Surfing in Rhode Island
Surfing has been an integral part of Rhode Island's rich coastal culture since the mid-1950s. Rhode Island established itself on the surfing world's map by providing surfers with well-known breaks such as Matunuck, Ruggles, and Point Judith. Having over 30 surf spots within its 40 miles of open-water coastline, Rhode Island serves as the Northeast's premier surfing location, rivaled only by Cape Cod. Rhode Island's coastline consists of sandy and gravel beaches, as well as rocky points, creating a variety of surf breaks.
A rocky point break, such as Narragansett's Point Judith, provides surfers with a diverse array of wave types, ranging from long, lazy rollers to heavy, hollow barrels. The geography of the point allows these large swells to approach the land at an angle, causing each wave to gradually break to the right or left. Such conditions prevent the waves from crashing over all at once, a phenomenon known as "closing out" in the surfing community. The gradually breaking waves at Point Judith provide surfers with longer rides and help to establish the point as a preferred surfing location. These waves are not for beginners, however. Point Judith's rocky shoreline, heavy undertow, and dangerously powerful waves render it a surf spot suitable for only the most experienced surfers. During storm swells, such as those produced by late summer offshore hurricanes, wave heights at Point Judith can reach and exceed 15 feet.
For a safer, more relaxed surfing experience, Rhode Island also offers several beach breaks, such as Narragansett Town Beach or Newport's Easton's Beach. Although providing less consistent surf, Rhode Island's sandy beach breaks are a great spot for less experienced surfers to have as much fun as the experts. Waves at a sandy beach break tend to provide shorter rides than those at a point. Since the swells are nearly parallel to the shoreline, each section of the wave reaches shallow water simultaneously, causing the wave to close out. However, bottom contour irregularities and sandbars cause some sections of a wave to break earlier than others and make the wave "ridable" for at least a short time.
During the summer, crowded beach conditions require authorities to designate sections of some beaches as "swimming only." Although this helps to make the beaches safer for swimmers, it inhibits surfers from spreading out, and ultimately makes it difficult to surf on crowded days. To avoid the crowds, try surfing in the morning or the evening, or avoid the popular beaches altogether.
By Charlie Festa, former URI Coastal Fellow for Rhode Island Sea Grant
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