Winter Surfing at Higgins Beach

text and photos by Jessica Stammen

I saw Jaws for the first time when I was in the second grade.  I was at my friend Toby’s house and it was a week or so before my parents took my brothers and I on our first vacation to the ocean.  We lived in West Central Ohio and I had no experience in water beyond the chlorine-blue of the town pool.

My first memory of the ocean is a un-memory.  My family spent an entire week at Wrightsville beach in North Carolina and all I recall is the dark paneling in my aunt’s living room.  My parents insist they took me with them to the beach but I just remember lonely hours spent examining my cousin’s pirate lego collection in an effort to distract my fear.  As the Great White shark swam circles in my imagination I learned to divorce my dream (watching a sunset floating on a board next to a cute surfer boy) from that which would allow me to do so (the waves where sharks lurked of course).

I was in college before I confronted my fear for the first time.  Colin was a surfer and his mom had a beach house on the Jersey Shore.  Lessons were proposed.  I was nervous.  But I was also fairly resolved.  I was an adult; no more monsters under the bed or sharks in the water.  But in an amount of time that was shorter than the board itself I managed to scrape up both my shoulders, swallow enough water to make me fairly sick that evening, and learn that it hadn’t been a smart day to wear a two piece.  (Stop laughing, Colin.)

The Jersey Shore added insult to injury to fear, enough that despite numerous visits to my uncle’s vacation home just a mile down the beach from Playa Negra, a world-class surf spot in Costa Rica, I have never been tempted back on a board.

Well, had never.

When my family moved from Ohio to Maine twenty years ago I happily enjoyed the ocean from a safe perch on the Midcoast’s rocky shore.  I can count the number of times I’ve jumped in at Beauchamp Point on one hand.  Ferry rides to Vinalhaven were nice enough, as was searching for sand dollars at Duck Trap when I was young.  My physical involvement with the ocean stopped there.  No sailing, no day-trips to the beaches in the south.  Sandy beaches with waves?  They existed in Maine?  Where I lived the Penobscot Bay tamed the ocean reassuringly.  My dream of meeting a cute surfer boy could be put off until the next trip to Costa Rica – always the next – fading a bit each time it survived winter on a coast where the sun rises over the water, not sets.

But then Colin moved to Maine.  Blame it on global warming, but the water levels began to rise on my fear as I heard rumor of sand and swell, of wetsuit and board.  Colin and his buddies could be spotted around town wearing the Camden Surf Club hoodies he had designed.  He bought a Grain board and posted pictures of it on his painting blog.  He even went so far as to marry a girl who was a surfer.  And they surfed.  In Maine.  In the winter!  So did George and Kea, Kevin and Mike, Weston and Sharon, a growing group of positive peer pressure.

Sharon surfs at Higgins Beach, just a short drive from her home in Portland.  In late June of this year an ad-hoc parking committee was formed and consequently recommended that the town of Scarborough severely restrict access to the beach.  Summer parking would be cut nearly in half and off-season parking reduced to just six 30-minute spaces.  Any dog walker, fisherman, young family or surfer has to laugh at this.  Only fear could motivate the few out-of-state property owners behind this effective privatization, a fear that those very dog walkers, fisherman, young families and surfers – and therefore property values – can not be otherwise controlled.

In the face of such selfish fear many acts of courage are possible.  I, for one, determined it was time to face my own fear.  I would do this in a place and at a time I had least expected and with a determination that felt nothing like courage.

On a particularly warm Sunday a couple weeks ago Sharon and I drove to Higgins.  I nearly lost it when I caught my first glimpse of the breaking waves through her windshield.  What was I trying to do surfing?  In Maine?  In November? (And sorry Sharon, but you weren’t the cute surfer boy I had dreamed about.)  Gah! I distracted myself by asking questions about the proposed parking regulations, gasping in pleasure at the vibrant community parading along the beach, and then enjoying conversation with some of the regular surfers.

Putting on my borrowed wetsuit was another great distraction.  Good thing there was no 30-minute limit on parking because it took me nearly as long to wrestle, shimmy, tug and squeeze into the 6mil suit that a hurricane couldn’t have ripped from my body once I was in it.  Flying to Costa Rica to surf might have taken less time and energy.

Hood up, booties on, mitts secure, I realized something strange.  Suddenly – I mean just like that – my fear lost out to an obsessive-compulsive determination that the effort I just spent would not be wasted.  How silly!  Sure I was still nervous; who isn’t when confronted by something so big and beyond personal control, be it the ocean or the sometimes unpredictable but real communities we live in?  (Ad-hoc parking committee take note!)  The challenge, it seemed to me in that lucid moment walking onto the beach, was to press into a fear enough for it to give way to humility and respect.

The ocean has never been more beautiful to me.

I could stop here, really, because this is it.  This is the most important thing about the day I spent playing around in the whitewash at Higgins.  But it is fun to also remember how Sharon and I took turns on her board, how I watched and learned, then hopped on and became sensitive to that amazing moment when the wave both sucked me in and pushed me forward at the same time.  I lay down on my belly mostly, like a seal sunning its silky coat.  I was not cold at all.  Soon I became comfortable riding on my knees.  Trying to pop up onto my feet sent my tumbling overboard several times, but to my own surprise I always surfaced smiling.  I did not actually stand on my board.  No matter; next time.

Cloud cover moved in just as we exited the water after a few ok-just-one-mores.  The sky and water matched in silvery accents, the pines bounding the beach at either end offered rugged contrast.  With awe and hope Sharon and I watched a few black-bodied surfers still out enjoying the waves.  It is my hope that I will have the joy and privilege to return to Higgins to surf again and again.

While some can only dream we – we all – live here.