STANDING TALL Before crashing into the surf.
I've written first-hand about trapeze lessons, smelt fishing, and cruise vacations (oh, my!), but as I headed toward surf lessons at Scarborough's Higgins Beach one morning in May, I had more butterflies in my stomach than usual.
I'd called Nanci Boutet, owner of the Aquaholics Surf Shop in Kennebunk, to arrange for a tutorial. "Why don't you come to Mom's Morning this Tuesday," she'd said, referring to the free trial groups she runs on Tuesday mornings (visit aquaholicsurf.com for more info) at local beaches (mostly Higgins, recently). It was only a few days away. Not much time to prepare, mentally. But I could tell that Boutet was less interested in mental prep and more into getting my ass into the water.
So there I was, in my bathing suit with a bunch of strangers and a no-nonsense surf instructor on a Maine beach in May. I was about to jump into the water that calls to a small but hardcore bunch of New England surfers — some who don wetsuits even when there's snow on the ground. "Next to Alaska, Maine is the most hardcore spot in the world," Surfing magazine editor Steve Zeldin wrote even as far back as 1997, in a Sports Illustrated article about surfing in Maine. (To watch this lunacy for yourself, see Scarborough filmmaker Ben Keller's 2004 winter-surfing documentary, Ishmael.)
Admittedly, my experience would be decidedly less daring: that day was unseasonably warm, with bright sun and a beachy breeze. But I knew that the balmy air was a tease — Maine's ocean, in May, would still be damn cold. Boutet, clearly a proponent of learning by doing, pointed me in the direction of my wetsuit and turned her attention back to the group.
Suiting up was more difficult than I had imagined it would be. In the water, the suit's tightness and thickness would be attributes; on land, I felt like I was baking. The booties and gloves only decreased my mobility. I waddled back to the board Boutet had chosen for me — one that was long and big and good for a novice.
After just a few minutes of on-land instruction, during which we were schooled in the traffic rules of the ocean (be aware of who has the right of way, don't paddle into someone's course, keep hold of your board), and practiced "popping up" from a prone position to an upright one, Boutet let her subjects loose in the waves. Most of the attendees had been out on the water at least a few times before; she knew she'd have to coddle this newbie through at least the first few minutes. "I'm going to tell you when to paddle," she said, and I smiled gratefully. We walked toward the ocean, boards over our heads. The sea glistened, and the ladies laughed and cheered each other on as they started to get their surf legs. If it sounds utopian, that's because it was, a bit.