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Catching a wave year-round in the Pine Tree State

Surf with bravery and bravado, and a second skin year-round

By Matthew Bellico
Globe Correspondent / July 19, 2009
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YORK, Maine - Duke Kahanamoku couldn’t have seen this coming.

The Olympic swimming champion and native Hawaiian who helped popularize surfing in the last century might never have thought that the “sport of kings’’ would catch on in Maine’s frigid waters.

But there I was driving up to Long Sands Beach one late May morning and there they were: two dozen or so surfers, sheathed in black wetsuits, bobbing in the waves like harbor seals.

I’ve surfed southern Maine off and on for about eight years and each time I’m surprised to see so many surfers in the water. But it’s a simple equation: Waves equal surfers. Go to Newport, R.I.; Cape Cod; Hampton Beach, N.H., or elsewhere in New England during the summer, and there will probably be surfers making the most of the early Atlantic hurricane season.

However, I reserve particular respect for those who surf the Pine Tree State. It takes a lot of heart to make surfing a 12-month-a-year sport in a place where the water temperature hovers around 33 degrees in February and wetsuits are still de rigueur in August.

Maine is a place that embraces purists like Mike LaVecchia and Brad Anderson of Grain Surfboards, a local operation that hand-builds hollow, wood en boards. I met the co-owners a few blocks off Long Sands at a small farm stand. Their morning rounds brought discussions of water conditions, favorite surf vacations, and, of course, surfboards.

One longtime surfer gladly pulled a pristine board from the top of his car to show the guys. “It’s a Yater Spoon. Just like in ‘Apocalypse Now,’ ’’ he said, referring to the famous surf scene in the 1979 film.

LaVecchia and Anderson use traditional wooden-boat-building techniques to craft their boards out of native Maine white cedar. They have grown their business from LaVecchia’s basement to a spacious barn on the outskirts of York, and it has become a mecca of sorts. Sure, they will build your board for you - about 40 to 50 hours of work - but you can also attend their weeklong courses, held about eight times a year.

“When you make it yourself, you truly own it. It becomes your surfboard,’’ says Anderson.

Surfers from as far away as Japan and Norway have found their stoke here. But a recent partnership with mighty Channel Islands Surfboards out of Santa Barbara, Calif., may soon make Grain a household name.

The little business that could is building a wooden version of Channel Islands’ 6-foot-2-inch Biscuit surfboard, developed by famed shaper Al Merrick and champion surfer Rob Machado. There’s potential for further collaborations.

“There is a movement in the surfing community to go back to its roots and be ‘green.’ It’s not like fiberglass and epoxy boards are where this sport first started,’’ LaVecchia said.

Feeling inspired, I tackled Long Sands later that afternoon and was soon restored by the ocean’s cold, salty bite and comforted by Nubble Light’s unblinking vigil over the coastline. Those who rode dawn patrol that morning were long gone and the waves were now soft and mushy. This meant I had plenty of time between diminishing waist-high sets to ponder Grain’s growing niche in the sport and what Anderson called Maine’s “surf cottage industry.’’

Travel from York and Wells to Kennebunk and beyond and one encounters many surfing outposts - well-known and populated beaches and the small businesses that support the burgeoning scene here.

One is Liquid Dreams in Ogunquit, which I visited during a swap. Surfer Mark Anastas opened his shop in 1996, later adding another location in York. As with most surf stores, equipment mixes with the latest T-shirts and bikinis for those who just want to look the part. Such shops also act as unofficial town criers for the surfing community; colorful fliers for a screening of the latest surf film hung in the window, as did notices for a local Surfrider Foundation event in nearby Old Orchard Beach.

By midmorning, locals in Reefs and hoodies flooded the lawn looking for wetsuits and used shortboards. I spent time admiring a gorgeous Bear longboard, but couldn’t help but also notice among the buyers a young family with Quebec plates, two bewildered-looking college-age girls, and a father and daughter searching for her first board.

The Wahine Kai Surf School at Kennebunk Beach caters to such beginners, who are steadily growing in number. Run by Maine native Aimee Vlachos, the school is known for its all-female instructors and, while they regularly teach men, too, women have come from as far as Texas for lessons. Most are between 30 and 50, but some are in their 60s and bring their daughters.

When I pulled up to the crescent-shaped beach, a young couple from Connecticut was finishing a lesson on some small, curling sets. The instructor encouragingly pushed the girl’s board forward as she tried to catch the breaking waves. “We aim to make the experience unintimidating,’’ said Vlachos, who spent four years teaching surfing in Huntington Beach, returning in 2005 to start her school.

The contrast between California and Maine is sometimes shocking to her. “There’s definitely not as much pressure here. You can experiment,’’ she said. “You miss a wave in some places in California and no one is going to give you another shot.’’

It seems you might always find a second chance in Maine - as long as you can brave the cold water.

Matthew Bellico can be reached at matthew.bellico@gmail.com.

If You Go

Grain Surfboards
60 Brixham Road, York
207-457-5313
www.grainsurfboards.com
Year-round surfboard building courses from $1,575; ships build-it-yourself kits.

Liquid Dreams
761 Main St. (Route 1), Ogunquit
207-641-2545
www.liquiddreamssurf.com
Rentals and lessons for beginners; full-day board rental $30; three-day group lesson $150 per person.

Wahine Kai Surf School
Kennebunk Beach, Kennebunk
207-423-9066
www.themainesurfschool.com
Two-day surf camp $140; private lesson $85.