This is the story of one man’s journey: seeking unridden waves, sharing adventure and sliding into his 40’s the best way he knows how – in the New England surf.
A North East December.
It was a bone cold, rainy December morning in Maine. Mist hung on the pine bows and dripped from the eves. The thermostat read 39 degrees; too warm to snow, but barely. The sky had drizzled relentlessly for the past three days and the ground was saturated with pools of freezing cold water. “The drought must be over,” I thought as I began to prepare my French press.
On this day, I was to enter my 40th year, enthusiastic about the prospects of some birthday surf. The buoy was solid at 12′ every 8 seconds, but a strong South-West onshore wind had been churning the local beaches into a washing machine slop. I reluctantly readied myself for work, hoping that the forecasted change in wind direction would materialize.
The usual texts ensued between me and my close surfing buddy, Mickey. We were busy assessing the potentials. I planned to pick him up after my AM meetings. Due to the wind direction, we decided to do a little investigating rather than settle for the usual well trodden spots. I snatched Mickey from his yard work and we headed to check the local coastal Maine coves and crannies that only turn on in big surf.
My family are caretakers of a private, uninhabited island off the coast of our home town in Maine. The island is a natural preserve, home to bald eagles, falcons, thousands of migrating birds, a buck and a fox. There is also a herd of hardy black face Scottish sheep that run free range on the island year round. The island hosts three camp sites by permit and two small cabins, one for private use by the owners, the other for the caretaker.
Every summer weekend from May to September, I pile ‘Island Hayes’, our 14′ Gunning Dory, with enough food and water to last a full week. I row the dory out to the island by myself when it is fully loaded with supplies. The trip is 1.5 miles from launch to the island’s beach landing and, with a dory packed to the gills rolling on the frigid Atlantic, it is not the safest environment for my wife and kids.
“I often take the liberty to inspect the various ledges, shoals and shoreline reefs for any signs of ride-able surf.”
On this traditional row over to the island, I often take the liberty to inspect the various ledges, shoals and shoreline reefs for any signs of ride-able surf. Over the years, one or two spots have piqued my curiosity. Sadly, I have never taken the chance to investigate the island when the surf is really good on the mainland. Habit and laziness override the possibility that one of these places would be worth the effort. The ease of a sure thing too often trumps my sense of adventure and discovery. Today, the day of my 40th birthday, would be different.
Wave Search 101: Adventure or Convenience?
Fortunately, my part-time gig as a caretaker allows me access to the sprawling grounds of the 100 or so acres owned by the wealthy family who owns the island. Mickey and I load the Rav4 with wetsuits and boards. We drive to the gated entrance on the private dirt roads that snake their way through the estate. We are surrounded by thick temperate forests of pine and fir with a few maple and oaks mixed in. The woods are divided by occasional meadows, ponds and wetlands.
Apple orchards, fallow gardens and antique stone structures dot the property. Mickey and I drive to the river mouth overlook where we can see three of four potential surf spots from one vantage point. The waves have already cleaned up considerably. It actually looks good. The debate unfolds in the car about whether we should stay here or continue to the place I have been researching over the years. I am feeling adventurous, and am not in a hurry (or a change). We opt for adventure and plunge the Toyota deeper down the twisting dirt road to the private, isolated beach which overlooks the island.
Between Choosing and Going.
We park the car under the dark canopy of forest up to it’s rims in mud. As we walk along the boardwalk through the marsh, we can see the sun has already started to break free from it’s cloudy shackles. The marsh turns back towards forest before entering sand dunes. We are up and over the sandy hill where the island, it’s surrounding beaches and reefs reveal themselves to us in all it’s glory.
“The immense black jetty is barely visible under the full tide as waves dump heavy onto the beach”
The view is spectacular. The island looms large in the distance. The immense black jetty is barely visible under the full tide as waves dump heavy onto the beach, completely closing out. Mickey and I begin the final leg of our search by walking along the beach remarking to one another how calm and less windy the day was becoming. We turn the bend at the elbow where jetty meets beach and see the first meaty set of deep, emerald wedges firing left over a submerged reef.
“How big do you think that is?” I ask.
“Hard to say from here, ” Mickey replies.
We wait five more minutes and watch as another set marches in as before, seemingly perfect yet consequential.
“I think we should try it,” I say, my voice amping in anticipation.
Mickey isn’t so sure. He hems and haws. “The beach looked pretty good too. Maybe we should just go there.”
I exercise my birthday veto.
Moment of Commitment.
“I watch mesmerized as an 8 footer squares itself on the reef, unloads and opens into a barrel.”
At this point, I am frothing. Mickey is still cautious. Boards under arm, we jog back up the beach for our maiden attack on this untouched, unsurfed spot. I quickly distance myself from Mickey as he fumbles with his paddle and leash. I turn the corner the second time and see another promising looking set break. My heart leaps and my pace quickens.
I plunge into the icy water, timing the shore break and easily paddle out beyond the impact zone. The wind is blowing in light gusts straight offshore. The water is placid, yet dark and ominous. As I approach the take off zone, another set begins to peak forty feet further up the reef. I watch mesmerized as an 8 footer squares itself on the reef, unloads and opens into a barrel. It continues, perfectly peeling down the reef for a hundred yards. Two more equally impressive waves follow. I raise my arms in disbelief, looking back over my shoulder for Mickey who was still on his way out.
My heart is pounding audibly now as another set approaches. I take my position. It looks to be an easy entry, but as I paddle my board in I get stuck on the lip. I am looking straight down from the ninety degree ledge to the boiling water below. Luckily, I am able to pull out before being pitched onto the rocks.
“I paddle hard for the following wave and air drop into a perfect screamer.”
I hear Micky hooting as a I rifle down the line. By now, the sky is more blue than gray with white puffy clouds encircling the cove. I glimpse a man watching from the shore in front of his stately cedar shingled mansion, pet poodle circling by his side.
Mickey and I surf for three hours that day, completely alone. We trade emerald green gems under the December sky while drinking in the beauty of our surroundings. I see Mickey get totally barreled. We theorize about how these waves have been breaking for thousands of years and, before today, have probably never been ridden before. We marvel at our good fortune … and the unbelievable quality of the waves.
No name: Just moments.
Several names are discussed for the spot. “How about Tillies,” Mickey suggests after one of the family member’s houses sitting on a hill overlooking the break.
“I don’t know,” I answer, wanting more time to let our discovery sink in before naming the break in haste.
Finally, faces burnt, lips white and gooey, we decide to call it a day. We take our time walking back to the car, completely exhausted, dehydrated and thoroughly stoked.
“Happy Birthday, bro,” says Mickey as we turn to take one more look at our new discovery.
By, Travis Hayes
For MORE Winter Sup Surf stories by Travis, check out: The Winter Surf Ritual: It’s an Art Form in New England
I grew up in Falmouth Maine, nestled in a house built in the 1740s, the same house in which my mother and her three brothers were raised. I spent the majority of my childhood on the ocean, fishing with my uncles or on adventures with my cousins at our family cottages on Cliff Island and Little Sebago Lake. I caught my first wave in 1995, while attending college at the University of Oregon, Eugene. I moved back to Maine in 2000, and started surfing more regularly with my high school friends. In 2010, I purchased my first SUP online, mainly for flat water paddling to keep in shape when the waves were absent. I caught my first wave on a SUP several months after and was immediately hooked. I currently live with my wife and daughter in Cape Elizabeth, ME and spend my free time exploring with my family, surfing with friends, and racing my paddle board throughout New England. Check Travis out on Facebook here: