Feature: Surf’s Up in South County

Local legend Peter Pan and Rhode Island Surf Co. owner Walle Hutton dive into the ins and outs of East Coast surfing


The siren songs of the Beach Boys and Brian Hyland’s promises of itsy bitsy teenie weenie bikinis first drew Peter Pan to the surfboard when he was just 13 years old, and 60 years later, he still spends his days in the surf. “It’s an addiction,” he says of the hobby that became a career through surfing competitions, surfboard design, and Narragansett Surf & Skate, the surf shop he opened in 2000, where he now teaches those new to the sport. 

Over the decades, Pan’s seen some shifts in surf trends. “It never again hit the height of the ‘60s,” he says. “Surfing died out in the ‘70s, then bodyboarding became popular in the ‘80s but died out in the ‘90s.” COVID brought a new generation of surfers to the beach and many of them have stuck around. “It was one of the first sports you could go out and do and nobody was going to hassle you,” he reflects of its draw.   

But despite the changes in popularity, the thing that keeps serious surfers coming back for more is as steady as the tides. “The waves are really good here,” Pan says. “They’re probably the best waves on the East Coast because we have all reef and rock breaks, and we take every wind direction.” 

Walle Hutton, who owns Rhode Island Surf Co. in Westerly, agrees, adding that the Rhode Island geography also has an impact. “We have a lot of diversity in the coastline,” he says. “In New Jersey, for example, the beaches all point the same direction, so if it’s windy in one spot, you find that same wind in another spot. Here you can find nooks and crannies where you get good surf when the surf in other places looks unrideable.” 

A strong testament to the state’s underrated waves is Jeff Foye, a surfer who moved to Rhode Island from Southern California, who explains that the waves on each coast have different character. “The surf here is less consistent than in California,” he says, “but if you think about it in terms of a year, I have more days of high-quality surf here. I think that has a lot to do with the coastline.” The SoCal surfer has also learned to appreciate surfing as a winter sport. “A few times I’ve been able to surf while it’s snowing. It kind of feels like you’re someplace you’re not supposed to be.” 

Pan also loves winter surfing because the hobbyists hunker down at home, leaving more waves for the serious surfers. But seasonal changes affect the type of equipment surfers need. “The wetsuit and gloves and boots you need to stay warm can add about 40 pounds, so you need a thick board that can float under all that extra weight,” he says. Hutton adds that winter surfing requires a balance between flotation and performance. “In the winter, wave profiles tend to be stronger because of nor’easters. So the boards do have to be able to float under the weight of a wetsuit, but they also have to perform well in steep surf.”   

Most serious surfers have a quiver – a collection of boards that answer the different seasonal needs or the types of waves they enjoy. “It’s like an artist’s collection of paintbrushes,” says Hutton. When he opened his surf shop, he wanted to help surfers fine-tune their quivers. “I wanted to focus on the creatives and craftsmen of the industry,” he says of his approach. Eventually, he developed a broad network of artists and got into custom work. “There are so many combinations you can get from a block of foam. I wanted to rely on the expertise of other shapers to provide surfboards that work well in the wave profiles we have in Rhode Island.”

The key to good custom work is listening to customers and providing them with a positive experience. “I want to know where someone surfs and what kind of waves they like. I want to know their skill level and where they want to be. I want to know what they like and dislike about the boards they’re currently riding,” he says. Within all this conversation, Hutton sees opportunity, and that helps him find the ideal shape for each individual. “They end up with a piece of functional art. It’s so beautiful when someone comes back to the shop to tell me that yes, the epiphany happened, and the ride was super fun.”   

For those just starting out, Hutton recommends what he calls a “utility knife” of surfboards. “You want a long board that is big and forgiving. Something that will give you the most success immediately so you don’t get discouraged.”

Pan aims to give new surfers an encouraging introductory experience through his shop, which offers surf lessons and camps. “I like teaching someone who really wants to learn,” he says. He makes sure his students understand surfing etiquette, which ultimately keeps everyone safe. “I tell the people I teach that if someone takes off on a wave, they own that wave,” he says, because a crowded wave can lead to an accident. 

Hutton is a strong supporter of new surfers in the water contributing to the local scene’s diversity, not only because of who they are, but because of the different styles of
surfing they choose. “It adds to the creativity of what you see out there,” he says, adding that the South County surf culture is “awesome.” “In New England, the waves aren’t as consistent as they are in other places, so when there are waves, people drop everything to surf. They’re super happy and stoked just to be out there.”   

For Pan, surfing adds a layer of spirituality to his life. “I have to go surf or I start to go nuts,” he says. “Only a surfer knows the feeling. You’re sitting in the water, the sun is going down and the waves are coming in. You can’t buy that. You have to experience it.”


Learn to Surf

From lessons and camps to customizable boards and rentals, South County surf shops can connect you with the gear to chase the perfect wave.

Boards, gear, and wetsuits (only at the Westerly shop)
Westerly, WeAreCivil.com

DiamondBlue Surf Shop
Clothing and gear, lessons, and board rentals
Block Island, DiamondBlueBI.com

Drift Surf Shop
Custom boards and gear, lessons, rentals, and ding repair services
Wakefield, DriftSurfShop.com

Gansett Groms
Lessons and board/equipment rentals
Narragansett, GansettGroms.com

Levy Surf Designs (LSD)
Custom boards and ding repair
Narragansett, LevySurfDesigns.wordpress.com

Matunuck Surf Shop
Boards and gear, ding repair, and rentals

Narragansett Surf & Skate Shop
Boards and gear, lessons, camp, and rentals

Paddle Surf RI
Lessons, camps, and board rentals, plus kayaking and paddle boarding
Westerly, PaddleSurfRI.com

Rhode Island Surf Co.
Custom boards, gear, wetsuits, and more
Westerly, RhodeIslandSurfCo.com

Soundings Surf Co.
Custom boards, which can be ordered online
Charlestown, SoundingsSurfCo.com

Warm Winds
Boards, lessons, camp, and rentals
Narragansett, WarmWinds.com



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