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Surf’s up in Narragansett: Riders are social distancing themselves on the waves

Even as much of the nation is shelters in place, waters off the coast of New England are still peppered with surfers, including this one at Rhode Island's Narragansett Beach.Stan Grossfeld/ Globe Staff

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — Peter Pan is giddy.

Business at his Narragansett Surf & Skate Shop is booming, the sky is clearing, the waves are building, and he’s going surfing.

The surfing legend’s real name is Peter Panagiotis, but nobody has called him that since a surfing announcer couldn’t pronounce his Greek last name at a 1967 tournament.

Peter Pan says surfing in the ocean is the best place to be during this pandemic.

‘Surfing is an addiction. Instead of drinking or gorging on food or watching TV or the Internet, you surf and it’s healthy. I have been surfing since I was 13 years old. And I’m 70 now, so that should tell you how bad of an addiction it is.’

Peter Panagiotis, owner of the Narragansett Surf & Skate Shop in Rhode Island

"It’s an anti-social sport," says the 5-foot-5-inch Pan, who weighs 134 pounds soaking wet. "The object with surfing is you want to surf by yourself. It’s like one wave, one person, that’s the way it goes.


A solitary surfer rides a wave near Point Judith, R.I., a popular spot, but one where specific details are kept quiet in the possessive tradition of the sport.Stan Grossfeld/ Globe Staff

"You hate to have somebody near you, so you’re usually in the water screaming at people to get away from you. So it’s the ideal situation. It’s a paddle out, stay the hell away from me, and let me surf."

Pan only opens his shop for a few hours in the afternoon in the offseason. Every year, he has to borrow money to get through the seasonal lull, but not this year.

“It’s the busiest winter we’ve ever had in 20 years. I’d say it’s up easily over 50 percent,” he says.

Part of the reason has been unseasonably warm weather, but the coronavirus closings brought in plenty of new business.

"People come in and say, ‘Good, can’t work, let’s go surfing.’ It’s been like nonstop ever since the coronavirus started because it’s really a relatively safe sport to do outside."

Peter Pan avoids well-known surf spots due to overcrowding, an idea that's doubly sound at a time of social distancing, but clearly not universally observed.Stan Grossfeld/ Globe Staff

He excuses himself and changes into his wet suit. It’s a gorgeous 50-degree spring day with 41-degree water and 6-foot waves, and he is eager to hit the surf.

"Surfing is an addiction," says Pan, who was inducted into the original class of the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame in 1996.


"Instead of drinking or gorging on food or watching TV or the Internet, you surf and it’s healthy. I have been surfing since I was 13 years old. And I’m 70 now, so that should tell you how bad of an addiction it is."

As a younger man, he worked in New York City for eight years and hated it.

"I’d rather surf and make no money," he says.

He has stopped here only as a convenient meeting point, because his favorite surfing sites are a secret. He wanted to surf with his daughter, Tricia, but she has to deal with the kids.

Instead, his friend, Jennifer Costanza, a social research consultant who knows to give Pan his distance, meets the energetic surfer. Costanza is stressed out over the pandemic and confesses she has been a virtual shut-in.

Clad in wetsuits to combat spring water temperatures in the mid-40s, surfers prepare to paddle out at Narragansett Beach, just off the opening of Narragansett Bay.Stan Grossfeld/ Globe Staff

"This is my only time leaving the house today, and I don’t leave the house at all,'' she says. "I’m having my groceries delivered.''

Surfing, she says, is an adrenaline rush and the centerpiece of her life.

"It's just really nice to be in the ocean and be at one with nature and just not have to think about other things going on in your life."

Off they go in separate vehicles to the secret location, in the vicinity of Point Judith. Please keep the surfing location vague, Pan pleads.

Surfers are extremely territorial, right?

"Exactly," he said. "That’s why we keep telling everybody from Cape Cod to stay on Cape Cod."


Business is booming at the Narragansett Surf & Skate Shop, open since 1966 and still operating two blocks from the water, near its original location. Peter "Peter Pan" Panagiotis says this will be the rare year he won't need to borrow money to get through the offseason lull.Stan Grossfeld/ Globe Staff

As soon as he arrives on a side street, he sees other cars and trucks parked along the edge of the road.

"Oh, there’s my electrician," he says.

Mike Bashaw is balancing his surfboard on his head, a big smile on his face.

"I just came from Matunuck," he says. "There are a million people there."

How can that be safe?

"We are automatically 6 feet apart, so it doesn’t matter," he says.

Bashaw, too, knows to give Pan extra space.

"He’ll tell you, ‘Oh, it’s no good over here and to go in the other direction.' ''

Pan enjoys a lively 90 minutes dancing on his surfboard, riding the waves and soaking up the rays. Then when it gets more crowded, he suddenly disappears.

Other surfers return, gushing about the perfect escape from the pandemic.

“It’s an anti-social sport,” says 70-year-old Peter Panagiotis, better known as Peter Pan. “The object with surfing is you want to surf by yourself. It's like one wave, one person, that's the way it goes."Stan Grossfeld/ Globe Staff

"It was beautiful out there," says Sara McCombs, of Wakefield, R.I., who says she was playing hooky from work.

But not everyone is keeping a safe distance. Later at Narragansett Beach, a trio of surfers paddle out together. That’s risky, according to experts.

"It’s unclear if swimming at salt water beaches elevates the risk of contracting COVID-19," according to Katie Day, staff scientist at Surfrider Foundation. "However, surfing in crowded areas where you are not able to conduct social distancing will increase your risk of getting sick. This includes in the parking lot, on the beach, in the water, and everywhere in between."


Back at the Narragansett Surf and Skate Shop, there are a half-dozen customers, a shoulder length apart.

Evan Mansolillo, a 21-year-old surfer and a skateboarder, is working behind the cash register. He says social distancing is more natural in the ocean.

"Even if no one’s sick, everyone enjoys their personal space out in the water."

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at stanley.grossfeld@globe.com.