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Peter Simon

8.1.11

Surfing in the Zone

The culture of surfing in Vineyard waters has gained momentum in recent years with advances in weather-tracking technology. The Island’s south-shore swells are inconsistent, but occasionally they can be epic. The waves can also get crowded, and many surfers are protective of their turf.

A lot of people carefully plan their lives, never trusting to chance. Spa Tharpe is not one of those people.

He grew up in Trinidad and Grenada with a passion for surfing and sailing. At fourteen he left school to live aboard a ninety-foot Baltic trader, hauling general cargo around the Caribbean, from Suriname and Guyana as far north as St. Thomas, surfing wherever he went.

“Surfing was the biggest thing in my life,” he says, then pauses, grins, and gives a more comprehensive list. “Surfing, sailing, music, lovely women, and partying were the biggest things in my life.”

After a few years he got a job delivering a boat from the Caribbean to Annapolis, “a fabulous ninety-foot ocean racer, built for the Baron Rothschild in 1965, I think it was, or ’63.” Somewhere around Antigua, he had some issues with the captain.

As luck would have it though, there was another boat in need of crew, bound for Martha’s Vineyard. Spa got on board. No contract with the owner, no return ticket. To the extent that he had a plan, it was to deliver the boat, spend a couple of weeks on the Vineyard, then head west to Hawaii to surf.

It didn’t work out that way. It turned out the boat – prophetically named Terra Nova – belonged to one Isaac Taylor. And when Spa arrived on Martha’s Vineyard, he found himself “being welcomed by James [Taylor] and Carly [Simon] and the entire family,” he says.

“The first week I was here I was up at James’s house with my guitar, jamming with him. Back then this place was something else. Full of good-looking people who knew how to have a good time. I was seventeen and I was partying with all those people,” he recalls. “But I never would have stayed if the surf had not been excellent.”

More than thirty years on, Spa is here still, living in the house he built with the help of friends in Aquinnah. “Gay Head was the first light I saw in this country, and it’s basically where I’ve been this entire time. I can hear the surf from my bed. The very lighthouse that I first saw, in winter it flashes in my bedroom. How awesome is that, man?”

Spa is fifty-two now, has acquired a family and a mortgage, and has dialed a few things back since the seventies. “People partied hard then, really hard. It was a dangerous time,” he says. But there is much about his lifestyle that has not changed. He still works to live, rather than living to work, piecing together a livelihood from construction, teaching sailing and surfing, some property management, a little real estate work, and delivering boats.

Surfing is still a central theme of his existence. He’s still prepared to blow off work for clean waves of more than head height. He still loves the big ones; anything from eight to fifteen feet is his preference.

And “when a swell comes in, I still chase as many waves as I can get,” he grins again. His employers – and his hard-core surfing mates – understand. “We’re very fortunate we have an understanding with the people we work for, that they say, ‘Go on.’”

All of which underscores one point: If you want to know about surfing on the Vineyard, Spa Tharpe is the authoritative source.

Riding the waves

So let’s start with the threshold question: Is the surf here really any good? Or does it just seem that way to people who have limited points of reference?

On an up-Island beach at the end of the day, surf’s up and the striped bass are biting. Does it get any more perfect than this?
Peter Simon

I mean, really, when surfers talk about the world’s great waves, they talk about the Gold Coast, Bells Beach, or Margaret River in Australia, Jeffreys Bay in South Africa, the Pacific coast of Central America, California, the north shore of Hawaii, Indonesia, various exotic Pacific islands. They don’t talk about Martha’s Vineyard. In fact, they rarely talk about anywhere in the Atlantic at all. Some places in the Caribbean perhaps, a couple of spots in Brazil, the Canary Islands. Florida has produced a couple of notable surfers – Kelly Slater, for one – but doesn’t produce much notable surf. The fact remains that when surfers talk waves, they almost always talk about the Pacific or Indian oceans.

So I suggest, on meeting Spa for the first time, that maybe the surf here just looks good by comparison with the slop that comes ashore most other places on the eastern seaboard of the United States.

Not at all, he says.

“I’ve surfed four different islands in Hawaii, a couple of spots in Australia, Bali, all over California, many places in the Caribbean,” he says. “The surf here is inconsistent, as it is anywhere in the Atlantic, but when it does its thing, when we get a good swell, it’s world class.”

Want a second opinion? Then how about Marc LaVergne of Chilmark? He also has surfed Hawaii. He spent a bit of time in Australia, at storied breaks like Bells, Noosa, Byron Bay. Recently he bought land and built “a little beach cabina” in Costa Rica where the winter waves are not only good, but warm. He still surfs here the rest of the year.

“And I can say that among the places I’ve surfed, the Vineyard is right up there,” Marc says. “When those lows come up from the Carolinas, it can be just great.”

That might surprise a lot of people. It surprised Spa Tharpe. And it certainly surprised this sometime surfer when I arrived here five years ago – having left all my surfing gear behind in Australia. The whole concept of New England surfing seemed about as oxymoronic as Jamaican bobsledding. (Oh, the peril of preconceptions – the Jamaican four-man bobsled team finished ahead of the United States, Russia, France, and several other winter-sport power nations in the 1994 Olympics.)

So at first I was bemused at the sight of cars cruising round in summer with boards on top. It has to be a ruse, I figured. And to some extent it is – something we’ll get to in more detail a little later. But there is a real, thriving surf culture on the Vineyard, and there are people here who have been serious about it for a long time. Spa directed me to one of them.

Bill Ingraham first took to the waves some forty-five years ago. “I was born in 1948, and my first summer here was 1949,” he recalls. “In 1959, we moved here permanently....I guess I surfed seriously from about 1965. My high school graduation present was a surfboard.”

The Vineyard Haven resident has only ever surfed on the Vineyard.

“We did Squibnocket. There were essentially four of us in those days: me, two friends – George Knight and Ray Farland – and this girl we called Sara Surf. To this day I don’t know her real name, but I do know she’s still there; she still surfs.

“For some reason, the waves were a hell of a lot better in those days, I don’t know why. But we used to get really nice waves, and long! So long you could bring a razor out and shave yourself while you were on ’em. And you never had to compete for a wave.”

Bill was a serious big-board surfer for maybe five or six years. “Then, in ’68 or ’69, I blew my knee out. I had big trouble getting up with a bad knee.” He took to body boarding in the 1970s, but by then, he says, “It was more about the beach parties and the girls.”

But, hey, surf culture has never been just about the waves.

“We’d take one of the vans,” he says, “and load it up with wooden crates, go down to South Beach and light it up. And in thirty to forty-five minutes, the cars would start coming down, because they could see the fire from town.”

Bill does not surf anymore, and pulls up his trouser cuffs to show why: artificial legs. “I ruptured both Achilles tendons through taking a medication,” he says. “So I have trouble standing up, let alone standing up on a board.”

But he still has a board, a huge old Hansen Master for which he paid $199. Now collectors will pay $3,000 for a good one, not that he would ever sell his. And he has his store of stories, about big waves and big wipeouts and stupid things he did as a young man and got away with.

He misses it.

“Once you ride a really nice wave, it’s pretty hard not to want to do it again. It’s addictive,” he says.

Indeed it is. Danny Luce of Edgartown is sixty-four. He started surfing forty years ago, but he reckons he was hooked on the sea before birth. “My whole family was brought up on the ocean. My grandmother was a Mayhew, my other grandmother was a Fisher,” he says.

Griffin Hughes, heads into the waves with board in hand.
Peter Simon

Danny began surfing in earnest after leaving the Navy and returning to the Vineyard in 1969, and his love of the sport has not changed in that time, although much else has. He doesn’t ride long boards anymore – not since Hawaii, 1986, when he saw what could be done on body boards. “I’ve got pretty good at it. I do drop knee [riding not on the belly, like most body boarders do but with one foot and one knee up on the board]. I do three-sixties, all the tricks.”

He doesn’t go out all day anymore either – three or four hours usually does him. And he no longer goes out in the dead of winter. “Maybe four years ago, I went out. I think the water was maybe thirty-two, thirty-three. I got in and got right back out,” Danny says. “But so long as the water’s up in the forties, if I’ve got a full wet suit – 5/4 or 6/4 with a hoodie on it – gloves, booties, Vaseline on my face, you can get by.”

Turf and territoriality

The overall surfing environment is different these days. Both Bill and Danny say the bottom has changed. Given the rate at which the Vineyard is eroding – ten feet a year in some places on the south shore – this is hardly surprising. Some of the rockier places like Squibnocket have changed less. But South Beach, says Danny, has become less consistent and more dangerous in recent years, since Norton Point opened up.

But the really big change is in the accessibility of waves. “I guess back when I started, the whole population of the Island was maybe six thousand, seven thousand,” says Danny. “It was wide open and you could go any place....and the best places we found were up-Island. I used to go up there all the time until it got privatized. Now you’ve got to live up there or know somebody. I don’t even bother.

“Now it’s South Beach for me. I have a knack for finding good little sandbars. When the tide and wind are just right, there’s some pretty good rides. I still get stoked. You get out there in the summertime at seven, eight o’clock in the morning, the tide just right, it’s magic.”

Lack of access is, by general agreement, the biggest handicap to surfing on the Vineyard, especially in summer. “They don’t like people up-Island,” says Danny simply. And apparently they like surfers less than others.

Chilmark bans hard surfboards completely from Lucy Vincent Beach, and prohibits them in front of the parking lot at Squibnocket. Even worse, in the eyes of Marc LaVergne, are those private beach owners who get all territorial about people who just want to get to the waves.

“I don’t even want to sit on their beach; I’m not trying to take their space. I just want to paddle out to surf, and none of them are doing it, so I’m really not in their way....I have a friend who used to live on Nantucket, and you could go to any beach you wanted any time. It should be like that here.”

There are ways to get around the problem, of course.

“At Squibnocket,” says Marc, “you can’t park or walk on after 9 a.m. So what we do is get there at eight, put our boards on the beach with our backpacks, drive up to the Menemsha overlook, and walk down.”

Another way to avoid the access problem is to use a boat. A growing number of people do it, although it does not always make them popular.

Says Spa Tharpe: “They turn up from the mainland when the storms come up. I can think of five times this past summer, right around the end of August, where people came over in boats and just anchored off where we were surfing. Some of the people who live and surf here year-round get a little uptight when something like that happens. There are so many surfers here year-round now, and they want surf so bad, that it’s very hard to have a bunch of folks just show up in a boat. Of course it depends on the people coming over. Some are fun to surf with. I try to be nice to them.”

Fact is, though, it can get really crowded out there in summer. And like the old Vineyard joke goes: “Summer people, and some are not.” Some of the scions of the ownership class bring to the surf the same sense of entitlement that they bring to everything else. Last summer Marc did as the tourists do and went out with a boat.

“We went over to Noman’s Land. And the surprising thing to me was that there were so many other people out there. There were like twenty boats. And some of them were aggro. I was told it was their beach break. Now, how can it be their beach break when nobody lives there?”

Vineyard surfers, like Vineyard drivers, like to think of themselves as a courteous lot. Maybe less so in summer. Territoriality, though, does crop up.

“I don’t have a problem with anybody who goes in the ocean,” says Danny. “I think the ocean’s for everybody. It’s not like California or Hawaii here.”

Well, not yet anyway.

Says Spa: “There is an element of localism here, same as anywhere really. Localism has a couple of different faces. One is maybe pride and respect. And there is the other face – which exists around the entire planet – which can be uninviting. But basically, if you abide by the rules of the road, no worries.”

But the pressures are growing. “If we have a hurricane swell here in the height of the season, in the most crowded spot you can see upwards of fifty people,” Spa says, then flashes the grin again. “Mind you, once it gets good enough, it soon clears out.”

Like many Island surfers, Forrest Harcourt of Vineyard Haven hopes the waves won’t get too crowded.
Peter Simon

The part-time surfers who come here in summer mostly aren’t up for ten- or fifteen-foot waves. It’s not like California or Australia or Hawaii, where you get that kind of swell and it’s still crowded. Those places have a lot of serious surfers; here we have some serious surfers and a lot of surfing dilettantes.

Trisha Lyman, manager of the Boneyard Surf Shop in Edgartown, underlines the point. “It’s the surf culture that keeps us going, but a lot of people don’t actually feel the need to go out surfing to want to be part of it. Or maybe they do it once or twice a season, just to say they have,” she says. “It’s all about branding and image. They come in and they want a new shirt or pair of shorts, but they want a cool name on it, like Quiksilver or Rip Curl or one of the many other brands. People might come to work as a waiter or waitress for the summer, and they have to wear a black and white uniform. Well, they don’t want polyester pants from Sears.

“We stay in business because people want the look – the Vans shoes, the Quiksilver shorts, the brand-name sunglasses, our logo shirts. We have a store downtown now, and 75 percent of that store is [Boneyard] logo gear. It goes like crazy.”

There’s not much profit in actual surfing equipment for actual surfers, she says. The store might take $700 for a board, of which $75 is profit. They keep a stock of maybe thirty, of which they might sell a dozen a year to those whom Trisha calls “real” surfers.

Elaine Barse, owner of the Green Room in Vineyard Haven, tells a similar story. “I don’t think there are many stores, even in Hawaii and other places where there is hard-core surf happening year-round, which just sell hard goods,” she says.

But while most of the money comes from selling those other things – clothes, shades, and accessories like leashes, wet suits, board bags – she gets a buzz from selling boards that is quite disproportionate to the profit margin.

“They’re exciting to sell. A pair of jeans is one thing, but to sell a board to somebody who’s really excited to go out and use it, and be active in their life and enjoy being part of their surroundings, is really fun. The participants are just so excited about what they’re doing. That energy is what keeps the industry young and vital,” says Elaine.

She herself is a surfer of the “weekend warrior” variety, who likes her waves two or three feet high, and not cold. She is in awe of the Island’s serious surfers. “To get in that water when it’s thirty-seven degrees, and you’re covered head to toe in rubber, that’s brave. That takes real commitment. I really respect them,” says Elaine.

The inside scoop

There is not only commitment among the Island crew, but some definite talent as well, says Spa. “We have some really good people here. The younger crowd that’s coming up now, they are exhibiting talent that’s maybe not ASP [Association of Surfing Professionals] world-tour talent. But some have the potential – if they went to the north shore of Oahu, traveled the circuit – to go very far.”

But they won’t do it from here. Good as the waves are when they’re at their best, they’re simply not at their best often enough. “In a good year,” he says, “from April to November, you may get twenty-five days when you get surf that’s overhead, powerful, hollow, good long rides. That’s an epic season. There’s a lot of in-between days.”

My only experience surfing the Vineyard was on one of those in-between days in the fall of 2010. There had been a big storm the previous day, so at first light I found myself paddling with a couple of locals at Lucy Vincent. There was a decent southerly swell, the sun was shining again, and the wind was blowing offshore – theoretically a good thing because it stands the waves up. But this was almost a gale; the chop on the faces all but bounced me off the board. The spray was blinding, the rides were short, and the close-outs were punishing.

But the thing that unsettled me was the state of the water itself. The sea was opaque ochre, full of clay from the eroding cliffs. You couldn’t see your arms as you paddled, you couldn’t see the rocks just under the surface, although you could see the eddies around them. You couldn’t see anything below you. The bass line from Jaws began inside my head.

This was not rational, I told myself. If a shark’s going to get you, it doesn’t make any difference whether you see it coming or not. But when a seal’s head popped up just beyond the break, I could not help thinking how easily Jaws would mistake me, in my black neoprene, for a yummy seal – I was outta there.

I confessed this to Spa.

“I know what you mean. The Caribbean, Hawaii, different places in the tropics, you can see the bottom. But in a way maybe it’s better you can’t see what you’re surfing over here. It’s very shallow, very rocky.”

He in turn made a confession. “When I was in Australia, the thought of sharks there freaked me out a bit.”

And, I have to admit, his fear was more rational. No one’s ever been attacked here, unlike in Australia, in whose clear waters I always felt comfortable.

“But of course there are sharks here,” he says. “I saw a mako one time, in the lineup at Squibnocket.”

The more real dangers, though, are the rocks, one’s own board, the waves, and currents. “I’ve been held under a lot in hurricane swells,” he says. “I’ve seen people get really hurt here, and come close to drowning. I’ve only hurt myself seriously a couple of times. The worst was 2007: I hurt my knee, and it put me out for over a year. That was scary.

“When I think about hurting myself, I don’t think about missing work, I think about missing surfing. How irresponsible is that? I don’t think about my mortgage, any of my payments. I think about missing a swell. I would imagine a lot of surfers think like that,” says Spa.

So where are the best spots on the Island?

Marc was the most forthcoming about favorite locations along the Island’s south shore. “Long Point’s a great beach break. South Beach, six or seven years back, was a really, really sweet spot. Now it just doesn’t present itself the same. Obviously Bell’s, Squibnocket (which rocks), and Rockpile [are good and] don’t fluctuate as much. They’re great.”

What about secret spots?

“I don’t think there’s any such thing as a secret spot anymore,” says Spa. “We all know the places, Squibnocket or Philbin, etcetera. Just look around. In this day and age, with the Internet and such fantastic forecasts, people can study the whole planet in search of waves. They can look at any island or country, anywhere, and be able to see where the shoals and points are, see where the weather’s coming from, see the swell direction. It’s not rocket science to find the surf.

“I have a crew of maybe five of us who, when it gets really good, we’re talking to each other on the phone a lot, looking at the computer, e-mailing each other, getting together early morning or evening....I stop in November though; it’s just too cold after that.”

It’s not that the waves don’t come in the winter, it’s just that there is a better option. “Go to Logan, hand over a credit card, and within ten hours you can be in very warm water in a beautiful place,” he says. Damn the cost.

“I have no money, still, but I’ve got everything else,” he says, ticking them off. Girlfriend, kids, friends, home. And surf.

“I’m incredibly fortunate. It’s a fantastic life. I could not have asked for any better. Even in the hardest times, and there have been some that were really hard, if you look at the joy-to-grief ratio, the joy far outweighs.”

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