EASTHAM — At Nauset Light Beach, surfers show up in the early morning, chatting with each other as they paddle out into the surf. Riding the crests of the waves before they break, the surfers look like they’re racing the swells. It’s a sport that is at once daring and graceful. Mainly, said Phil Clark, owner of the Nauset Surf Shop in Orleans, “it’s fun.”
More people have been catching onto that fun over the past year, Clark said. He attributes the uptick in interest in surfing to people working from home and having more flexibility to arrange their time.
The pandemic year has not been a total bust for local surf shops. Last season, even though he wasn’t able to open his shop until June 8, Clark finished the summer with higher sales than in the previous year. “We didn’t expect to do as well as we did,” he said.
But the increased interest combined with factory shutdowns caused by the pandemic mean that surf shop owners are struggling to satisfy their customers.
“There’s high demand for surfboards right now,” said Matt Rivers, owner of Pump House Surf Shop in Orleans. And it’s not just surfboards. Rivers said people want all kinds of outdoor products, particularly anything beach-lifestyle related (think skimboards, beach chairs, wet suits).
As factories reopened, the supply chain backed up, Rivers said. With a “logjam of products coming into the country,” particularly from Asian suppliers, he has had trouble getting inventory.
Clark, like Rivers, has found it difficult to stock surfboards. But the bigger challenge, he said, has been wet suits and swimwear. Clark traces the problem back to the Chinese New Year of 2020, which began on Jan. 25. Most wet suits and swimwear, he said, are made in Chinese and Thai factories, where workers take off about a month to celebrate. Then, because of the pandemic, workers who’d gone home weren’t allowed to return to their factory jobs after the holiday. Many found work closer to home. Factories have been hobbled ever since, Clark said.
The bottom line: “Anything that’s imported is not readily available,” said Clark. He’s been in business long enough — he’s had his shop since 1970 — to know how to ride out a tough patch, he said. Patience is key.
“It’s been a wild world out there for anyone trying to get anything at all,” said Olaf Valli, owner of Sick Day Surf Shop in Wellfleet. He noted that, at the beginning of the pandemic, regulations made it difficult to receive shipments. Then, outbreaks among employees at shipping ports and mandatory quarantine periods caused further delays. As a result, Valli was forced to turn customers away after running out of merchandise during what would have been a record season for sales last summer.
Not wanting to be faced with the same situation again this year, Valli put in his orders early. But “that’s not been great, either,” he said.
Orders that were supposed to arrive at the end of March have yet to ship, and one order had to be shipped to the West Coast rather than the East Coast, lengthening the time it will take to arrive and doubling shipping costs. That shipment of body boards will arrive at the end of June, Valli said, rather than April.
What’s especially tough, Valli said, is that timing means a lot on the Outer Cape, where the surfing season starts later and is shorter than in other parts of the country.
The gear shortage has affected the Sacred Surf School in Eastham as well, even though they don’t replace all of their boards and wet suits every year. Sacred Surf doesn’t sell gear. Instead, they offer lessons and camps, said owner Zach Pawa. But they do handle gear rentals, and so experienced some of the same supply issues. Pawa’s solution was to switch to different wholesalers than he’s purchased from in the past.
Pawa, like the surf shop owners, has noticed that more people than ever seem to want to get in the water and surf. He was in good spirits thinking about the summer: “It’s looking like it’s going to be a busy season.”
Valli agreed. At this point, he said, the difficulties in getting inventory seem to be less about issues at ports and more about the fact that there’s “more demand than there’s ever been.”
Despite the glitches, Valli is optimistic. “We’re gonna do better than we did last year,” he predicted.