have to continue (being sober) for these thousands of people. I can’t let them down.”
On August 6, Graeff is set to host the Red Bull Foam Wreckers surf contest in Ocean City. “Pretty much anyone can ride one of those boards, so it’s getting everyone in the water,” he says of the 8-foot foam styles he favors. “And that has such an effect on your mind and your soul.”
For the Dream is available to watch on streaming services.Click here to leave a comment