Breaking Free: A Day as a Boston Surfer

It is early; I wake up and can see that it is well before the sun will rise. I check my phone; it’s 5:15 a.m. I feel the anticipation start to grow and know that I won’t be able to fall back asleep. I have been thinking about this day for over a week – studying and hoping that all the factors would come together just right. Fumbling around in the dark, I find the coffee maker and press the magic button. I open my laptop and go straight to see if the surf cast has changed overnight, comparing the charts one last time. It is better than I had hoped, and my date with Hurricane Kate is a go.

I go through the checklist one more time: board, fins, wetsuit, mittens, booties, towel, food, and, most importantly, coffee. After a quick breakfast, I grab my pack and board bag and head out the door for the first leg of the not-so-traditional trip to the beach.

As I only live about 300 feet from the Kenmore Square T stop, this is by far the easiest leg. Even at 6 a.m., the T is starting to fill with people headed to work to further their careers. From the first glance, it is apparent that I do not belong among these early commuters. This career thing, I’m still not completely sure what it is. From the looks on their faces, it looks like misery.

I have to take the C train from Kenmore to Haymarket. Depending on the day, it’s close to a 20-minute ride. On the Green line, the newer trains have higher ceilings, allowing me to stand my 7’ 2” surfboard vertically. I am still stiff and not fully awake, so I try to loosen up. I dig through my bag to find my thermos and take a few more sips of coffee. I start to think about what I am going to do and where I will be in a few short hours. A voice crackles over the intercom, “Next stop, Park Street. Change here for the Red and Orange lines.” It is early; I’ll stay on the Green line to Haymarket.

“Negotiating the halls of the subway with a surfboard is a slightly nerve-wracking experience.”

[Photo: Tucker Cowles]
[Photo: Tucker Cowles]
Once at Haymarket, my commute intersects with so many others. All of us are bottlenecked by the Government Center detour. Negotiating the halls of the subway with a surfboard is a slightly nerve-wracking experience. I am carrying close to 30 pounds between my board bag and backpack, walking narrow hallways, and surrounded by hundreds of people, all staring at their phones or using their headphones to talk to some distant being. A grin appears on my face, because it seems that everyone is talking to themselves, and they all seem to be a little crazy. Then, I realize that they are looking at me like I am crazy. I can’t help but notice people staring, wondering, “Who is this guy? What is he carrying? Why won’t he just get out of my way?”

“Excuse me.” I get bumped, and my heart skips a beat, for fear of hitting someone and, more importantly, fear of dinging my board.

After a few moments, I finally reach the platform and see a familiar face. The platform is packed and everyone looks at me like I am an idiot, but they’re looking at another gentleman like he is crazy. I don’t know his name, but I recognize him. Every time I come out this way, here he is panhandling for change, and he asks me what is in the bag. Every time I tell him that it’s a surfboard, but he never remembers. He usually tells me that I’m crazy, and we laugh.

Right on cue, he starts talking to me. I tell him I don’t have any money, but I go through my backpack and pull out an extra banana. I am completely broke, and I’ve pretty much always been broke and probably always will be. He is happy to have something to eat. While I wait for my train, I listen to him. He is often defensive and combative, but of everything he says, I am most impressed by his pride. Everyone else on the platform ignores him, and if anything, they look at him as if he is something other than human. There seems to be so few who are capable of having compassion for this man.

“I feel incredibly out of place, lost, and disconnected from everyone, but after all, I am heading out to find something that probably none of these people have ever felt or even dared to pursue.”

My train arrives, and it is a mad, awkward dash to board. The Orange line trains are too short for me to stand my board vertically, and the train is packed. As a result, I have to stand in the middle of the aisle with my board between my legs. I try to take up as little room as possible and not to block anyone in, all while the looks from around the car are ones of disgust and astonishment that someone would take up so much space. I feel incredibly out of place, lost, and disconnected from everyone, but after all, I am heading out to find something that probably none of these people have ever felt or even dared to pursue.

After only one stop, I have to force my way off the train, through the crowd of people and onto the State Street platform. Now I have to wait for the Blue line to Wonderland. As I walk onto the platform, I realize that I am the only one going outbound. Perfect. I look at my phone; it’s now 6:45. I hope to be at Nahant by 8 and in the water by 8:30. The train arrives, and I board alone. I sprawl out, and take out my thermos, food, and my book. I try to read, but I can’t focus. My mind is already in the water. My thoughts start to drift to how ridiculous this trip to the beach is, how carrying my board around is such a pain, and how the whole ordeal will take me eight-plus hours just to catch a few waves.

I realize just how much of a commitment it is – time, financially, physically, and mentally. I realize that I have never been able to commit myself to anything as much as I have to surfing or climbing. I’ve never been able to fully commit to another person, a job, to school, or anything for that matter. I have always been willing to get up and leave, to go after the things that make me the happiest. Something about those things drives me and pushes me to leave it all behind. It is this feeling of restlessness, constraint, and stagnation, and I can’t help but to toss everything to the side, so I can, just for a few moments, surf, ski, or climb.

“Next stop, Wonderland.” The voice startles me. I realize just how lost in thought I was, caught in no-man’s land. I exit the train and work my way to the bus stop. I now have to wait for the 441 or 442 bus to take me to Lynn. It doesn’t take long for the 441 to round the corner, but like clockwork, the bus driver needs to take his break. Slowly, a group gathers around the empty bus, waiting, and I hope that the bus isn’t too full. These 15 minutes seem to creep by without progress. I come to realize that I can’t point out where Wonderland is on the map. Maybe I have just fallen down the dream-filled rabbit hole.

The bus driver finally returns, and I board the bus first, so I can stake my claim. As we drive, the landscape becomes less city like and more like a forgotten land, forgotten by progress. Rundown buildings and dirty streets become more and more apparent. Every once in awhile, I can catch a glimpse of the harbor, where I will soon be.

“I can’t help to think that this man has no idea what I have gone through just to get here and how much this 7-foot piece of foam really means to me.”

[Photo: Tucker Cowles]
[Photo: Tucker Cowles]
The bus driver looks in the mirror and asks, “Is that thing secure?”

The bus driver looks in the mirror and asks, “Is that thing secure?”

“Yes sir,” as I smile, because I can’t help to think that this man has no idea what I have gone through just to get here and how much this 7-foot piece of foam really means to me. Since I moved to Boston three months ago, it has been my lifeline – the only thing keeping my sanity afloat. It would destroy me if I were to ding it now.

Finally, we get to Lynn. This marks the start of the last leg of the journey. From Central Square in Lynn, I have about a mile and a half walk out to the neck of Nahant. The current deposits most of the sand on the far side of the beach, which helps waves break more consistently. A hike with a 30-pound bag doesn’t sound too bad, but about 10 of those pounds are hanging off one shoulder. The strap slowly wears into my shoulder as I walk.

One of the major factors for the quality of the swell today is a 20 mph offshore wind. As I walk down the beach, the wind tries to do all it can to blow me away. My board is now a sail. I put my head down and lean into the wind, forcing my way through. I can see the far end of the beach. Kate has arrived. I can see her sets of blown kisses, beckoning someone to come greet them. My feet become lighter, and my fight stronger. I notice my mood has completely changed; where once I was anxious for the anticipated excitement, I am now elated, brimming with the possibilities of what is about to come.

The bathrooms are closed for the winter, but I use them to hide from the wind. I pull out my thermos and check the time, 8:17 – not too bad. I have to leave Nahant by noon, so I can make it back for work in time. That leaves me about 3 hours to surf.

I pull out my board and wetsuit. Hiding from the wind, I slowly and carefully get my suit on. Today is the first time I have pulled out my winter suit this year, and there is no way to put on this 6 mm suit of armor with any grace. I pull, twist, adjust, and pull again, slowly working the suit over my hips and shoulders. I wax my board and take one last sip of coffee.

Before I paddle out, I take a moment to scout exactly where to sit in the water. The wind is strong and makes the waves stand up nice and tall. A set rolls in. The first wave stands up and then immediately crashes all at once in a close out. The second wave is bigger and breaks a little further out. The third is bigger yet and breaks even further, and then, it curls – a slight hope of a mini barrel. The fourth, the biggest of all, stands up and breaks in a long, beautiful left. I can’t help the grin on my face.

I quickly warm up and stretch, and think about all that I went through to get here, and about surfing being an adventure. It’s in the ocean and in the mountains that I find myself being truly happy; it is in those places I feel whole, where I can uncover who I truly am and who I want to become.

It does not seem right to call being your true self an adventure, but then, it occurs to me that it isn’t the surf or climbing trips, hiking, or skiing in the backcountry that is the adventure, but that it’s in how far you are willing to go to be in those places. It’s in everyday mundane life, during which we lie and make excuses to ourselves about why we’re not there, not in the pictures of stunning beaches, hanging on pristine granite, or standing above an unblemished powder fill line. The adventure is the point where we stop making excuses and throw everything to the side to run after something we knew as children: unadulterated happiness.

The ocean calms for a brief instance, and I take my chance. I am thankful for being here, and to have everything line up. I pick up my board, and without a second thought, I run and jump into the Northern Atlantic. The water and wind may be cold, but my elation will be the source of my warmth.

Best Paddling Accessories for Comfort in the Cockpit

Whether you’re goal is adventure or serenity, a few hours in a kayak can put a  grin on your face from start to finish. Unless of course, you’re not comfortable for one reason or another. As we look ahead to warmer days and our first paddling trips of the season, I asked two of our most prolific paddlers within the EMS family for their thoughts on the little things that make a huge difference in the quality of your time on the water. Some of them are obvious, but easy to forget. Others may not be necessary if you’re just messing around in a recreational kayak for an hour or two. That said, it’s always good to know about the different kinds of paddling accessories available to you that can make kayaking even more fun.

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“I’m not one for too many accessories,” says Justin Chase, a regular contributor to this blog. “but I’m a pretty big fan of small dry bags.” Loksak super durable zipper closure bags are available in a 4-pak of assorted sizes and are great for making small creature comforts much easier to deal with.  If you’re bringing a camera, phone, tablet or something else that’s absolutely, 100% got to stay dry (handled roughly, dry pouches can get ripped…) and not get crushed, a dry box is the best bet, and also available in a variety of sizes.  ‘Bombproof’ protection  is cheaper than replacement.

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Once you have your valuables in individual plastic bags, you may want to get them out of your way in the form of a dry bag or a deck bag. The Access from Sea to Summit above lashes to the deck so it’s out of your way yet easy to get into when you need your camera or snacks.  Snacks are always important to bring along. In the immortal words of Brook Burke: “Bonking on the far side of the lake with 2 miles into a headwind back to the car is NO FUN.  Paddling is like cycling, hiking and running- you’re not just floating, you’re working.  Feed the fire.”And once you’ve fed the fire, you’ll want to quench your thirst so Brook also recommends an Insulated Steel Water Bottle to keep water cold.  Get one with a loop top, tie a cord to the loop, and use a keychain size carabiner to clip it into the seatback strap.  That will prevent it from rolling too far into the boat, keep it out of the way in the seating area, and prevent loss as well.  Drink frequently.  The first signs of dehydration are headache and yellow pee, so drink often enough to pee often.

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While keeping stuff out of the cockpit makes things much more comfy, Justin Chase’s best piece of advice to people is choose your paddle carefully. “It’s often more important than the boat,” he says. “If the kayak is the pack, than the paddle is the boots. Choose carefully. Length, gauge, material, blade size, etc all make a huge difference in the day.” At Eastern Mountain Sports, you’ll find paddles ranging from the two-piece $400 Werner Kalliste Carbon Paddle to the $100 Sunlgass paddle from Bending Branches that’s made from fiberglass.

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Justin is also  a big fan of a properly fitted PFD like the KOKOKAT Bahia Touring Vest with front pockets for cameras and maps. Brook Burke from agrees and adds: “A PFD is like a seatbelt, but more comfortable to wear and with more choices to choose from. There is simply no good reason to accept the risk of not wearing one!”

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One of the best ways to feel comfortable in the cockpit of your kayak is to be confident in the fact that you are visible to other boaters, especially in high-traffic areas that are popular with power boats. Reflective tape is always good but to really stand out, consider the Seattle Sports Hydrostar Multistrobe. The wide suction cup  makes it easy to mount to any deck for hands-free, worry-free illumination.

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Now let’s talk about sun protection. First and foremost, DON’T be the person who forgets their sunglasses at home. I don’t care if you have to keep a pair of fold-up Ferrari sunglasses from the ’80s in the pocket of your PFD. Whatever it takes to keep the magnified glare of the suns rays out of your sensitive eyes, DO IT. Next is lip balm with an SPF ratingwaterproof sunscreen, and bug repellent.  Nothing mars the memory of a beautiful sunny day on the water than blistered lips or cooked hands.  Beware of deet-based bug repellents that can stain or possibly damage some sportswear fabrics.   Don’t forget- if you’re wearing shorts in a sit insdie kayak, the sun can still fry your upper thighs. For additional sun protection, consider one of our long-sleeve Techwick shirts so you don’t have to worry about your arms getting burned. Techwick is light weight, dries fast and feels like a second skin without overheating you. Floppy sun hats may look goofy, but it’s not nearly as embarrassing as having a pair of ears that look like fried pork rinds because your cool-looking baseball cap left them exposed to the scorching sun. Just make sure your sun hat has a good chin strap prevent unplanned windy sprints.

Screen Shot 2014-04-10 at 5.22.54 PMFor comfort on land, in the water and on the water, nothing beats a good pair of water shoes. Can you get by with sneakers, flip flops, sandals or even bare feet? Of course you can. But water logged sneakers are no fun, flip flops are prone to floating away, sandals leave you open to scrapes and bare feet are just begging for trouble from every angle. A quality pair of water shoes that fit well, drain quickly, and protect your soles from natural and man-made pointy objects that hurt will make you a happy paddler for years to come.

What are YOUR favorite paddling accessories? Leave a comment and share your wisdom!


Paddling the Concord River in Massachusetts

Thank you so much to reader, Jared, who after reading my last article of off-season paddling on Great Marsh, asked for some more trip ideas. This one should work for Jared and anyone else in New England who wants to extend the paddling season while enjoying some history in addition to natural wonder.

For many paddlers, this cool weather has marked the end of the boating season. It shouldn’t. New England is packed with awesome reaches on which to drop a boat well into winter. Most notably of these is the Concord River in Massachusetts – the sight of first battle of the American Revolution and the shot heard around the world. Flowing East just sixteen miles from Northwest Boston, the Concord offers late-season paddlers plenty of mellow water sheltered from wind by towering oaks, willows, and birch. The water is cold so you’ll definitely want to take extra care on your trip but the calm conditions and proximity to shore are such that a drysuit is not required but a good pair of paddling gloves is a VERY nice thing to have.

Approaching the Old North Bridge on the Concord River.

Trading traditional New England landscapes for a trip through history makes for some seriously awesome paddling this time of year. For a short trip upriver to the bridge made famous by Longfellow’s poem, Concord Hymn, put in from the public launch off Lowell Road. From there it’s a short, quarter-mile trip past bronze flood plains to the Old North Bridge, where Minute Men and British Soldiers first met in battle.

The Old North Bridge, with my canoe landed nearby.

Located in Minute Man National Park, Old North Bridge is a stunningly preserved/refurbished piece of history. Arching high over the water, to see it from a kayak or canoe is to enjoy a vantage not shared by thousands of others who visit the park each year. Making things even better, landing on either shore is permissible and offers quick, easy access to cross the bridge without the hassle of lines and a crowded parking lot.

A Farmer-Soldier, atop the votive stone at Minute Man National Park. The beginning of Longfellow’s Concord Hymn, “The Shot Heard Around the World.”

When you’re paddling the Concord River, you can extend the trip by traveling downriver a mile or so, under an old stone bridge and through Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. For such a suburban location, the quiet and solitude is surprising. Undeveloped shores lined with tall grasses, scraggly old trees, and leaning willows lead into the town of Carlisle and beyond to Little Meadow Conservation Area. With a current gentle enough to paddle against on the return trip, a trek downriver will provide a great day out on the water, enjoying some history and New England November beauty.

Paddling through Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, MA.



Paddling the Perkiomen in Pennsylvania

kayaksA few weeks ago, our Collegeville, PA store staff posted an eye-catching photo on their Facebook wall of a huge group of people paddling the Perkiomen Creek.


After counting 30 different paddlers, I figured there had to be a story so I called Tim Swavely who handles local outreach in Collegeville. On August 3rd, “The Perkiomen Creek Sojourn” was organized by the Perkiomen Watershed Conservancy. The day-long paddle/water quality study session turned out to be a fantastic way to get people on the water and help them understand the history, current conditions and importance of the Perkiomen Watershed to the health of the greater Philadelphia area.

Tim ensured the Collegeville store’s fleet of rental kayaks was available and handled all the put in and take out logistics. He also supervised the paddling party atop his stand up paddleboard. Originally scheduled for June 8, the sojourn had been postponed due to the rainiest June on record. “In a normal summer, paddling the Perkiomen would have been impossible because the water level would be too low. Not this year, we had an incredible day (despite even MORE rain) and learned everyone learned a lot. I particularly enjoyed the looks I got from people as I followed along on my SUP. Folks had no idea you could use a stand up paddleboard on a lazy river so it was cool to let people know what the sport is all about.”

Stopping to conduct water quality tests for the Perkiomen Watershed Conservancy.

In addition to just paddling the Perkiomen, the 31 paddlers conducted an invertebrate study to assess the health of the Perkiomen which feeds into the Schuylkill River, a major source of drinking water. According to Tim, the team assisted with an invertebrate study. Certain invertebrates can only live in high quality water, so finding them is obviously a good thing. “We learned how to tell if leeches were present simply by picking up rocks,” Tim explained. “We also brushed off the invertebrates into a cup and analyzed them under mini microscopes.” During the course of their assessment, the sojourn group discovered that an invasive species of crayfish had arrived and was eating the native crayfish. Information like this is invaluable to the Perkiomen Watershed Conservancy and was fascinating for everyone in the group.

Paddling the Perkiomen is a great way to spend a day with lots of great scenery and sightings of great blue herons, green herons, bald eagles, chimney swifts, kingfishers and rough winged swallows. If you’re interested in a checking out Perkiomen Creek yourself, please give Tim in our Collegeville store a call at 610-226-3995.