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Legalized Surfing in Newport Celebrates 40 Years

Local surfers reflect back on days surfing in some spots of Newport was illegal, and how they changed the rules.

owner Sid Abruzzi was arrested in October of 1971 for refusing to stop surfing at a popular Ruggles Avenue surf spot. He was found guilty in district court by Judge Corrine Grande and decided to take action against the ordinance.

Two short months later, Abruzzi was vindicated when surfing at the spot was ruled legal. Today, Dec. 13, marks the 40th anniversary of the legalization of surfing at Ruggles Avenue.

Changing the Law

Before surfing there was legal, there was an ordinance with the City of Newport that forbid surfing from the corner of to which included surf spots at Cliff Avenue, Ruggles Avenue, and Marine Avenue. 

“I had turned 20 in August of 1971 and was selling surf boards full time. We surfed at these spots and it was tiring to keep getting kicked out of the water,” he said.

Abruzzi said it was believed that the caretakers of one of the nearby estates would call the police, who would show up and whistle at surfers to come out of the water. He recalled one evening when he and a group of surfers refused to stop surfing.

“I stayed to the limit and they threatened to tow my car.  When I finally came out of the water the police arrested me and gave me a court date in October 1971.  I was found guilty in district court and they fined me ten dollars.  I then put in an appeal to superior court,” he said.

While awaiting the hearing, surfers rallied at City Hall to try to convince the City Council to change their vote and the ordinance. The city kept the ordinance as it was, and on Dec. 13, 1971, the Superior Court hearing took place. 

The judge ruled that the city did not have the right to restrict surfing in the area and the law was out of the city’sbounds.  

The ordinance banning surfing in Newport hit home with a lot of locals, he added, who spent much of their time on the beach. Gomes and Abruzzi noted the Jenkins, Murphys, Hooks, Caseys, Walshs, and Burkes as some of the surfing pioneers in the Newport community.

The Rise of Surfing in Newport

In the early 1960s surfing was being introduced on the east coast and there were only a few surfers at the local spots in Newport, Abruzzi said.

“Once there were more people surfing in Newport the police took notice, and started making people come out of the ocean,” recalled Bill Gomes, of Portsmouth.

Gomes was one of the first individuals in Newport to begin surfing at Ruggles Avenue and other surf spots in the area.

“There were too many cars parked on the side of the road at Ruggles, Marine, and Cliff, and it was becoming too busy for the police’s liking.

“Long boarding was a style of the past, while short boarding became the thing to do,” recalled Gomes. 

Shorter boards allowed for maneuverable tricks and allowed surfers to get air, which weren’t skills acquired overnight.  “We didn’t have films back then that we could learn from.  We learned from what we saw in Surfer Magazine or in California, and most importantly from watching each other out there surfing.”

Surfing Memories

Abruzzi recalled a friend who is now a surfer now in Santa Cruz and formerly of Newport, was so into surfing that when the police would threaten to tow his car he would yell, “Take the car and leave the surf racks!”

Gomes said one of his friends who did not cooperate with the police when they told him to stop surfing was placed under arrest when he came out of the water.  This story was featured in Surfing East Magazine during the mid 1960s and gained attention toward the ordinance that banned surfing in Newport. 

Abruzzi recounted one occasion he and other surfers rescued a fishing boat that capsized off the coastline of Ruggles. The surfers paddled all of the fishermen to shore on their surfboards, he said, and even after saving the fishermen the police still told the surfers to get out of the water. 

“As a kid you looked for things to do, and around here surfing was it.  We knew everyone out there in the water, even those who weren’t locals.  We’d say ‘Oh that’s Joe from Tiverton!’ or ‘There’s the kid from Portsmouth!’ We watched out for our home court like in any sport, we looked out for it.”  

cobra December 14, 2011 at 04:30 PM
we in San Francisco,ca went through something similar in the late 1970's early 1980"s to surf Fort Point legally.Just a lot of political B/S,ans as a way of stopping people from having fun!Next they'll make having fun illegal or laughing,or something stupid like that.Come on our Political leaders aren't known for having any common sense?Oh I forgot they don't teach that in school?Do they? Cobra!
norwaysurf December 19, 2011 at 12:13 PM
Windsurfing in waves and surfing is criminal activity on most good wave sites in Norway (big wave spot). Reason is the environmental authorities of Norway (who also likes to watch birds) claims that surfing in big waves frighten birds to death in winter. The same corrupt government make law proposals and documentation basis for the law. Environmental Authority ordered a study to prove that windsurfing would be banned because of serious damage to the birds, the scientist concluded that windsurfing was not to harm the birds, they kept the study but the bird lovers at environmental authorities changed the conclusion to the opposite.!! The scientist who performed the study have protested but the government does not care because they are receiver for our complaints on the matter. Onshore at the illegal surf locations, the government created parking spaces, suitable for (bird watchers) tourists and outdoor activities. (Swimming / canoeing / boating, fishing, etc. are legal) There are some permitted places for surfing, but where they have laid down a ban on driving to the site or to park (you will receive fines). The reason for this is the claim that we destroy nature! One of these places is a place where farmers have thrown waste rocks from the fields for hundreds of years and where there is a small marina. If you want to see the madness? Go surfing in Norway, double exciting, go surfing and possibly go to jail.
Joe Smalls February 14, 2012 at 09:02 AM
Sid just won the powerball worth 326 million and is building a skate park in Queen Anne Square as well as a 12' vert ramp in Washington park. He will not retire, but support the local community of Newport, RI

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