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Surf’s Up In Rhode Island’s South County03:30
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Walle Hutton, owner of Rhode Island Surf Co., at his shop in downtown Westerly. (Alex Nunes/The Public's Radio)
Walle Hutton, owner of Rhode Island Surf Co., at his shop in downtown Westerly. (Alex Nunes/The Public's Radio)

Earlier this year, business owner Walle Hutton was marking the one-year anniversary of opening Rhode Island Surf Co. in downtown Westerly. His shop was closed under state restrictions, and he had no idea what to expect when summer arrived.

Then, things opened back up and people began coming in for boards, fins, wet suits, wax and leashes — pretty much anything you need to surf.

“We cleared out stock almost immediately,” Hutton said. “Our hard goods market was the reason why we were fully operational during our reopening.”

Hutton said he’s seen a mix of customers. Some are people with more time on their hands this summer. Some have more money and want to invest in a new hobby or just a new board for their collection.

All of them want to get out on the water, and gear sales are outpacing last summer.

“Our first year, people have really been discovering us, but it’s nothing like this year, this summer,” he said. “This summer, board sales, it’s hard for me to keep stuff in stock relative to the turnaround times of production and everything.”

Manufacturers were shut down at the beginning of the pandemic and fell behind on production. Now that they’re back up and running, they’re having a difficult time keeping up with demand for surf and paddle boards.

A surfer heads to the water at Narragansett Town Beach on June 25, 2020. (Alex Nunes/The Public's Radio)
A surfer heads to the water at Narragansett Town Beach on June 25, 2020. (Alex Nunes/The Public's Radio)

The high demand for water sports goods is driven partly by parents who are eager for ways to get their kids outside this summer. They’ve signed up for surf camp early and in large numbers, said Tricia Pan of Peter Pan Surfing Academy in Narragansett and South Kingstown.

“It’s honestly due to the fact that children require interaction,” Pan said. “What they’ve lacked with the loss of school they need to gain somewhere, and they need to be with each other. So I think that parents who normally wouldn’t send their kids to camp are sending them to camp this year because the kids are begging.”

In Westerly, the town recreation department launched surf lessons this summer. Interim Recreation Director Julia Beasley said demand was so high and immediate, she wasn’t able to get her own child a spot.

“If we were able to get more instructors, we would have offered another wave of lessons, for sure,” Beasley said. “So it’s just been exciting to see surfing take off in our area and just getting more kids on the water.”

A surfer rides a wave at Narragansett Town Beach on September 2, 2020. (Alex Nunes/The Public's Radio)
A surfer rides a wave at Narragansett Town Beach on September 2, 2020. (Alex Nunes/The Public's Radio)

Experienced surfers are also spending more time on the water this summer.
On a recent rainy weekday morning at Narragansett Town Beach, about 20 surfers waded in the water and rode waves when they could.

Tom Morra said surfing has given him a break from more stressful things this summer.

“Forget about work, forget about the pandemic, and just kind of tune in for a little while to the waves,” Morra said.

Rigs Bennett, aka “The Frothlord,” because he reportedly froths at the sight of waves, was even more upbeat.

“Honestly, I think that this summer, honestly, has been like pretty revolutionary,” Bennett said.

He said the pandemic has pushed people outside and helped strengthen a community of surfers who encourage each other to keep getting better.

“It’s like a Renaissance period for surfing, dude,” he said. “It’s just like super gnarly.”

Gnarly news, indeed.

This story was originally published on The Public's Radio website

This segment aired on September 7, 2020.

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