As director of the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center of Christiana Care, Dr. Nick Petrelli spends his long, long workweek overseeing building programs and philanthropy, teaching, working for the National Cancer Institute and American Cancer Society, and consulting on difficult medical cases. It is demanding work. Surfing, he says, “is my psychiatrist.”
A native New Yorker, Petrelli began surfing at age 17 during summers with his family on the North Shore of Long Island. His mother was a swimmer, his father a recreational fisherman. Through them, “I got to know a lot about the water and watersports.”
After a summer of earnest trying, he caught his first wave at Ditch Plains near Montauk Point. “I couldn’t believe I’d ridden the wave,” Petrelli says. “It wasn’t a very long ride, but I’ll never forget it, the rush.”
It was enough to keep him stoked. He continued to surf summers through his years of college at Notre Dame and medical school in New Orleans. Then a surgical residency in San Francisco put an end to his surfing for many years. When he moved to Delaware nine years ago, he started rising early on every other Saturday of the summer, driving to Indian River Inlet to surf for a few hours, then returning home about noon, totally refreshed.
“When I was young, it was the thrill of the ride and trying to do anything you could do on a board. It was about the biggest wave and the longest ride,” Petrelli says. “Then there was this realization, and I don’t know when this happened. Early one day I was watching a school of dolphins. Just sitting on your board, the peacefulness of the ocean—there’s something intangible that’s hard to explain. Now it’s about what it can do for your mind and body and spirit.”
As his parents instilled an appreciation for the ocean in him, so he has done with his two daughters. He and his youngest celebrated the millennium by bodyboarding at Montauk. “They’re in college now, so they’re more interested in shopping,” Petrelli says, laughing. “But she’ll never forget that. They still love the beach today. It’s like the circle of life.”