Written by Danielle Abbruzzi — A paddle-out in memory of Joe McGovern took place on Friday, August 7th, 2015 at Narragansett Town Beach. In a traditional Hawaiian-style send-off, the Northeast surf community gathered together to pay respect to a beloved surfer, photographer, journalist, and fine Irish gent. Hundreds lined the sand greeting one another from all parts of the world before 150 surfers including Joe’s wife Maryellen McGovern, daughters Katie and Jennie, son-in-laws Mike Dowling and Ricky Hart, grandson James, and brother Don McGovern all filled the ocean to join in hands.
As the circle formed, a small row boat manned by Felix Sarubbi, McGovern’s friend of 40 years, carried Joe’s oldest daughter Katie Dowling with her son James to its center. Katie opted not to paddle after giving birth to a baby girl only weeks before. Felix, who organized the paddle-out, recited a prayer, also read by him at McGovern’s eulogy, and a poem was read by Jennie to her father. Many hoots and shouts concluded the large paddle-out into light onshore easterly winds, paying homage to an irreplaceable family man, surfer, and friend.
After earning a Bachelor of Arts from Rhode Island College in 1973, McGovern did a two-year tour on the North Shore as surfer and lifeguard. Upon returning he would then earn a Master of Library Science degree, going on to work for the State of Rhode Island as a Library and Media Specialist, surfing and photographing surf all along the way. He married Maryellen Delaney and they raised two beautiful daughters — safely said, his greatest accomplishments. Daughter Jennie had shared her regard for her father on McGovern’s Facebook page following his death: “All my life, I have been proud to call Joe McGovern my dad. I knew I was lucky that I had an extraordinary man forever on my side.”
Joe McGovern’s contribution to the New England surf community is immeasurable. A career spanning over 40 years, Joe’s behind the lens travels and early surf documentation earned him legendary status. For Rhode Island surfers, his photos were a source of pride, capturing the accuracy of surf life on our tough and rugged coastline. Without sponsored surfers paddling out in his own backyard, Joe looked to his community inspiring him to cultivate a portfolio filled with electric shots of local surfers. Among his repertoire were South County’s finest such as Peter Pan, Mario Frade, Dave Levy, Tricia Pan, Sue Hogan, Chris Maletta, Jamie Risser, Greg Levy, and Stephen Melidossian, as well as Newport’s own Sid Abbruzzi, Eddie Burke, Justin Casey, Mike Reise, Kurt Razza, Craig Knowles, and Brian Burns. Photos of the talented surfers streamed throughout the years adding intrigue and excitement to the Northeast surf legacy.
East coast surfing pioneers Peter “Pan” Panagiotis and Sid “The Package” Abbruzzi were given ample coverage. As friend/unofficial ghost writer to both careers, McGovern produced decades of photos and articles illustrating their influence and propagation of East Coast surfing. No job was too big or small for Joe to cover. McGovern brought the same professionalism to the numerous ESA surf contests he photographed as he did his in-depth work as a curator for the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame. A reliable source, McGovern became a thread for New England surf communities, establishing him as a direct contact for many media sources. In addition to his ESM tenure, Joe’s work has been published in The Surfer’s Journal, Surfer, Surfing, Sports Illustrated, The Boston Globe, Transworld Skateboarding, and Longboard Magazine to name a few. The surf world and his subjects will be forever grateful to Joe’s dedication to capturing a life’s work of surfing from his skillful eye.
A goofyfooter who loved lefts at The Dock, McGovern was a wealth of knowledge who sought to educate and inspire others through his love for surfing. “Joe had a very easygoing and giving manner about him,” said legendary surf writer and finless surfer Derek Hynd. “From my chats and drives with him, he was a quiet and warm person — simply a good man.” That sums up what many would describe of their encounter with Joe. Hynd met McGovern through Sid Abbruzzi in 2011 to help piece together clips of footage Abbruzzi had filmed of Derek at Jeffery’s Bay for a slideshow.
Joe passed away on January 7th, 2015 in Central Florida after a tragic surfing accident. Friday’s paddle-out gave many the opportunity to again give recognition to McGovern’s passing and celebrate his life. Following the paddle-out, a large group of family and friends reassembled at the Mettatuxet Yacht Club for a reception with food, drinks, and music. Donations were given for a silent auction being held to raise funds for a memorial bench in McGovern’s name to be placed at a favorite spot, Narragansett Town Beach. Felix Sarubbi thanked the help of Joe’s family, Kathy Delaney, and Bill Shockley, who helped Sarubbi coordinate the event, raising upwards of $6,500 and securing the formation of McGovern’s memorial bench.
Additional funds and future contributions will be given to “The Joe McGovern Memorial Fund” established by Joe’s family to benefit various surf charities.