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Photo: Gus Potter.

SID ABRUZZI – THE STORY OF A SURF AND SKATE CORE LEGEND PART two

Following the upcoming release of a movie on the Rhode Island hero, we take a deeper dive into his story.
Reading Time: 12 minutes

Earlier this week we released the first part of a feature on Sid Abruzzi from Issue 587 of the mag to coincide with the upcoming release of a film titled ‘WATER BROTHER: THE SID ABBRUZZI STORY’. You can learn more about the film and read the first part of the feature here.

Read on to check out the second part of the feature written by Tony John Andrews.

6. Origin(al)

In a certain sense, Sid’s comeback is an attempt to regenerate momentum, to cut back to the power source, of a ride that began in 1959.

Sid is eight, sitting with his cousin in the back-seat of his aunt’s station wagon, his brow pressed to the window. As the car nears the top of the hill, First Beach rises into view. Bands of white water rake the shore.

“Look!”

Sid grabs his cousin and points.

“Woah!”

Out beyond the breakwater, the figure of a man stands on a plank impossibly propelled by the sea. It’s the coolest thing he’s ever seen.

“You’re never gonna do that,” Sid’s aunt tells his cousin.

In that moment, Sid hears the call of the spectacular and the forbidden. He begs his parents for aboard. In the style of the time, it’s three times his height. During summers, he and Magoo strap it to a wagon and wheel it the mile and a half to First Beach, where they take turns flopping in the mushy waves.

Soon, the boys surf well. Others take notice. A posse forms, Bob and Benny Dead among them. Sid and the boys screw roller-skate wheels to two-by-fours and skate homemade boards through the streets. They find banked walls in grocery store lots and the unfinished housing developments all over town, where they replicate the turns they’re doing in the water.

The teen years dawn. Ice cream cones become cheap beer and weed. It’s Newport in the ‘60s.A host of films — Gidget, A Summer Place, Jazzon a Summer’s Day — link surfing to the youth imagination. Sid and the beach gang own the wall. They burp and issue ribbons of smoke. When the surf goes flat, which happens all the time, they lose their minds and set surfboards on fire in sacrifice to the swell gods. The times are potent: Civil Rights, Kent State, Vietnam. At the Newport Jazz Fest, the crowd overflows by a count of 12,000. The ruling class calls in the National Guard. Sid watches from the hill, jaws lack, as authority’s jackboot steps on the riot’s throat. The whole world turns on a spit. There is, in the air, the great shared knowledge that something direly urgent is happening all the time. Come winter, Sid and the gang wear rigid two-piece dive suits, duct-taped at the seams, to ride the frozen waves. Before and after, they drag and swig. The ride can’t stop. If it does, something terrible — Sid doesn’t know what — will happen.

In lockstep with the ferment of the day, the surf paradigm shifts. Boards shrink from10-foot to six and a half. Surf writer Paul Gross describes it as, “A mass desertion of everything that had gone before.” ABC’s Wide World of Sports covers the ‘68 Championship on the “beautiful translucent-blue six-footers” of Rincon, where 17-year-old Wayne Lynch blows Sid’s mind on a short, narrow board. Obsessed, Sid can’t find aboard small enough. Summer ’69, traffic jammed northbound to Woodstock, Sid wraps a tab in his tongue and flies the other way down the multicolor highway, south to Jersey, where Rick’s has the newest hotrod in stock. Sid buys one for himself, five more for the boys back home: his first sale, out of the basement and off the books.

In summer ‘71, Sid signs a lease for a shack in the First Beach parking lot — dirt floors, no electricity, 70 dollars a month. He runs extension cords across the street to power hand-strung lights. Magoo hand-paints the sign: three dolphins leaping in unison. So it was that Sid imported the shortboard revolution to New England and became the avatar of an alternate universe Dogtown on America’s oldest coast.

“We started a new identity for surfers,” Sid said of the development. “Shortboard or nothing.”

The shortboard became inseparable from Sid’s vision of surfing. Following the mantra of purity over profit, he refused to stock soft tops, because he didn’t want to add to their numbers at the breaks, picking off sets and gingerly stepping across waves that ought to be ripped. SUPs? Fuhgeddaboudit. What he lost in revenue, he gained in hardcore credibility as the surf tastemaker in Newport.

“Newport is a shortboarding town,” said Justin Casey. “You see more longboards in other areas, but not here. That’s because of Sid’s influence.”

Sid’s monomaniacal devotion to the shortboard complicates his comeback attempt. On a buoyant, voluminous longboard, he could easily catch waves, assuming reasonable health, for another a decade or more. But Sid doesn’t surf to be safe. He surfs to speed through the chaos of the world. The rush is the reward, but the risk is that it’s easier to fall.

Despite pushing the needle beyond 70, Sid remains defiantly committed to riding shortboard designs. Photo: Gus Potter.

7. Nine Lives

There’s a signature Water Bros graphic that pokes fun at the shop’s precarious history. “Nine Lives” depicts a fictional battery brand, its mascot a cat with a thunderbolt tail leaping through a huge number nine. The fake ad copy declares:

“NINE LIVES”BOUNCES BACK FOREXTRA LIFERECOVERS POWERBETWEEN USES

“Nine lives…and then some,” quipped local rocker Craig Ferris, 51, who helps Sid out at the shop on weekends. A big, friendly dude with bleached blond hair falling from his trucker hat, when Craig rings you up, he charges full price, which Sid is notorious for not doing.

“I try to make the guy a little money,” Craig explained.

Given its early start, 50-year tenure, and devoted local following, it’s fair to wonder why Water Bros has struggled so much to stay in business, let alone grow. It’s true that retail is fickle, the surf biz especially so. There was a lull in the 80s, post-Vietnam, when people stopped surfing. The conditions of modern retail — online shopping, rising rents, direct-to-consumer sales — have put mom-and-pop vendors on life support. But Newport supports two other surf shops in addition to Sid’s, both of which, while culturally sterile by comparison, are more consistently stocked with hard goods. I try to buy my gear from Sid, but there have been multiple times I wanted a new wetsuit, and he didn’t have any sizes, even before the COVID shortage. What gives?

There are stories of vendors unpaid, debt spiling up, bridges with partners burned, opportunities lost in the boozy haze of tradeshows that morphed into benders.

“Is it okay to talk about, you know, drugs and shit?” Craig asked me over beers at a bar called Pour Judgement.

“We didn’t have one or two drinks,” remarked Sid. “We drank to get buzzed, ya know what I mean?”

Craig recalled blitzed nights in ‘The Pit’, Sid’s unfinished basement of party punk lore, walls encrusted with old skateboard decks, the air redolent of stale weed and spilt beer. Sid’s mom, Ruthie, was still alive then. A 2011 Surfer’s Journal piece by Derek Hynd describes her sitting peacefully upstairs, the floorboards rattling beneath her rocking chair, happy that her boy was home.

The “9 Lives” battery holds twice the charge in reference not just to Sid’s shop, but Sid himself. There’s a decades-long swath of his life when no one can recall seeing him sleep.

“But he’s always been regimented,” Craig qualified. “He used to run a lot, even in the partying days. It was like, holy shit, we carried Sid into the house last night, and I’d be driving to work at seven in the morning and see him out jogging.”

Nick Carrellas corroborates the legend of Sid’s superhuman endurance: “I don’t know how many years Sid would be up late partying and he would go down to the beach at like 5 a.m. in his van and look at the waves and upload a voicemail, you know that classic scratchy voice, yelling into the phone and describing all these shitty conditions —thigh high, sloppy, all that red tide. It always looked like shit.”

There was a summer when Nick and his friends would dial Sid’s surf report every single day, first thing when they woke up. No matter how early they called, Sid’s voice would provide a fresh update.

Rhode Island is known for being the smallest state in the US, but with 400 miles of coast there’s bound to be a couple of good set-ups. This inviting right-point is known simply as ‘Around the Corner’. Photo: Gus Potter.

Eventually, though, the battery ran out. Addiction happens gradually, like getting in cold water: First you dip a toe, then you step in. By the time you look back, you can’t see the shore. At absolute rock bottom, shopless and penniless, Sid lived at home with his mom and binged for weeks on end. “Crazy surfer man” was blacklisted from every food delivery service in town, except for a single pizza place owned by a guy who liked him, because he could never make it to the door.

“It killed me to see my brother like that,” Magoo told me.

Sid speaks openly about this part of his life. He sums it up with a characteristic pun in the trailer to his forthcoming film: “Wasted days and wasted nights.”

In his recent book, ‘The Drop’, Thad Ziolkowski theorises surfing as a “parable of addiction.” Both surfing and drugs, Ziolkowski writes, supply “the thrill of being gathered up and borne along as if by magic.” The parallels go on. Drug availability, dosage irregularities, and adulterant risk mirror the inconsistency of surf conditions in their thrilling unpredictability. Both the surfer and the junkie are nigh unemployable. Perhaps most essentially, surfing and drug use are both ‘radically personal’ in their pursuit of subjective experience that, though ecstatic, is also fiercely individual. At root, Ziolkowski suggests, addiction is a response to the “Suffering borne of loneliness.”

Of course, the shared experience of surfing also generates community, with Water Bros as a prime example. But if everyone takes comfort under the aegis of the Godfather, who comforts him? Sid was 47 when his father died — not too young, but also not too old. There must be something exhausting about constantly teetering on the crest of the wave — surfing illegal spots, guinea-pigging new technologies, holding on at 70 —forever charging ahead, always on the verge of going broke. There’s also a different register of loneliness, that dreadful sense in which you’re always alone even in a crowded room. It was alone that Sid sat in the cop car’s cage, drove away from the Woodstock frenzy, lied in wait through flat spells that frayed the nerves. It was ultimately alone that he rode all those cold green waves, curling around him at the center of all creation, a speck in the roiling sea.

Surfing looks like flying, but it’s actually falling — a controlled kind of plunge down the cascading face of a wave. It’s a dance on a razor’s edge between sticking the drop and wiping out. The surfer rides the waves because they’re breaking.

And lo, despite his embrace of Water Bros’ cult status, it’s likely that Sid had dreams of being a bigger proverbial fish. Rumored acquisition deals with Lost and Volcom didn’t pan out, but he probably would’ve sold the brand for the right deal.

“Sidney has an ego,” Magoo put it bluntly.

A frequent celebrity name-dropper, Sid has always been attracted to fame. He even took time off surfing in the early 80s in pursuit of rock’n’roll stardom. Big World, the band he fronted with Magoo, got as far as opening for Iggy Pop in Boston before the ship ran aground. In the end, things just didn’t break that way, which perhaps is another reason why the Surf Ranch trip is so special to Sid. He’s no longer opening for a bigger act or emceeing for someone better known. Finally, it’s him on center stage.

I mentioned before that 2021 is a multi-anniversary year for Sid — the 70th of his birth, the 50th of the shop and the Ruggles arrest — but perhaps the greatest milestone is that of his sobriety, nine years now, going strong. The shift doesn’t appear to result from any one decisive factor. A particularly brutal hangover from a week-long binge at the Hurley Pro, his late-life marriage to his wife, Danielle (though she adamantly refuses credit), the simple wisdom earned of time —each no doubt played a part. All accounts suggest it happened radically, like everything else Sid does: One day he just quit, cold turkey, and he hasn’t touched the stuff since.

But beyond individual struggle, I think there’s a deeper reason why Water Bros never made it big. It’s the final essence of who Sid is.

“I don’t think I was businesses-minded,” Sid admitted in a 2002 interview. “But at the time, the only way to make money was to sell so you could stay in business. I guess it’s like a guy that likes weed: He might as well sell it so he gets it for free.”

By his own admission, Sid isn’t a business-man. Business was merely the structurally imposed way to stay nearest to what he loved doing, warping him into an ill-fitting mold. What he really is, is written in ink on the tops of his feet: 100% surfer, 100% skater. The math checks out.

“The only time I feel like I’m doing something is when I’m skating,” he explained. “If I just skate to pick up a bag of pretzels, I feel like I’m doing more than I ever did at work.”

I submit that this is what’s kept Sid going all these years, the pursuit of a spontaneous, immediate mode of moving through the world that harnesses the tumult of the soul: the ride. And pretzels.

What does it mean to give your life to surfing? Sid kicks back and contemplates 70 years of waves and wild times and wonders how he’ll keep the dream alive. Photo: Gus Potter.

8. Water brother

Water Brothers takes its name from the Water-brother, a vintage model by Overlin Surf-boards, one of the first boards Sid imported from Santa Cruz in the 70s. The term originates from the sci-fi classic Stranger in a Strange Land, a seminal text of the 60s counterculture. The premise is that a man from Mars comes to earth. It makes him very sick. He recovers to become an iconoclast, challenging human social customs around religion, money, and death. On Mars, water is very scarce, more valuable than Earth’s most precious stone. To share water with someone is to consecrate a sacred bond and become water brothers.

“It is a goodness,” the Martian teaches human-kind. “For water brothers, it is a growing closer. I will show you.”

April came and went. Before Sid left for the Surf Ranch, he recorded a sendoff message on his surf hotline:

“The shop will be closed all week.” he announced.

There was a very long pause.

“…something I could only dream of.”

Radio silence for the next several days. While waiting for word from the Ranch, I wrote to Derek Hynd, mentioning that Sid called this trip of his life.

He wrote me back:

No, Sid, the surf trip of your lifetime hasn’t been Surf Ranch. It’s not even J-Bay; it’s stared you square in the face in the few square miles out from the family home since the 50s. As far as ‘trips’ go, R.I., land and sea from then ‘til now, no better trip for a surfpunk to have fashioned for himself and his merry band of wonders. Rhode Island has the greatest sense of core surfing that I’ll ever get, and it comes down to Sid’s loyalist punk underbelly in the face of Old America.

Sid’s moment of truth at Kelly’s wave pool where stoke levels were recorded to be higher than ever before. Photo: Kinnane Brothers.

9. Sid Lives

Sometime in the afternoon of May 5th, I open my phone to a video posted by Sid, shot from the side of the Surf Ranch pool.

“Alright Sid let’s go…” wills the filmer’s nervous voice.

It’s too far away to see at first, but you can just make out the pixels of whitewater breaking at the pool’s far end, and you can hear the growing whir of the hydrofoil approaching on the track across the way.

“Oh yeah, here we go.”

A glassy six-foot face appears, breaking right, now close enough to see a tiny rider setting up a high line. “Get low, Sid, get low!”

Close and clear now, impossible to miss in the blue spring suit hugging his belly, Sid is gliding across the wave, feet glued to his board, stance slightly hunched, silver hair streaming behind.

“Ow-owww!!! Woohooo!!!”

First move, down the line…cautious, halting…he’s flowing now, gathering speed, more fluid, now flying. Bottom turn, off the top, backdown again, smoothly carving the face.

“Rip it, Sid!”

The wave thunders past and rolls away. By the time Sid bobs to the surface, he’s at the opposite end of the pool. He’s ridden it all the way in. From the second he first stands to the moment he emerges, his ride lasts 40 full seconds, very likely the longest of his long life. Seven decades to the dream ride. After all these years, still, Sid lives.

What’s next for Sid?

When the dust settled, this is what I asked Magoo. “What’s next for Sid?” he echoed in disbelief.

“One word: Death!” he cackled.

Brotherly jokes aside, Magoo has a point. As the sports cliché goes, father time is undefeated. Only God knows how long Sid can keep going, but Derek Hynd isn’t betting against him anytime soon: “Sid’s Sid and isn’t going under in a hurry.”

Meanwhile, the hourglass dwindles on Sid’s current shop. Benny Dead reckons it’ll be Sid’s last.

“What will happen then?” I asked him.

He laughed and flashed long teeth.

“I won’t have any place to go.”

Until then, the sun will rise, and Sid will check the waves. He’ll unlock the shop, pull open the broom closet, dial into that dusty answering machine, and rattle off his latest surf report, where more likely than not, he’ll describe the conditions as flat. Just like he’s been doing, pretty much nonstop, for the past half century of the world.

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STARRING: JOEL PARKINSON, MICK FANNING AND DEAN MORRISON
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Unlimited digital access to Tracks’ Classic Issues from the 70’s, 80’s & 90’s (300+ magazines)

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YEAR: 2011
STARRING: DAVID RASTOVICH, OZZIE WRIGHT, CRAIG ANDERSON, RY CRAIKE, DEAN MORRISON & MORE
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Bi-monthly delivery of Tracks Magazine to your doorstep: 6 issues per year

Bi-monthly Tracks digital magazine to your inbox: 6 issues per year

10% off everything in the Tracks Print shop

Unlimited digital access to Tracks’ Classic Issues from the 70’s, 80’s & 90’s (300+ magazines)

Unlimited access to Tracks’ Premium Features

Unlimited access to Tracks’ classic surf films

Exclusive partner offers & discounts

Entry into bimonthly subscriber prize draws

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Bi-monthly delivery of Tracks Magazine to your doorstep: 6 issues per year

Bi-monthly Tracks digital magazine to your inbox: 6 issues per year

10% off everything in the Tracks Print shop

Unlimited digital access to Tracks’ Classic Issues from the 70’s, 80’s & 90’s (300+ magazines)

Unlimited access to Tracks’ Premium Features

Unlimited access to Tracks’ classic surf films

Exclusive partner offers & discounts

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$34.99

Billed Annually

Bi-monthly Tracks digital magazine to your inbox: 6 issues per year

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Unlimited digital access to Tracks’ Classic Issues from the 70’s, 80’s & 90’s (300+ magazines)

Unlimited access to Tracks’ Premium Features

Unlimited access to Tracks’ classic surf films

Exclusive partner offers & discounts

Entry into bimonthly subscriber prize draws

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Billed Monthly

Bi-monthly Tracks digital magazine to your inbox: 6 issues per year

10% off everything in the Tracks Print shop

Unlimited digital access to Tracks’ Classic Issues from the 70’s, 80’s & 90’s (300+ magazines)

Unlimited access to Tracks’ Premium Features

Unlimited access to Tracks’ classic surf films

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YEAR: 2014
STARRING: DAVE RASTOVICH
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$189.99

Billed Bi-Annually

Bi-monthly delivery of Tracks Magazine to your doorstep: 6 issues per year

Bi-monthly Tracks digital magazine to your inbox: 6 issues per year

10% off everything in the Tracks Print shop

Unlimited digital access to Tracks’ Classic Issues from the 70’s, 80’s & 90’s (300+ magazines)

Unlimited access to Tracks’ Premium Features

Unlimited access to Tracks’ classic surf films

Exclusive partner offers & discounts

Entry into bimonthly subscriber prize draws

MONTHLY PREMIUM SUBSCRIPTION

All you can eat digital & print

$10.99

Billed Monthly

Bi-monthly delivery of Tracks Magazine to your doorstep: 6 issues per year

Bi-monthly Tracks digital magazine to your inbox: 6 issues per year

10% off everything in the Tracks Print shop

Unlimited digital access to Tracks’ Classic Issues from the 70’s, 80’s & 90’s (300+ magazines)

Unlimited access to Tracks’ Premium Features

Unlimited access to Tracks’ classic surf films

Exclusive partner offers & discounts

Entry into bimonthly subscriber prize draws

ANNUAL DIGITAL SUBSCRIPTION

Digital magazine only

$34.99

Billed Annually

Bi-monthly Tracks digital magazine to your inbox: 6 issues per year

10% off everything in the Tracks Print shop

Unlimited digital access to Tracks’ Classic Issues from the 70’s, 80’s & 90’s (300+ magazines)

Unlimited access to Tracks’ Premium Features

Unlimited access to Tracks’ classic surf films

Exclusive partner offers & discounts

Entry into bimonthly subscriber prize draws

MONTHLY DIGITAL SUBSCRIPTION

Digital magazine only

$2.99

Billed Monthly

Bi-monthly Tracks digital magazine to your inbox: 6 issues per year

10% off everything in the Tracks Print shop

Unlimited digital access to Tracks’ Classic Issues from the 70’s, 80’s & 90’s (300+ magazines)

Unlimited access to Tracks’ Premium Features

Unlimited access to Tracks’ classic surf films

Exclusive partner offers & discounts

Entry into bimonthly subscriber prize draws

YEAR: 2015
STARRING: MIKEY WRIGHT, LOUIE HYND, OWEN WRIGHT, CREED MCTAGGART & CAST OF THOUSANDS
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PREMIUM SUBSCRIPTION

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$99.99

Billed Annually

$189.99

Billed Bi-Annually

Bi-monthly delivery of Tracks Magazine to your doorstep: 6 issues per year

Bi-monthly Tracks digital magazine to your inbox: 6 issues per year

10% off everything in the Tracks Print shop

Unlimited digital access to Tracks’ Classic Issues from the 70’s, 80’s & 90’s (300+ magazines)

Unlimited access to Tracks’ Premium Features

Unlimited access to Tracks’ classic surf films

Exclusive partner offers & discounts

Entry into bimonthly subscriber prize draws

MONTHLY PREMIUM SUBSCRIPTION

All you can eat digital & print

$10.99

Billed Monthly

Bi-monthly delivery of Tracks Magazine to your doorstep: 6 issues per year

Bi-monthly Tracks digital magazine to your inbox: 6 issues per year

10% off everything in the Tracks Print shop

Unlimited digital access to Tracks’ Classic Issues from the 70’s, 80’s & 90’s (300+ magazines)

Unlimited access to Tracks’ Premium Features

Unlimited access to Tracks’ classic surf films

Exclusive partner offers & discounts

Entry into bimonthly subscriber prize draws

ANNUAL DIGITAL SUBSCRIPTION

Digital magazine only

$34.99

Billed Annually

Bi-monthly Tracks digital magazine to your inbox: 6 issues per year

10% off everything in the Tracks Print shop

Unlimited digital access to Tracks’ Classic Issues from the 70’s, 80’s & 90’s (300+ magazines)

Unlimited access to Tracks’ Premium Features

Unlimited access to Tracks’ classic surf films

Exclusive partner offers & discounts

Entry into bimonthly subscriber prize draws

MONTHLY DIGITAL SUBSCRIPTION

Digital magazine only

$2.99

Billed Monthly

Bi-monthly Tracks digital magazine to your inbox: 6 issues per year

10% off everything in the Tracks Print shop

Unlimited digital access to Tracks’ Classic Issues from the 70’s, 80’s & 90’s (300+ magazines)

Unlimited access to Tracks’ Premium Features

Unlimited access to Tracks’ classic surf films

Exclusive partner offers & discounts

Entry into bimonthly subscriber prize draws

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