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The "R" Word

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by Eugenio Volpe

When I was sixteen, my older buddies drove me down to Newport for the first time to go surfing. It was the days before webcams and online reports when you called Sid on a rotary phone, hanging up at busy signals and re-dialing a hundred times until finally getting through. Growing up in the Boston area, I’d never heard of Newport. I was however reading The Great Gatsby at school, or at least supposed to be reading it. I watched the Robert Redford movie instead, which was filmed at Newport’s Rosecliff and Marble House mansions, just some seventy-odd miles from my Boston-area home. Perhaps I would have been more interested in reading the novel had Fitzgerald’s Gatsby been a Ruggles heavy sponsored by Water Bros.

I didn’t read a page of The Great Gatsby or any other book that year. I passed English with a C-. I’d been surfing for two winters and was already ditching homework for Surfer and Surfing. My world was small. It was shrinking intellectually yet expanding in terms of surf geography. I barely knew of Gatsby’s Newport, but I was well informed when it came to Rincon, Jeffreys Bay, and Pipeline. I couldn’t remember the name of The Great Gatsby’s protagonist, but I’d heard of some guy from Newport named Kirk Razza who could do airs.

It was mid-March the first I surfed Ruggles. My friends Shawn and Lenny picked me up at my house. With our boards strapped to the roof of Shawn’s VW Rabbit, and me crammed in the backseat with wetsuit bags, we headed down to Newport flipping through surf magazines and blaring Bad Brains. Lenny and Shawn had started surfing in Newport the previous summer. They were always coming back with stories of a surf spot called Ruggles. It sounded like a tough place. Being from Boston, I associated it with the orange line, with Ruggles Station, located on the border of Roxbury and Mission Hill. At the time, both places were crime-ridden, predominantly black. The very thought of the orange line scared the crap out of most white suburban kids. I transferred the fear of Ruggles Station to the surfing location of the same name. Shawn and Lenny talked Ruggles up as a big wave spot, a heavy wave with lots of rocks and hardcore locals. They talked about some Brazilian guy named Fabio who surfed like Sunny Garcia. They told me not to drop in on anyone or I would get yelled at and most likely kicked out of the lineup. I was a cocky kid who had never been anywhere except his grandmother’s house in the city every Sunday for spaghetti dinner. I was slowly going nowhere and blissfully ignorant about it.

I had never seen anything quite like Salve Regina campus. I’d never seen mansions like that, so big and so many. The son a union laborer and waitress, I was ambivalent towards wealth. I hated the idea of rich people rubbing it in my face. I hated the idea of rich people exploiting the craftsmanship of Italian laborers like my father and grandfather. I loved the idea of me myself being rich and surfing wherever and whenever I wanted. I loved the idea of being a Jay Gatsby on my 6’4” Spectrum and fluorescent yellow O’Neil wetsuit.

The mansions surrounding Ruggles looked and felt fairytale. I was awestruck and hadn’t even seen the waves yet. The road was lined with surfers, the parking lot packed with them. Marshfield didn’t have much of a surf scene in those days. Newport was happening. It had an actual surfing culture. For me it was the next best thing to Santa Cruz, the cliff walk and all the Pearson Arrows. Everybody looked like they ripped. Everybody had attitude. Everybody had cool-looking wetsuits and boards. I had a Rip Curl farmer john wetsuit and a pink-railed Local Motion. I was quickly realizing how much of a kook I was, how much I had to learn. I hadn’t even paddled out yet.

The waves that day were big, offshore, and cold. I paddled straight out to the peak. I paddled for everything. Locals gave me stink eye. They dropped in on me. They paddled into me. They tried running me over. I was still too much of a newbie to really get it. I hassled the locals and they hassled me back. I was clueless. I had my head up my ass. In short, I had a fucking blast. The wave itself lived up to the hype. Like all great spots, it elevated my game while at the same time putting me in my place. Seeing other surfers ripping also elevated my game and put me in my place. I suppose it was why my older friends brought me, the grom, to Ruggles in the first place.

For the next few years, we surfed Ruggles regularly. I thought it was the end-all in New England surfing. We always stopped by Water Bros. before and after each session to talk it up with Sid. He never presented Ruggles to us as a secret. If anything, he encouraged us to surf there. If anything he was always happy to have us around. After another session or two, I finally figured out the whole surf etiquette thing. Out in the lineup, we were tolerated. We stayed out of the way. We surfed there respectfully. We still managed to catch some great waves. Some of the local Newport guys would sometimes come up to Marshfield during northeast swells. That guy Fabio came to our local spot in Brant Rock one swell and ripped the place to shreds.

Things were getting pretty cozy for me out at Ruggles until Hurricane Gabrielle in 1989. Sid hosted Wes Laine and some other pros during that historic swell. Surfer was there to document it. The swell won Ruggles an entire feature article the following spring. Ruggles blew up. From my perspective, the crowd drastically increased at Ruggles thereafter. Perhaps more kids started applying to Salve as a result. More guys from the north came down to surf during south swells. Whatever it was, Ruggles became nearly impossible to surf without growing a hair across your ass. Ruggles became the place to be and thus turned me off. It became the literal end-all. I did enjoy listening to edgy locals bark at pushy Salve students. I didn’t blame the locals. I envied them. It would get so crowded out there that the only way to sometimes catch a wave was by taking local liberties. I didn’t have that privilege so I started surfing elsewhere. I wasn’t happy sitting there for three hours to catch eight waves. I was better than that. I wasn’t getting my fill and I was too polite and too self-conscious to scrap for it.

One thing that has always impressed me is how Sid manages to promote Ruggles without ever falling out of favor with his friends. We all know the story of how Sid legalized the spot. It has certainly gotten him off the hook for promoting it over the years too. Sid is the man. Sid is an institution unto himself. The locals seem to revere him still, which is a testament to how confident they are that they will catch more than their fair share of waves during a given swell. It is peculiar that the more popular Ruggles becomes the less cool it is to talk about it publically. It’s been featured in countless national and local surf articles and yet I still feel guilty naming it as a spot here and now.

After a few years of being a northeast surf bum, after years of literally and metaphorically going nowhere, I eventually rediscovered my intellectual self. At twenty-two, I became a college freshman. I majored in English literature and philosophy. I became an academic. I read The Great Gatsby. I read everything by Fitzgerald. I read enough to kick some serious ass on the GRE literature test. I became a college professor (still only adjunct though). Five years ago, I started teaching at Roger Williams University. I now surf Little Compton all the time. I love surfing there. It’s got everything I like and need. I haven’t surfed Ruggles since 1998.

This winter I was hired to teach a class at Salve entitled “What It Means to be Human?” It’s a core literature/philosophy course. I was thrilled. I’ve long been convinced that being a professor is the best possible job for a surfer. Being a professor at Salve with Ruggles right around the corner is a dream come true, something I’ve fantasized about since grad school. At first, I was beyond excited about the prospect. I had dreamy thoughts of surfing Ruggles before and after class. Sure it was crowded out there, but I’ve lived in Santa Barbara and could catch a decent amount of waves at Rincon. I am fit. I am able. I was thinking that I was willing, but then I pulled up to Ruggles a few weeks ago before my morning class. It was packed. It was too much of a scene for me. I felt out of place. Ruggles had somehow moved past me, or maybe I have moved past it. I don’t even think the wave is all that good. Sure it’s powerful. But really? Why would I want to surf there? There are plenty of other waves, less crowded ones that are just as fun. Ruggles’ best feature is that it can hold size. Otherwise, it reminds me of Steamer Lane. The wave looks sick. It feels good underfoot, but leaves much to be desired once you’re actually riding it.

I drove away from Ruggles knowing that despite teaching at Salve I doubt I’ll surf there again. Maybe I am too old for the place, but I don’t think that’s it. I still like mixing it up. I am still a scrapper, but you got to love the thing that you’re fighting for. I don’t love Ruggles. I don’t even like it, not even as a friend. I don’t know what this means. It sounds ridiculous, but I wish more people would think this way before paddling out at a break. Ruggles isn’t for the majority of people out there on a given day. One of the qualities that make us human is refusing to believe what is best for us. Humans seldom come to terms with what they need. They mostly think in terms of what they want. Surfers should give this thought before being the thirtieth person to paddle into a lineup. Some spots just aren’t for everybody. Sometimes it has to do with ability, but sometimes it’s just about timing and/or personality. Sometimes it’s just about human decency.

My world is both shrinking and expanding again, but this time in different directions. I will be teaching at Salve for the rest of the spring semester and doubt I will paddle out at Ruggles despite my being down the street from it. There’s a good chance that I might not even check it ever again. Miki Dora once said something about surfing not existing when there aren’t any waves to ride. Maybe if I ignore Ruggles, it might cease to exist. Once synonymous with New England surfing, Ruggles no longer holds center stage. No spot in particular does. It’s a different world. The Internet now allows all New England surfers to have their fifteen minutes of fame during each swell (NESURF, Facebook, blogs). There is no longer a single hallmark location. I would even argue that unless well overhead, nobody takes Ruggles all that seriously. It’s a circus out there and nobody ever goes to the circus anymore. It’s become similar to Point Judith, over-crowded and over-hyped but obscure and irrelevant at the same time. Who really even surfs there? You’ve got to be crazy, or selfish, or attention-starved.

I am maybe all of those things, but Ruggles isn’t for me. I’ve come to terms with this. It’s not even mine enough to talk about. Can I even say its name without getting in trouble? Is Ruggles a secret spot or media whore? Should I even be saying the word Ruggles in public? Is it like a white suburban kid rapping the N-word in his favorite N.W.A song? It’s not for me to say. But it is my opinion that you shouldn’t say Ruggles unless you’ve given birth there. You shouldn’t say Ruggles unless you’ve hosted a pro surfer there. You shouldn’t say Ruggles unless they say you can say Ruggles. I am down with all that, which is why I’ll never surf there again, which is why I will never again mention its name. Ruggles. One last time. Let that be its end-all.


0 #3 nautilus 2013-04-07 11:16
As for no mention of the Ruggles/Cliff Walk issue not being in the story - maybe it belongs there, maybe not. In any case, for the record, Eugenio emailed his essay to me for posting well before the Ruggles/Cliff Walk story hit the news. I didn't have time to post it until 2-3 weeks after it had arrived in my in-box. The two things appearing coincidently at NESurf is a pure coincidence.
0 #2 nautilus 2013-04-07 07:56
While some readers read all literature literally, others enjoy written words as metaphors that travel across space and time. Gatsby lives today on Cape Cod, Palm Beach, Newport Beach and yes, Newport RI.
0 #1 jon jon 2013-04-06 23:05
eugene, as a literary scholar you should know that the great gatsby was set in long island. oh, and no mention of the ruggles fiasco that's going on in your 500-word Ruggles essay? great job. you really are full of yourself. as a 25 year south shore surfer, i'm ashamed that you 'represent' us.

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