It was just a little past 6am on a brilliant Saturday morning and a few SUP boarders were already out in the glassy blue off Jenness Beach State Park on the coast of New Hampshire. The parking lot was beginning to fill up as an eager clot of beachgoers—Montrealers, Mainers, Bay Staters and local Granite Staters – waited in front of Summer Sessions Surf Shop to rent boards or wetsuits, book surfing lessons or just grab a cup of java. Lured by reports of a day of easy knee-to-waist-high surf, with a sandy-bottom shore break and a chance to return to my own childhood haunt, I joined the crowd as the doors opened. I was eager to trade my old Peruvian 9-foot soft-top for a new longboard that would give me, a 71-year-old novice visiting from the shores of distant Lake Ontario, more stability.
“You’re kidding, right? You mean New Hampshire has a seacoast?!” Yep, that’s what many of the geographically-challenged ask when they learn I’m heading off to surf New Hampshire. And it’s one reason Eastern Surf Magazine devoted its October, 2012 issue to the often-neglected New Hampshire surf scene. The Granite State’s quiet distinction is that it has, at 17 miles or 13.5 miles (estimates, oddly enough, differ), the shortest coastline of any state in the U.S. Just maybe it’s the paucity of shredable breaks (compared to more southerly eastern states) that builds pride and seashore stewardship among New Hampshire surfers. Just a chat with New Hampshire Vietnam vet and surfer Ralph Fatello or Lance Maki, M.D., who just wrote Takes Two to Tandem: Tribute to the Sport of Tandem Surfing, attests to the many who relish the blessing of good New Hampshire wave sessions, taking the many flat days in stride. Some bemoan the rising tide of non-locals but always manage to take care of their own; example: the vow Fatello took to surf every day of the year in 2011 to raise money for his “Molly Memorial Fund” in honor of the young daughter of local surfer and friend. The memorial paddle-outs for other local surfers who’ve lost spouses or loved ones to illness are well-attended. Localism is spotty, but natives’ favorite surf spots, often reachable only by traipsing across barnacles and periwinkle-encrusted rocks made slithery with Medusa-like strands of brown kelp, help maintain their secrecy.
Exiting Route 95 at Seabrook, you’re within a few hundred feet of the ocean virtually every step of the way north on Route 1A; you can’t get much closer to the water and it’s practically at eye-level, a visual, acoustic and olfactory delight that’s perhaps the New Hampshire coast’s most singular feature, with tidy middle-class homes and gracious old seaside estates, weather-beaten cottages and shops shielded (usually) from the sea by stretches of protective seawall. The latter, known in raucous Hampton Beach as “The Wall,” marks the location of most of New Hampshire’s growing numbers of surfing heats including ESA events and Northeastern Regionals. Howling winter winds can send waves catapulting onto motorists navigating up or down Ocean Boulevard.
For its small size, the coast supports no less than five surf shops. The first shop you hit on the Seabrook/Hampton line is Mike Paugh’s “Zapstix.” One of the oldest is Dave Cropper’s baby,” Cinnamon Rainbows,” its rainbow-festoon signboard reigning over the trafficked High Street/Route 1A intersection; Ryan and Tyler McGill’s “Summer Sessions” shop (opened in an old landmark general store, 2003) presides over Jenness Beach in Rye. About four miles north, beyond Rye Harbor, Wallis Sands State Park, and Petey’s Seafood Restaurant on Stinky Creek, sits Pirates Cove Surf, also in Rye. Just a mile or so inland, on Route 1 in Hampton you’ll find Steve O’Hara’s Pioneer Board Shop. As a barometer of the seacoast’s surfing sustainability, Summer Sessions has opened up a classy urban boutique in the vibrant harbor-front city of Portsmouth at the mouth of the Piscataqua River. All shops report thriving summer business and soaring sales of SUPs and rentals. While tourism declines in the fall, and the beaches empty, the truly dedicated await the bigger, rippable winter swells and the storm surges of autumn hurricanes. The frozen-snot diehards count the days for the unique stoke of winter surfing when water temps plummet to the low 30s.
Summer surfing, however, is relatively easy in New Hampshire, with waters warming to the mid-60s. I was fine in my 3mm Rip Curl, but I saw boogie-boarders and skimmers in their boardshorts or swimsuits. Occasional nor’easters bring out the storm-ready hordes who’ve been glued to NOAA, Magic Seaweed or their favorite local surf cams; my favorites are www.newhampshiresurf.com or www.cinnamonrainbows.com. Because I was staying closer to Jenness Beach, I hung out there, amazed at how democratic the scene was. On sunny days, especially weekends, the breaks teem with folks of all ages and abilities. SUPers lugging their heavy boards across the sand, youngsters suited up, noses caked with zinc oxide, heading for a surf lesson, and serious watermen paddling to the lineup through zigzagging boogey-boarders. Collisions occur. As I nosed my 9-foot rental out from the shore one morning, a grom who apparently had decided to take a siesta, prone on his shortboard, careened directly at me, grazing the nose of my board. I scowled meaningfully, satisfied when I saw him tumble into eight inches of water.
Dawn patrol. Gotta love it. Checked the surf cams before sun-up one morning and was greeted by dense fog and drizzle. Scrambled into my wetsuit and sped three miles down to Jennness from Pebble Cove, fog so thick you could cut it with a knife. Only one or two other surfers out and a great chance to bob like a teabag on my board a quarter mile from shore, only the muffled sound of a distant tanker plodding its way into Portsmouth Harbor. The zen-like moments out there in stillness broken only by gull cries and the plink-plink of raindrops on my board; perfect soul food to carry the day.
Flat or mushy days inevitably come. But there’s plenty else to do and see along the shortest coast, redolent as it is with marine exhibits and a passel of old forts and watchtowers dating from the early 1600s–the latter all used in the defense of Portsmouth Harbor. Since childhood, my favorites are Fort Constitution (1631) in New Castle, affording a spectacular view of the Portsmouth Harbor entrance with Kittery and Maine across the Piscataqua. New Castle’s an island and boasts several still lived-in houses bearing dates of mid-1600s. Nearby is Fort Stark, a World War II installation overlooking the entrance to Little Harbor. I once spotted HMS Bounty, the 1960 replica of the famous square-rigger, under sail as it passed by the fort; alas, it sank (Marlon Brando had long gone) in the treacherous Hatteras Canyon off the Outer Banks during 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. Other old fortifications include a now closed eight-story WWII lookout tower on Pulpit Rock (easily visible just north of Wallis Sands wonderful State Beach in Rye) and the downright spooky, jungle-shrouded bunkers and battlements at Odiorne Point’s Seacoast Science Center (slather on the OFF!). If your kids are in tow, they’ll love the Science Center exhibits, and looking for crabs in the tide pools.
Seacoast nightlife can be deee-lightfully sampled at either famous Hampton Beach or in downtown Portsmouth, the state’s thriving seaport, with its Tall Ship visits, great restaurants, endless shops and a chance to spot a good percentage of America’s submarine fleet in for maintenance at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard yards offshore in the harbor between New Hampshire and Maine. A wee bit of the SoCal or Daytona Beach vibe can be had at Hampton Beach, but be braced for throngs of strolling flaneurs and creeping traffic. Here’s where endless beachwear and salt-water taffy shops fairly burst with patrons. There’s a band-shell, credit-card parking, and the state’s widest, most popular beach, its lifeguards rivaling those at Bondi. Just seven miles offshore and clearly visible on brightest days lie the historic Isles of Shoals, where legend has it that Blackbeard’s pirate treasure’s still hidden.
More certain (from archaeological evidence) were the frequent visits to the Isles by European fishing expeditions to split, salt and dry Atlantic cod in the 1620s. Art colony founder and poet Celia Thaxter entertained Nathaniel Hawthorn and the artist Child Hassam at her salons on the islands, which Thaxter beautified with her many flower gardens. Tired from paddling out? Take a boat out to the Isles, dodge the nesting seagulls, and soak up the superb view of the Massachusetts-to-southern Maine coastline. On a whale watch, we once encountered 22 whales.
Big whales, tiny coastline. Sometimes good things do come in small packages.