As Matt Healy bobs up and down in the ocean just off of Lawrencetown Beach, he is completely indistinguishable from the other 20 surfers in the water—they all look the same from the shore. It doesn’t help that every single one of them is covered from neck to ankle in black neoprene to block out the numbingly cold Atlantic Ocean. Despite the hot August afternoon, the water almost never warms up enough to surf comfortably without a wetsuit. This is no place for bronzed skin and board shorts.
But when Healy turns towards the shore, paddling furiously to keep pace with a promising wave, and then rises from his stomach to his feet in one fluid motion, he becomes instantly recognizable. Few other surfers in the water turn as smoothly, paddle as quickly or navigate their way across the finicky surf with such apparent ease. He explores the wave from top to bottom, adjusts with it, changes speeds, avoids other surfers, squeezes every second he can out of his ride, and when the wave collapses and he finally runs out of momentum, he drops down into water and back into frigid obscurity. Then he’ll turn and paddle right back to where he started from to wait for the next suitable wave to appear over the horizon. The whole process doesn’t last for more than a minute or two. He’ll do this for the next three hours.
Healy estimates that he goes surfing over 100 times a year, which adds up to a lot of time on a surfboard. All of that time paid off for him last September at Lawrencetown Beach. Judged on style, control and consistency, Healy was crowned the inaugural champion of the Rip Curl Nova Scotia Cup, and was rewarded with an all- expenses-paid vacation to Costa Rica to experience some of the best surfing in the world. This year, Healy will be back at Lawrencetown for the second installment of the competition, taking place on September 3 and 4.
“Oh, I’m going for first again,” says Healy, smiling. “How could you not? That trip was amazing. First class right from the time we got off the plane. We had 54 resorts to choose from all over the country, and we basically said, ‘OK, we want to go here, here, here and here.’ It was one of those things where you just look at it and say, ‘Man, I can’t believe I won this!’”
The Rip Curl event speaks to the growing popularity of east coast surfing, and is a showcase for the high level of skill that has developed in many local riders. Healy beat out over 40 competitors last year from four different countries to win the men’s division. It’s the kind of event that he couldn’t have imagined when he started surfing this area 13 years ago.
“I caught my first wave at a friend’s cottage near Martinique Beach,” recalls Healy. “There was probably about a two- or three-foot surf on the beach, we were both out trying it for a while, and then I just paddled into one and stood up. The feeling was just…I’ll remember that moment for the rest of my life.”
Healy was 16 at the time, riding on a borrowed surfboard with only a vague idea of what he was doing from his experience as a windsurfer. Now 29, Healy is a Nova Scotia surf veteran. However, he still speaks eagerly about his sport as if he were discovering it for the first time. When he’s not watching investments during his day job as a mutual fund analyst, he’s watching weather conditions and praying for an offshore hurricane or a low-pressure system to drive in some good surf.
“We’re like junior meteorologists, I swear to god,” he says. “We actually use a lot of the same tools. There are models to check the surf online, numbers to call like dial-a-buoy where you can get conditions over the phone from offshore buoys—I guess it was meant for fishermen.”
Recently, he’s noticed the increasing number of newcomers who are turning up at Lawrencetown Beach and sharing in all of the excitement, which is both a blessing and a curse for experienced local surfers.
“It’s getting pretty crowded out there,” Healy says. “It bugs everybody, but it’s just a part of the sport. It’s a part of every sport. It’s like having a bunch of beginners in front of you playing golf, or being stuck behind a slow car in a car race. You want to get around him as quickly as possible and you just hope he doesn’t spin you out.”
For the most part, all of the newbies are tolerated by older surfers as part of a positive—if slightly aggravating—trend. The recent rise in popularity is a big reason why major corporate sponsors like Rip Curl have taken an interest in the region.
James Somers is another big rea-
son. He started the Nova Scotia Cup last year with his friend and fellow surf enthusiast Scott Forbes. Forbes was already involved in the local surfing business through his company, Otherworld Surfboards, and Somers had already established some big corporate connections through his marketing company, East Agencies. Using their combined resources, the two saw an opportunity to create a very successful and lasting east coast surf event.
“With the momentum that we’re building now,” says Somers, “this thing is going to last for the next 20 years.”
Somers has a tattoo of the word “Never” that takes up the lower half of his right arm. On his left arm, a matching tattoo of the word “Rest.” Not that he needs the reminder—establishing an annual surf event from the ground up doesn’t leave Somers with much leisure time.
“I haven’t relaxed in three months and I’m probably not going to relax until Christmas. The day of the event, I’ll be run off my feet completely,” he says. “It’s a pretty large-scale thing. I’ve got a huge sound system, scaffolding, event tents, registration tents, banners, promo vehicles. I’ve got a 66-foot Greyhound bus fully decked out, there’s the possibility of a beer tent. I mean, it’s going to look like Natal Day out there, and Scott and I are still doing a lot of the groundwork ourselves.”
The hard work is made more bearable for Somers because he strongly believes in his product. A surfer himself for six years, Somers knew that a local surfing competition would be a relatively easy sell to sponsors.
“It’s basically an untapped market. Surfing in Nova Scotia is what it was in California 55 or 60 years ago,” he says. “Last year, getting GAP travel on board was the pivotal point for us. Getting a trip to Costa Rica from a company that we’d never worked with before was great. They were immediately down to do it with us. And it certainly helps to go back to potential sponsors this year and say, ‘Our grand prize is a 10 day trip to Bali, Indonesia.’ It’s just going to keep getting bigger and better.”
One way to keep things growing would be to attract more local women to the sport. Most new surfers in Nova Scotia are men, and although the Nova Scotia Cup does offer a separate competition for women, there were considerably fewer women (eight) than men competing in last year’s event. There was no trip to Costa Rica for the female champion, either; just a prize pack with some products from the various event sponsors.
“I think it was like a watch and a leash,” says Michelle Richards, who finished second in the women’s division at last year’s Cup. “The prizes are never as good as for the guys, though. The guys tend to get the wetsuits and the boards and the trips to Costa Rica, and the girls get a t-shirt,” she says, laughing.
Like Healy, Richards will also be competing for the second time this year, commuting to the competition from her home in Cape Breton. Although Richards is happy to be competing in her own division against other women, she has plenty of experience against the men too. Because there are so few female surfers in the region, past competitions in the area would never offer a separate draw for women.
According to Richards, the style of surfing among local females tends to be slightly different than that of the males, and the judges aren’t necessarily expecting the same thing from each group.
“Guys tend to make more hard, sharp turns whereas girls might be a little more graceful, and just make a long, flowing run along the wave,” she says. “It’s funny, all the girls know each other at competitions anyway, so when we were out there in the water, we just cheer each other on.”
When she’s not improving her own skills, Richards teaches others to surf through a community recreation program near her hometown. If female competition gets stiffer in the coming years, she has only herself to blame.
“About 85 percent of the people that I have coming out are actually girls,” she says. “I’ve got so many girls it’s unreal. It all happened when Blue Crush came out, all of a sudden girls wanted to try it.”
Richards got her start while living in Florida four years ago. A girlfriend she was travelling with at the time introduced her to the owner of a surf shop in St. Pete Beach, located alongside the Gulf of Mexico. She spent several months hanging around the shop and meeting surfers, until eventually she was inspired to try it herself.
“It took me a year before I even stood up,” she recalls. “I basically taught myself, but for that first year I was pretty much just riding on my belly and having fun.”
When she came back to her native Nova Scotia, she started exploring the considerably colder surfing opportunities in the north Atlantic. Since that first stint down south, Richards has been back to Florida three times, and has helped spread wild stories about crazy surfers on the east coast of Canada.
“I love calling them and saying things like, ‘Yeah, there was slush in the water today,’ or ‘There were ice chunks floating by, and I had three-inch icicles hanging off my wetsuit,’” she says. “They usually go, ‘Oh well, the water’s like bathwater here.’”
Popular opinion is that only
places with those warm bathwater waves can produce world-class athletes, but Matt Healy hopes that’s not true. In addition to his trip to Costa Rica, he has travelled to Hawaii and Australia and surfed some of the biggest marquee surf destinations. Although there’s a big difference between the towering waves of Waimea Beach in Hawaii and the modest swell at Lawrencetown, Healy still envisions a day when a Nova Scotian surfer can hang with the best in the world.
“Could I ever pay the bills with surfing? Probably not. Would I like to? Damn right,” he says. “But the great thing about these big competitions is it improves the level of surfing in our community so much. Hopefully in the near future we’ll be at that level where we can produce a world class surfer from Nova Scotia.”