(Tough) Love + SUP: SUPSurf Session with Rhode Island Surfing Legend Peter Pan

Remember that time when Fitness Adventurer Jonaliza D. Ceklic had a one-on-one SUPsurf session in Narragasett, Rhode Island with surfing legend Peter Panagiotis? Well, we don’t either because it happened in 2017 and the story was never published. Until now–picking up where her Love+SUP adventure left off.

It’s Too Cold To SUPsurf? Not For Pan

Most people would find it unfathomable to want to dip even just the tip of a finger into the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean in the dead of winter. But for Rhode Island surfing legend Peter Panagiotis, it’s his favorite time to be on the water.

“Don’t worry,” He consoled me, handing over a black wetsuit, gloves and boots to match, “These will keep you warm.”

A few months back, I had decided I was ready to take my paddling to the next level and reached out to Peter to guide me. After all, it was through Peter Pan Surfing and SUP Academy where I learned the basics of SUP-ing (Thanks, Maria!), so I figured he would be best to introduce me to SUPsurfing.

Unfortunately for a warm weather girl like me, it was all going to happen in the cold. My whole body shivered at the thought. His face beamed at the sight of my struggle, maybe for reassurance, and said, “We’ll have a lot of fun!!”

Peter Pan giving SUPsurfing tips before jumping in the water – Narragansett, RI


Many would attest that while most Rhodies are sitting by the fire sipping hot cocoa and enjoying the comfort of their warm home at this time of the year, Peter can be seen catching the wintry New England waves off the shores of his hometown of Narragansett, covered head-to-toe in neoprene, his performance unaffected by the freezing water and air temperatures. It was a regular sighting to many locals living in this cute, little seaside town on the southern end of the Ocean State. Because to Peter, surfing is life.

Peter Pan: A Living Surfing Legend

For well over 40 years, Peter has surfed the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, maintaining his trademarked name “Peter Pan” as prominent as it has been since he started making headlines for his surfing prowess in various disciplines including SUP, which awarded him a spot in the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame in 1996.

To this day, Peter is a local living legend and continues to be active in the surfing community where he directs competitions, competes in and wins titles in multiple divisions, putting a lot of the younger surfers to shame.

While not on the water, he runs Surf & Skate Narragansett with his daughter. He also teaches various fitness classes (including SurfSET Fitness) at the local YMCA, keeping this 60+ year old athlete in tip-top shape.

In short, the adrenaline rush as a result of his very active surf-centric lifestyle routinely flows through the veins of his body and nothing–not even the harshest weather conditions–can stop him from getting on a board.

The surfing legend of RI in action – Narragansett, RI [Photo: Lisa Haase]

The Ocean State: A Northeastern Surfing Destination

It also doesn’t hurt that Rhode Island offers some of the best surfing experiences in the northeast. And Peter couldn’t be more proud of that.

“We probably have the best surfing locations anywhere in the entire Eastern seaboard, without a doubt!” He told me as we got in his truck and began to make our way over to the secret surf spot where he teaches beginners.

“The best proof of this statement is the fact that, thanks to the internet, when there is a swell, surfers and SUP-ers from the entire East Coast and all over [the nation] will travel to Rhode Island to ride our perfect waves,” He continued, making a right onto Ocean View Drive and heading south. ”We have numerous point and reef breaks that are ideal for SUPsurfing because they are long, easy to ride, and slow moving.”

I was determined to pick up SUPsurfing quickly and asked him where these locations were for future solo sessions. He recommended, “The best spots would be the world famous Matunuck Point which offers five separate reef breaks in one location, K-39 (Breakwater Village), Conant Avenue and Pilgrim Avenue, the Narragansett Town Beach, and First Beach in Newport. These are all rider-friendly waves for SUP-ers.”

Falling Is A Big Part of Learning

We arrived at an unnamed rocky beach by a residential home off of Ocean View Drive where the swells were small and gentle, the winds blew offshore, and the waves broke slowly, making it a perfect setup for a beginner like me to learn how to SUPsurf. It was a typical New England winter–very cold, very gray and very dreary. The only thing missing was snow.

Peter Pan encouraging Jonaliza to catch a wave – Narragansett, RI [Photo: Lisa Haase]
As we prepared to get in the water to begin our lessons, boards in hand–mine was a BicSUP 9’2″ AceTec Performer–I felt a small splash of the cold on my face, hesitated and asked, “Am I going to be warm enough to do this?”

“Yes!” Peter replied as he got on his board and began to paddle towards the horizon, “Essential gear for winter SUPsurfing are 5mm to 6mm taped full suits with helmets attached, as well as 7mm boots and 5mm five finger gloves– all of which you have on now. If you are not going to go out in rough surf, or are flat water paddling instead, my choice is the Ocean Rodeo full-on dry suit with attached feet and a hooded jacket. That thing is awesome!!”

He was right. I didn’t feel the cold one bit which allowed me to focus on my lesson.

For the next two hours, I paddled back and forth (and fell in the water), parallel to the waves (and fell in the water), against the waves (and fell in the water) and with the waves (and fell in the water), attempting to ride at least one back to shore. It was definitely harder than how Peter and other pros make it look. Mad props to all of you!

Alongside me, Peter demonstrated, instructed and coached me at every attempt. His teaching style was a bit unconventional and “tough love”, but he was encouraging throughout the whole experience. “Falling is part of learning!” He cheered me on.

After a few attempts, Jonaliza finally catches a baby wave – Narragansett, RI [Photo: Lisa Haase]

The Longest Running Winter Surfing Contest

After a while, I exhausted my last bit of energy and finally let a wave take me back to the beach on my board like a baby otter riding on the belly of its mom. I felt a little defeated that I didn’t accomplish what I had come out to do, but this was my first lesson and mentally, I hadn’t given up. There were many more to come!

“Next time, I’ll have the 10’6” AceTec Performer for you,” unlike me, Peter seamlessly rode a wave back to the beach to catch up with me and plan out our session, “It’s bigger so it’ll be more stable and you’ll be able to catch a wave then.”

He believed in me. And that was all the encouragement I needed to want to try again.

And perhaps seeing other surfers do it would also help. “There’s a cool contest coming up you should check out: the 50th Annual New England Mid-Winter Surfing Championships in Narragansett,” He yelled out to me as he began to paddle his way back to catch some more waves–he wasn’t done surfing just yet. “This is officially the oldest continuously running winter surfing contest in the world! No fake news or B.S. We run our ESA SUPsurf event with our regular surf divisions. It is always a chilling experience!”

I ended up checking it out. Watching surfers of all ages have so much fun regardless of the cold made me very inspired and enthusiastic about getting back on the water. I wanted to be riding waves like they were, and I knew that would only come with practice.

Photo: Lisa Haase