Illustrations by Ashley McCarty
6/27/2013 - Before she made eye contact with an octopus off the coast of Mexico, Sy Montgomery, an author from Hancock, learned to scuba dive in a pool in Merrimack.
Montgomery writes primarily about animals, and research for her books has brought her to the plains of Africa in search of elephants and to the desert to ride a camel. But Montgomery said 95 percent of the Earth’s habitable space is underwater, and she wanted to write about octopuses.
The only way to do it? Learn to scuba dive.
“The wildlife experience you get underwater is so intense,” Montgomery said. “There are so many species and there’s nothing like it on land. There are wild animals passing within inches of your face. It’s an incredible, intimate experience from a completely other realm.”
Montgomery’s path to the depths of the ocean began at Aquatic Specialties, an indoor scuba diving and swimming training center in Merrimack. Barb Sylvestre, general manager of the facility, said all anyone needs to get started in learning to scuba is a general comfort in the water and a dedication to acquiring new skills.
While Sylvestre can help someone reach the ocean floor, Joe Lentini can take you to the top of a mountain by climbing up a rock face. Chris Chmielewski is more into traveling down a mountain and can lead you through that on a mountain bike. Dave Cropper and his crew can help you stand on a surfboard for the first time and catch waves off Hampton Beach. Evan Goldner can help you stand up on waterskis. And Eric Galafassi can help you land your first ollie.
These action sport professionals all said it’s never too early or late to learn a new sport, regardless of your age or body type or athletic abilities. You may not think you can ride a wave, climb a mountain or breathe underwater, but with a little help along the way, there’s no telling where you might end up.
Hit the dirt highway
The downhill slopestyle course looms over the parking lot of Highland Mountain Bike Park in Northfield with its massive dirt jumps and steep ramps. It’s a course for the pros and nothing a beginner could tackle.
But the staff at the park has dedicated as much time as possible to bridging the gap between world-class riders and first-timers. While the slopestyle course is the first part of the park a visitor sees, lightly descending trails snake their way down the other faces of the hill, perfect for a beginner to adjust to the capabilities of a mountain bike and the off-road terrain.
A mountain bike that can handle these sorts of trails can be a big investment, running between $5,000 and $6,000. So for first-timers not ready to make such a commitment, the park offers a Find Your Ride course. For $99, a newbie is outfitted with a bike for the day, set to the precise height and weight specifications, a lift ticket and an instructor, who will lead the group through learning the essentials and pedaling down Easy Rider, one of the mountain’s beginner trails.
Chris Chmielewski said he has worked with new riders as young as 4 years old and with people in their 70s. As long as a rider is comfortable enough with the mountain bike, he said, there’s no set body type or athletic ability that is required to get started.
Much like skiing, mountain bike trails are rated as green circles for beginners, blue squares for intermediate riders and black diamonds for experts. Chmielewski said the addition of a beginner trail like Easy Rider has allowed Highland to become a destination for new riders as well as professionals.
“Easy Rider was a huge project,” he said. “We wanted people to be able to find a mellow route, so we made it a dirt highway.”
Before heading to the peak of the hill, the first step of the Find Your Ride program is to adjust to a mountain bike. Though most people have learned to ride a road bike or recreational bike, making the transition is not as easy as it may appear. The first major difference a new rider will notice, Chmielewski said, is how low the seat of a mountain bike is positioned. He said the placing is intentional because a mountain biker will be spending the vast majority of his or her time on the trails standing on the pedals.
Second, Chmielewski said it can take some time to adjust to the brakes of a mountain bike, which are far more powerful than those on road bikes. If a rider is not properly adjusted to the braking procedure, he might feel like he will go flying over the handlebars.
Before the trip up the hill, Chmielewski will go over the basics on flat ground. Once the class is ready to apply that new knowledge to a trail, it will head up on the chairlift to Easy Rider.
“We’re figuring out issues that would have been figured out in the heat of battle,” he said. “As soon as people get on the trail, they say, ‘Oh, I see.’”
Typically, after the one-hour lesson, new riders can comfortably handle the beginner trails, and Chmielewski said most people will stick around to explore on their own. Since Highland Mountain Bike Park introduced the Find Your Ride program and became more beginner-friendly, Chmielewski said the best part of his job as an instructor is seeing new riders stick with the sport and improve on the basic skills be taught them. With mountain biking, Chmielewski said, there is always a new trick to learn, a new jump to try or a harder trail to tackle.
“I get the same feeling that I see in everyone else when I do a new feature,” he said. “I’ll see them walking the trails and thinking about if they should do it. It’s so rewarding, and it’s the best thing ever when they get excited about doing something for the first time and can go tell their friends.”
After donning wetsuits at Cinnamon Rainbows Surf Co. in Hampton, the group of six new surfers was ready to hit the water. But before they made their way to North Beach to ride their first waves, instructor Kyle Linseman yelled out a warning about stepping onto a surfboard for the first time.
“Get ready for the addiction,” he said. “Because your life as you knew it is over.”
Cinnamon Rainbows Surf Co., has been a staple of Hampton’s North Beach for 30 years, serving as a Seacoast source of surf equipment and instruction. On June 12, a group of women made the trek to the beach from Massachusetts for a morning lesson. Some had surfed once or twice, while others were brand new.
Casi Rynkowski, a personal trainer from Massachusetts brought the group to Hampton for the day. Rynkowski said she grew up going to beaches in Hampton and Seabrook and has known the Cinnamon Rainbows crew for years. Though organizing these trips is separate from her work as a trainer, she said she enjoys spreading her passion for the sport.
“I just like to take my friends,” Rynkowski said. “I love surfing and sharing the surf love.”
Within the timeframe of a one-hour lesson, shop owner Dave Cropper said, most new surfers will learn to get on their feet and ride some waves. With the help of an experienced instructor, the basic movements are easy to grasp, opening the door to a lifetime of learning new skills. But before getting in the water, Cropper said, it’s essential to understand how to surf safely and politely.
The most important part of etiquette in surfing is communication among surfers when they are waiting for waves to roll in. There’s only room for so many surfers per wave, and if too many surfers catch it, it can make for a dangerous situation, Cropper said.
After the lesson in surf etiquette, the instructor will give a dry land lesson on how to transition from lying on the board in the paddling position to standing on the board.
From a surfer’s stomach, he will push down on the board with his arms, arching his back. Then, in one fluid motion, the surfer needs to hop to his feet to properly ride the wave.
“Once they hop to their feet and they’re comfortable riding waves, we’ll correct the mistakes that people make and give them the little pointers that ensure success,” Cropper said. “Usually by the end of the lesson almost everybody has got to their feet and done a little bit of actual surfing.”
Standing on the board is the easy part, Cropper said. But unless a surfer understands when a wave will break and when it’s best to transition to his feet, Cropper said, it will be difficult to ride a wave.
By taking a lesson, Cropper said, new surfers will essentially “borrow” their instructor’s timing. He said an expert will know the precise time to push a student into a wave and when to call out for them to transition from their stomach to their feet.
“A lot of people think surfing is balance, but it’s really timing, and you can’t teach timing,” Cropper said. “You have to acquire it by spending time in the water and being able to read the waves and the conditions.”
For much of the New Hampshire surf season, those conditions are cold. But with the proper gear, the Seacoast can be a nearly year-round destination. The Cinnamon Rainbows group was able to enter the cold early June waters, not just in protective wetsuits but also with boots designed for surfing to maintain foot warmth and to not compromise control over the board.
Cropper said one of the biggest draws to surfing is that once someone has a board and the proper protective gear, there are few other financial commitments. That is, he said, as long as you’re not taking days off from work to go to the beach.
“The cool thing about surfing as a sport is once you get a board and a suit it doesn’t cost anything to go,” Cropper said. “It’s not like you’re buying lift tickets.”
Cropper said learning to surf is about more than just taking up a new sport. It’s about the lifestyle of spontaneity, getting outside in the sun and the water, and to an extent, giving yourself an escape from the daily routine.
Most importantly, though, it’s about joining a strong community of people who turn the New Hampshire seacoast into a mini-Malibu each summer. Tyler McGill co-owns Summer Sessions, a surf shop and school on Jenness Beach in Rye. He has traveled the world to surf and is frequently met with surprise when he tells people where he’s from.
“Whenever I tell people I own a shop in New Hampshire, their response is usually, ‘There’s ocean there?’ or, ‘You can surf in New Hampshire?’” McGill said.
But, as word has spread about the good waves that consistently crash into the Granite State’s 18-mile coastline, McGill said surfing in New Hampshire has blossomed and the energy that surfers bring to the beach has been invigorating.
“It has been amazing to watch the development of surfing and surfing culture over the last 15 years,” McGill said. “Now there are surfing clubs, and kids have had exposure to it in the Seacoast area. It’s exciting to see people using one of the greatest amenities of the Seacoast area of New Hampshire.”
For 37 years, Joe Lentini has led rock climbing excursions and taught the sport to beginners. But to make sure his skills were as strong as possible, he took three years of modern dance classes.
He said climbing is more about proper foot movement and weight shifting and less about relying on sheer strength to reach to the top. Because a casual rock climber does not need to be a world-class athlete, Lentini said, children and active seniors can make their first climb. But before heading up north to the imposing White Mountains, the perfect place for beginners to get started is closer to home.
Pawtuckaway State Park in Nottingham, Lentini said, is tailor-made for beginners, with cliffs that aren’t too steep and terrain that’s not too treacherous. The Conway resident said his services do include leading treks into the Whites, but he’s always up for a trip south to introduce the sport to a newbie.
Lentini said learning to climb is like learning to walk. When a child takes his or her first steps, the hips will stay still, not following the direction of the feet. Eventually, those awkward movements get ironed out. On a first climb, Lentini said, there’s a similar reluctance for someone to shift his weight with each step.
To set his students up for success, focusing on the feet is an important place to start.
“People think it’s all about pulling up but it’s about how to use your feet properly,” he said. “Even at the highest grades of climbing, if you don’t have good footwork, you won’t do well.”
When a beginner signs up for a climb, Lentini said, he tells them not to bother purchasing any of the gear in advance. He said it’s better for his students to use his equipment on a first climb and then to decide whether or not they want to continue with the sport and purchase their own gear.
On a first-time climb, Lentini will suit up a student from head to toe with a helmet and shoes designed specifically for rock climbing. Each climber will be outfitted in a harness around the waist and legs and will be strapped into a belay device of carabiners and ropes. When teaching a beginner, Lentini will take care of the more technical equipment, like spring-loaded apparatuses that are placed into cracks in the rocks to attach gear to.
“I love the movement, and I love toys,” Lentini said. “The technical gear is a delight if you like the toys.”
Lentini said in his work he consistently has the privilege to see people accomplish what they previously may have thought was the impossible. Even after nearly 40 years of teaching, he said that feeling never gets old.
“I’ve done thousands of beginner lessons, and people ask me if I find that boring,” Lentini said. “I tell them no because the people are always different. Seeing the joy of people experiencing something they didn’t think was possible — I love it.”
It’s not likely anyone will ever get stung by a jellyfish in Merrimack.
But on the shelves of Aquatic Specialties, anything a scuba diver will need can be found, from breathing devices to jellyfish sting relief. But before buying a wetsuit, regulator, mask, snorkel and fins, the back of the store is where beginners can learn to scuba.
The facility’s pool, enclosed by walls similar to a greenhouse, starts shallow before quickly descending to 10 feet. General manager Barb Sylvestre and her team of scuba instructors have used that pool to train kids to be certified at 10 years old and one diver who was 80 when he learned.
Before heading to the pool, Sylvestre said, a new diver will be walked through the ins and outs of the necessary scuba gear. Once in the pool, she will have her students run through a swimming evaluation to determine the new diver’s comfort level.
With adequate swimming skills demonstrated, Sylvestre can then teach snorkeling to provide an introduction to underwater breathing. When an instructor decides a new student is ready to start learning scuba skills, those are all taught in the pool and include putting a mouthpiece back in if it falls out, removing water from a mask, helping out a tired buddy and getting air to a buddy who is running low.
“With old school scuba, it was almost like a military test, and it was very strenuous,” Sylvestre said. “Now it’s, ‘Can you stay afloat?’ and, ‘Are you comfortable?’”
While many of the most popular scuba locations are in tropical ocean waters, Sylvestre said she can prepare a new student for a local dive into the cold waters of a New Hampshire lake or off the New England coast. “We go to Lake Winnisquam, Lake Winnipesaukee, and we go to the ocean,” Sylvestre said. “We’re really spoiled compared to a lot of places because New Hampshire has water. Pretty much if it’s open to the public, you can go.”
The equipment a diver will need for each dive includes a regulator, which is the breathing device. A diver will bring two mouthpieces along, one for primary usage and a secondary mouthpiece, usually brightly colored, to use in case of emergency. Over the wetsuit, divers will wear a vest with hoses attached to assist them with their underwater movements. The vest can be inflated or deflated depending on whether the diver wants to float or sink. For a local cold-water dive, Sylvestre said a hood and gloves are necessary for added warmth.
With an understanding of the skills and equipment, the next step is to head out into the world to test out the new scuba skills in a natural body of water.
“When we’re in the pool, it’s a lot of skill-based time,” Sylvestre said. “We make sure you can use the gear and that you’re comfortable in the water and know all of your skills. Then when we head to open water we do a little test, and then it’s seeing what’s out there.”
While scuba diving requires a great deal of gear and accessories, Sylvestre said a beginner can start with the proper equipment for about $1,000 — the good news there is that divers will rarely need to replace their equipment. Sylvestre said her personal regulator has accompanied her on more than 1,000 dives.
“I’m also into skiing and on a regular basis I’m replacing skis and bindings,” Sylvestre said. “With scuba, if you buy good stuff and take care of it, you’ll have it.”
Despite all of the equipment needed for scuba diving, what Sylvestre leaves behind is just as important to make the most of each dive.
“My cell phone doesn’t work down there, so I can’t get beeped or paged,” she said. “Listening to the sound of your bubbles and being in that peaceful place is just wonderful.”
On Merrymeeting Lake in New Durham, teenagers can spend a week of their summer zipping across the water on a wakeboard or water skis. Evan Goldner created Water Monkey Camp to share his love of water sports with young athletes, but when camp is not in session, Goldner has taught people from age 6 to 60 to stand up on the water for the first time.
He said even if someone has never skied or participated in a board sport before, many of his students can stand up with just one lesson. Water skiing or wakeboarding, Goldner said, is a great introduction to action sports because it’s the boat that’s doing most of the work.
“What’s really cool is the boat engine is the equalizer,” Goldner said. “Anyone, even if they never run or exercise, can get back there and learn.
Goldner said a lesson will get started with a quick safety overview and then newcomers can head into the water. There is a platform attached to the back of the boat that the skier or boarder will use when strapping in to the skis or board. Then the student will go through the positions on the platform, getting the hang of having their knees bent and arms straight.
When wakeboarding, which Goldner said is slightly more challenging, riders will enter the water and face the boat head on. Then, when the boat starts forward and the rope pulls the rider up, he or she will need to transfer to a parallel stance on the way up. With water skiing, the skier will face the boat in the water and remain in that position throughout the process.
While water skiing and wakeboarding are the more recognized boat sports, Goldner said sports where the rider will intentionally drop the rope are becoming more popular — he also teaches wake surfing and wake skating, which will have riders holding the rope to start, then once the boat gets started, dropping it and riding in the wake. With wake surfing, the rider will essentially surf the wake much like a surfer would ride a wave. Wake skating, on the other hand, is more akin to skateboarding, with the rider performing jumps and technical tricks.
A private lesson is $150 per hour, and his boat will accommodate 10 people. Goldner said each person in the party should have at least 30 minutes of time in the water.
Goldner said that while learning to water ski or wakeboard can take just one session out on the water, the ability to keep improving is infinite. And each time is a thrill.
“People get hooked because it’s the adrenaline like with any other extreme sport,” he said. “And there’s limitless potential. You can be jumping in the air or doing flips and spins or you can just cruise around.”