Winter's Respite

What used to be snow is now slush.

I’m trying to avoid stepping into the piles of it that soak your entire leg, sock and shoe, freezing you to the core on cold New England mornings like this one. I duck into the small breakfast café across from Boston’s iconic South Station in the dark. It’s six a.m. on a December day and I’m planning on going surfing. My plane was late the night before. It was easier to sleep in the airport and catch an early cab to meet the train. This is the first chance I’d had to meet an old friend, Jimmy Blakeney, for a trip we’d talked about for several years: surfing and paddling the Rhode Island coastline, one of the East Coast’s best surf locales, ideally situated to catch Atlantic swells from every direction. I wanted to meet the paddlers that called this place home, too. They say you don’t know Rhode Island until you know it during the winter. That is, when the locals are the only ones out.

At tiring trade shows and never-ending industry meet-and-greets, we’d planned my trip. And I’d finally made it. Exhausted, but full, I run across Atlantic Avenue to the station where I’ll catch a train for the 90-minute ride south to meet Jimmy. My bag is stuffed with a thick, hooded wetsuit, booties, rubber gloves and a puffy jacket. I’d been told that Rhode Island surfing is for the rugged at heart.

Rhode Island Waves

The athlete

The Athlete.

The wind is blowing straight offshore when we pull into the makeshift parking spot in Jimmy Blakeney’s white Honda. We climb over the sandy, wind-strewn hillside. There’s swell in the water and little white explosions of salt water decorate the gray horizon. The rocky coastline stretches away endlessly, dotted by classic New England beach houses, most painted stark white.

Jimmy is the brand manager for BIC SUP. And one of the best damn athletes I’ve ever met. Dude moves like he was built for fun, sporting a lean, muscular physique, able to navigate any sport he chooses in smooth and controlled fashion. On the river as a whitewater kayaker, he was ridiculously gifted and his skateboarding background amplified his style awareness. Both helped his surfing—he rides like he grew up on the ocean, even though he was raised in Virginia.

“The left barrels sometimes but it’s not quite there today,” he says as we watch the surf. The right is reeling down the coast and is much less crowded. We suit up in thick neoprene (5/4), gloves and booties and paddle out in the 15 knot winds. The grass on the sandy hillsides lies flat, pointing towards the sea.

Both Jimmy and I are regular foots so I get a good view all morning. He paddles into an open wall and attacks the face, releasing his fins on his custom-built shortboard SUP. There’s no one busier in the industry. But he still has time to get this good.

That afternoon I hang out with Jimmy’s wife Bekah and their two kids, James and Georgia, in their Wakefield home (they’re letting me sleep in the basement guest room). James comes down into the basement to check out my digs. “You wanna play catch?” he asks.

“Sure, let’s do it,” I reply. He starts rocketing a rubber ball at me from point blank range and I cower like a scared kitten. Little guy can move too. Easy to see where he gets it.

Slater Trout
This is his Neverland

The Teacher.

Peter Panagiotis—or Peter Pan, as he's more widely known—is a certified legend. At 65, he's taught more people to surf in his lifetime than there are people in Narragansett (population 16,000) and then some. And now, the owner of Peter Pan Surf and SUP academy is teaching them to paddle. He probably weighs 150 pounds dripping wet—which most of the time, he is. He sits across the table from me in Crazy Burger, an iconic eatery that also happens to serve one of the best eggs benedict I've ever eaten. He speaks directly, in his raw New England accent, with a dry sense of humor.

He explains how he likes to take his students up the Narrow River, also known as the Pettaquamscutt, that features an expansive, gentle delta ideal for beginners. "It's an awesome spot to teach people," he says. "It's flatwater for miles and you can really get comfortable on your board and feel like you're surfing."

Which he doesn't push them to do when they're learning to SUP. "I want them to earn it," he says. He's straight-faced but you can kind of see a smile in the light of his eyes. "It's too easy for people to paddle in and get waves with all the people out. They need to start from their stomachs and learn to paddle into waves properly." How can you argue with a guy who's been teaching for over 35 years (he launched his nationally accredited surf school in 1978)? And in all sorts of conditions, from the idyllic late summer and fall that see hurricane-warmed water flow in from the Caribbean, to fighting spring winds that discourage all but the hardiest of souls from venturing into the ocean.

Weather has never stopped Peter, a successful contest surfer, organizer and a member of the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame. He hasn't grown up. Later that afternoon, Jimmy and I are checking the surf again. We see him take off on a chest-high left and gracefully ride it 100 yards down the beach on his backhand. This is his Neverland.

The Teacher

The Builder.

Like most SUP surfers in Rhode Island, Dave Levy is pretty considerate when he rides a standup board in the waves. Generally, surfers in the area are fairly tolerant, especially if you show even a hint of reverence. The surf here is the real deal, with reef, beach and point breaks rivaling anything in the continental United States. The Ocean State's exposure lends itself to surf from both the east and south. Needless to say, the place has seen surfers playing its waters for decades, so the culture is well engrained.

That's why Levy is careful. He started Levy Surf Designs (or LSD, with a genius tag line: "What are you on?") in the 1970s and his boards are ridden by half the surfers in the water around Point Judith, a centerpiece of Rhode Island surf culture.

Even at 62 years old, Dave can still pretty much ride anything. As I'm paddling out, he takes off on a screaming left, his black wetsuit hood pulled securely over his head in the howling wind, paddle tracking against the face of the wave. He makes three easy top turns and carefully weaves his way through several prone surfers on the inside. "Because of the way Point Judith sticks out into the ocean, we can pretty much find good wind conditions anytime there's surf," he tells me later. It's a point of pride for most Rhode Islanders: there's always wind working in the right direction somewhere. As long as there's surf it's local ritual to follow the offshore wind, whether it's to Ruggles, a reef break in the famous seaside town of Newport, or Little Compton's hidden micro-bays or to the cobblestone points of Narragansett.

Dave builds boards for all those shops and more: SUPs for touring, longboards, short SUPs, traditional shortboards and fish shapes. He started out refurbishing classic designs so ding repair is also part of his game. "Dave is a really good craftsman," says Blakeney. "And surfers always like to support their local shaper."

The Teacher

The Rock.

Mike Simpson's white van is parked in front of a nice little old lady's beachside house in Little Compton, Rhode Island. He's inside eating breakfast with her, despite the waves in the water. That's because much of the surfing access in this part of the state—16 nautical miles north of Narragansett, but 55 miles in the car—is through private land. Like hers. Mike is a relationship guy. And he loves to explore the pristine, wooded coastline here and its little-known gems with his SUP.

"It's 6:30 in the morning and I'm sitting in her house eating biscuits she cooked and she's like, ‘I thought I'd be hearing from you when I noticed the surf was getting bigger,'" he imitates in his best high-pitched New England accent. This local understanding of the community allows him unparalleled access that most people aren't privy to. "You have to paddle to these places," he says. "It's exploration, that element. It's not as remote as Big Sur but it has that feeling of surfing something remote."

Mike is another talented athlete, a longtime surfer and whitewater kayaker who took to SUP in the early 2000s, combining his passions: paddling and expedition sports like backcountry skiing.

In 2011 Simpson and Will Rich paddled the entire length of the eastern seaboard, 2,000 miles from Florida to Maine. In 2013, Simpson ran 440 miles of the Connecticut River from Stewartstown, New Hampshire to the Long Island Sound. Then in 2014, he circumnavigated all 278 miles of the Puerto Rican coastline (SUP magazine was with him for part of the journey). But Simpson is anything but an ego-driven expeditionary. In Puerto Rico, the conditions didn't line up as planned so he paddled the coastline in broken sections. Plus, local Puerto Rican paddler, Meldrick Velez, wanted to go as well despite never having paddled any significant distance. But Simpson obliged, tweaking his trip so a native could join him on his mission to circle the island on standup boards. "He was so emotional about paddling around the island. It was a big deal," he says. "No matter where you go, this sport is as much about the people as it is the paddling."

The Rock

The Hero.

I can’t help but be inspired by Casi Rynkowski. A mother, climber, snowboarder and surfer, she drives 70 miles from inland North Grafton, Massachusetts any morning she wants to ride waves. Right now it’s snowing. Hard. But the conditions are clean and Casi is out in the water. I’m in the car, trying to warm up after my session (Hey, it’s brutally cold compared to the Southern California conditions I’m used to). She’s killing it, riding hip-high left after hip-high left, sprinting back out to the empty lineup ready to catch another one.

“I love paddling in Rhode Island. There’s nothing like it,” she says. “Touring the rocky coastline, surfing when there are waves, the rivers, it’s so rugged and beautiful.” Last year, Casi, along with fellow local paddler and surfer Rachel McCarty, attempted a difficult multi-day paddling trip: 50 miles down the Massachusetts coast battling heavy open-ocean conditions. And Casi had never camped before. They were eventually forced to cut the trip short after battling debilitating headwinds but the journey—even the attempt—paints a picture of the type of woman Casi is. She organizes snowboarding, climbing and paddling groups, teaches fitness classes and is a mother of three, two her own, one adopted. I’m definitely not the only one she inspires.

I huddle in Jimmy’s car and peel off the sopping five-mil wetsuit. My hands are brutally cold and I’m having a hard time feeling my feet. It’s been a half hour since I got out of the water and Casi is still going strong even though snow is starting to pile up on the car’s hood. She takes off on another wave and paddles hard to make it around the section, cruising in on the open face. Later, we sit in a booth at Crazy Burger talking with the small, core group that gathers to drink hot coffee. “I couldn’t imagine living any other way,” she says. “Living outdoors, playing hard with friends. This is what life is about.”

The hero

The Visitor.

My Rhode Island experience can be summed up in one, pneumonia-inducing day: Jimmy and I roll down to the Lighthouse, near his home, that sits on a beautiful point of land. The surf isn’t small. Ten foot faces roll through in disorganized fashion. On the north side of Point Judith, the wind grooms the faces and sets up the surf. On the south, the hefty breeze whips from a side angle, closing out the waves and generally curdling the conditions. Finding the right exposure, we spend the morning dodging bombs, having a ball in overhead surf.

“Dude, we aren’t done,” says Jimmy, with a smile as we load up the car, wetsuits and gear in the back and head to a local breakfast joint to grub down and warm up on coffee.

After our meal we drive to a long stretch of beach with a series of mini-sand bottom points. Miraculously, the wind backs off and the waves clean up further. Perfect 5-7 foot faces roll through all afternoon and we surf ourselves into exhaustion. Needless to say, I’m sold on Rhode Island, with its no-frills surf scene, miles of empty coastline and it’s points of land with perfect exposure — as long as you’re willing to adjust. And of course the people, with adventurous souls, who live amongst it.

The Visitor