On a recent Sunday, the usual grad school crowd at the Cable Car Cinema in Providence gave way to something different — the wind-lashed faces and sea-worn hands of Rhode Island’s oft-ignored surfing community.
The occasion: an event titled “First Light” that was organized by Providence Dawn Patrol, a loose affiliation of surfers who get up before daylight, put on wetsuits, and scour the state in search of the ideal wave. All before work.
“It’s a tribal thing. You get up at 5:15 and drive to where it’s good,” said Russell Preston, a Dawn Patroller.
Outside the theatre’s doors, riders shared war stories. Inside, between international surfing films, photographer Meghan Sepe ran a slide show with images of surfers in Narragansett, Newport, and Matunuck.
Board makers, known as “shapers,” were also a presence. Australian Peter Walker spoke of the laser cutters behind decorative inlays. Slight shifts in design, he emphasized, can tweak the physics of the board.
Kevin Cunningham, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate, showed off waffle-shaped boards made of wood — a material respected by surfers for its tradition, but often avoided due to its density.
Wil Kinnane, a Little Compton native and experienced surfer, said most serious riders bypass Rhode Island, thinking the surf too small. But he is quick to evangelize. “I tell them, ‘Yeah, there’s waves, and it’s world class,’ ” he said.
During hurricane season, surfers insist, Newport and Narragansett host swells of epic proportions. Local riders and professionals flocked to Narragansett’s Point Judith Lighthouse when Hurricane Bill struck in 2009, catching the attention of some pro surf magazines.
“That’s the gold right there,” said an audience member, recalling that day.
Providence Dawn Patrol has expansion on the mind. Members are rounding up “groms” or amateur surfers. But, as they’ll tell you, surfing requires some serious commitment.
“You have to drop everything,” says surfer Elissia Wahl, “to go surfing.”