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by Josh Withe - Merrimack River Valley - USA

Back in '95, while I was away at Bible School, my Dad bought a cabin in York, Maine. York, Maine, has a few different beaches. The one the cabin is closest to is known as Long Sands Beach. Long Sands Beach is rather flat and provides excellent surf in most conditions. All year long you will find die hard surfers out on the water. In the winter they will climb over the snow banks to get to the surf and all summer long they are up at the crack of dawn to get some good waves before the surf Nazis (life guards) show up and restrict where, when, and how far out they can go.


Ever year, we looked forward to the beach, and as each child came along they learned to look forward to the biggest sandbox a kid could imagine. While my wife has always enjoyed boogie boarding since I showed her how, my kids didn't like getting dunked by a wave or even getting their faces wet in the tub. My wife decided they needed to learn to swim and enrolled them in home-schoolers' swim lessons. After a couple years of swim lessons, my oldest can swim like a fish and is nearly as fast as I am. Then her group started diving from the edge of the pool, and I realized that while I taught myself how to swim, I had never learned to dive into deep water. If she was comfortable diving, I had better know how also in case I had to get her out. I never learned how to swim as a kid. The few times I had the opportunity, I didn't trust the water enough and panicked. All my years of boating, I wore a life jacket canoeing, or was in a boat that it was nearly impossible to fall out of (dory). However, I still couldn't swim.

Then the airline I was working for at the time sent me to Bangor, ME, for a month in November. It was cold, the days were short, and by the time I got off work, it was dark, windy, and cold. Did I mention it was cold? After I saw Stephen King's house and both blocks of downtown Bangor, and the big mall, I'd seen everything there was to see. Going down to the hotel pool room to use the hot tub, I decided it was a great time to learn to swim. By the end of the month, I could not only swim all the way around the pool non-stop but could also swim corner to corner underwater. (Of course, if I had failed to grab the edge while learning, the cleaning crew would have found the body at closing time. Learning to swim alone isn't recommended). Since parents are allowed to swim with the kids before and after lesson time, I finally got my nerve up and jumped into the pool. By the next session, we had a collection of dive rings and torpedoes to retrieve to help both of us learn to do longer dives.

Normally a yak board is an excellent beach toy. In small to medium surf, almost anybody can catch a wave. They aren't as popular as a water toy though. Because it's a sit-on-top kayak made for surfing, the seat is low for stability, ensuring the paddler's seat is always flooded. In warm water, this isn't a big deal, but in the Gulf of Maine with perfectly refreshing water straight from the North Pole (40 up to a rare mid 60 degrees F), you almost always need to wear a wet suit and paddle on hot days. Even in small surf, I can catch waves the surfers can't. Just start to paddle in like a mad man ahead of the wave, and it will scoop you up. In a moment, the water starts to fountain up through the scuppers and then the hull begins to thrum as the wave accelerates you. Slight leaning will keep the kayak straight, and a good paddle brace will allow you to go anywhere you want. When the water gets shallow, you brace hard until broadside to the wave, lean into the wave, and bob over it while spinning back toward the break. On the way out, a quick front to back wave of your body will bounce the bow over most of a wave. Hard paddling will allow me to catch three waves to a surfer's one.

When the surf is flat, I've taken long paddles from the beach off to the Nubble Light house, (the most photographed place in Maine - just look at all the pictures of it on google earth) as well as almost all the way down to the York harbor entrance. While the kayaks are perfect for the ocean, they are fairly rare and attract plenty of attention, especially when being paddled well off shore. Being buoyant as a cork, and rather wide and flat, I've never felt unsafe, especially compared to the horde of SUP paddlers from the surf shop who continually fall off or have to paddle kneeling in any kind of swell.

The summer after learning to dive, (we do swim lessons each spring) we went to the cabin as always, and found out we had perfect timing. A hurricane had just passed by off shore, and while the day before we got there was scorching hot, the surf was so high the surf nazis made everyone move off the beach and swelter on the side walk most of the day. (People on a cliff were swept in by a huge wave in downeast Maine that day.) Today the surf was still up, and when I got the chance, I took the surf kayak out and headed for the break (where the waves first break, you get the best rides from the extra energy there).

While I have boogie boarded in hurricane force waves before, (AWESOME!!!) I'd never seen waves like this before. Getting dashed in the face by an incoming wave is part of getting the good waves. You shake it off and keep going. However these waves were faster and steeper than I had ever paddled on before. About half way out, I realized I wasn't making much headway as the waves were more than the kayak was made for. I made it up over the next wave, but then the kayak sank into the wave, which freaked me out little bit. The surf was so foamed up, the kayak sank into the top of the wave until I was the only thing sticking out. I tried to make it over the next wave, but it grabbed the kayak and flipped it bow over stern.

Normally getting dumped into the surf at York beach means you stand up. A few times I've gone under, hit bottom, and launched back up to the top. This time I sank quite a way down, blinded by foam, before I realized I wasn't going to hit bottom. I fought panic and struggled to the surface, cleared the foam from my mouth and eyes. The kayak was about four feet away and a wave was raging toward me, I missed the side of the kayak by about six inches, and then I was back under again. Over and over again, I had to force myself to be calm, fight up to the surface, get in a breath or two, and get smashed back under by another wave.

After five or six waves, I realized I might not make it back to the beach, my lungs hurt, and I could feel myself getting tired. The waves were still smashing me down, and even when I was under, I couldn't feel the bottom. I was really praying hard now and wondered if the life guard way up on the back of the bath house could see me. Just before the next wave crashed down, I saw the heads of a group of swimmers. This would be the very daring or stupidest who go out where they can barely touch bottom and then try to jump each wave. While they weren't any help to me, they let me know I had almost made it back to the area I could touch bottom. While I was under the wave this time, I hit the bottom and used it to shoot me up to the surface. Once the wave cleared, I was able to start walking between waves. A little farther and I was able to stay above the waves.

I was so tired, my arms hurt, and my legs were shaking. A boy brought my paddle over, and a guy asked me if that was my kayak far off to my right. I was so tired I didn't care if I ever saw it again. I thanked the guy who brought it over to me and was just able to drag the kayak back to our picnic awning where my wife and kids were waiting.

My wife couldn't believe I was back already, while it seemed like I had been fighting to breathe for half an hour, I had been gone about ten minutes. As I sat there, I realized the decision to not go back and get the life jacket I forgot at the cabin almost cost me my life. The only reason I probably did make it was the flotation provided by my wetsuit (you don't go swimming in the gulf of Maine without one for long, unless you're Canadian : ) and my daughter learning how to dive. Otherwise I wouldn't have been able to keep my head after being smashed under by a wave.

I did go back into the surf, after I got something to eat, spent some time thanking God, and enjoyed watching the kids play in the sand. This time, I had a life jacket on and only went about half way out to the break, did a quick 180 and rode the fastest waves ever. I wasn't the only one to have an exciting day, one surfer came in with a bloody nose, she must have hit her surfboard, and another came in with his board broken in half.

Wide flat beach at low tide. Looking north toward Cape Neddick you can just barely see the Nubble Light house at the end.
The stream that flows across the beach. It keeps the kids entertained.
Paddle like mad to catch a small wave. These pictures are from the next year. The surf was depressingly flat most of the week. Unless you were a small kid on a big board you didn't get any rides.
Catching a tiny wave.
The yak board
Must have been an airplane passing over just then.
Notice the two surfers. That is about how much they will stand up on waves this small.
Simple leaning will keep you in control most of the time.
Enjoying a Christmas concert in July?! Every summer they have a week called Christmas in July. Along with with a Santa Claus Parade, they have a Christmas concert at Sohier Park (where you park to see the Nubble Lighthouse).
The Nubble Lighthouse.
The last song at the concert is "Sleigh Ride". Santa shows up then and "lights" the Christmas lights on the Nubble. They stay lit for a week. If you want to see them otherwise you will need to visit between the weekend after Thanksgiving and New Years.
Making a sand fort with our beach awning behind.
Starting young.

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