Into the Mystic

by Frank Quirarte

Before last June the only thing I knew about the town of Mystic, Conn. was from watching the movie Mystic Pizza—the ’80s romantic comedy filmed in Mystic starring Julia Roberts. I’m a surfer born and raised in Northern California; Mystic is a small New England town known for its tall ships, clam chowder, really big houses and the movie. Not on my radar, for sure.

So when I got a phone call asking me to come and speak at the Mystic Seaport Museum about big wave surfing, I was pleasantly surprised.

Karin Soderberg, the museum’s assistant director of membership, called and asked if I would like to come out and speak about big wave surfing. I thought about it for maybe two seconds and then answered a resounding yes. You learn fast working in this industry to always say yes first and then work out the details later.

That particular part of the country is not know for any memorable surf, although there is a small surfing community scattered along the coast from Mystic to Newport, R.I. and beyond. On any normal day you would be hard pressed to find any decent surf, but on the heels of a hurricane or big Atlantic storm some of the more popular breaks can see head-high to double-overhead surf.

It also turns out that Mystic has one of America’s most beautiful seaport museums with a working shipyard and small seaport village built on the grounds among amazing exhibits.

Now let’s fast forward to just two weeks before the trip, 10 months after her call. Not a thing prepared or a plan scratched out. After calling friends and other photographers, they said just let your photography and your experience in big waves do the talking. So I put together a short video of some of the wildest big wave stuff I had and followed that up with a slide show and a Q&A. It all just fell into place.

Being around Mavericks for almost 17 years and working in the industry for nearly the same amount of time has surrounded me with people mostly in-the-know and unsurprised. But to the good people of Mystic Conn., maybe 2,000 miles from any surf over 6-ft. on their best day, big wave surfing was an interesting and new topic.

Once the presentation started I was able to get in maybe ten minutes of scripted stuff before I took a barrage of questions from the eager crowd. It was a blast and people were stoked. As surfers we love to talk story. In fact I think it’s a prerequisite of being a surfer. The crowd of all ages made it really easy.

From the moment I stepped off the plane to the moment I got back on, I was treated like a king. Karin and the staff of Mystic Seaport Museum were very gracious and made sure I was taken care of every minute. The Mystic Ohana was in full effect.

I did two talks on Thursday and had the rest of the weekend to explore. Glen Gordinier, a professor at the museum and avid surfer, offered to give me a personal tour of the local breaks and shops. We actually brought boards and planned on surfing, but rain and on-shore winds blew out most every break. And with a water temperature of 44 degrees, I opted not to get wet just for the sake of surfing on the East Coast.

We did end up meeting some really cool folks that ran the local surf shops and toured the area with hundreds of years of rich history of our nation, however.

Another highlight of the trip was the personal tour around the Mystic Seaport Museum grounds, again by Gordinier. So many amazing exhibits and displays. Their centerpiece is the last surviving wooden whaling ship, named the Charles W. Morgan. The Morgan is in dry dock being restored by a small army of ship builders employing the same techniques used by their counterparts some 163 years ago when the ship was originally built. They allowed me to crawl into the hull where the crew was actively replacing the original timbers. Watching these master craftsmen pull out a 30 ft. timber from a steamer outside of the boat, navigate it through a 3 ft. opening in the ships hull and bend and beat that beam into it’s proper place was a pretty amazing sight to see.

If you ever get the opportunity to visit this part of the country, definitely add Mystic to your itinerary. If you go in the Winter/Spring months, bring warm clothes and if you plan on surfing, pack a thick hooded wetsuit, gloves and booties. I enjoyed the weather. I felt right at home with the foggy nights and mornings and sunny, breezy afternoons. They tell me it warms up in the summer and gets really humid.

Before I left for the airport on my way back to P-Town, I took another walk into Mystic, Conn. to grab a cup of coffee. The fog was starting to burn off and steam was rising from the streets. I stopped on the drawbridge in the center of town and watched a stand-up paddle boarder coming up the river. The reflections on the water were beautiful and tall ships anchored nearby made for an amazing backdrop. I can’t wait to go back and really explore that area. Hopefully this time I will find some surf.

“Should have been here yesterday” is in full effect in this neck of the woods.

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