Surfin’ Ack -August 2013
by: Lindsay Pykosz
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
Standing in the parking lot that overlooks the island’s popular Nobadeer Beach, planes fly above a cluster of SURFBOARDS that line the sand, waiting to be used.
A group of guys in wetsuits stand nearby, anxiously awaiting another busy day of surf lessons.
Among that group are Sam Toole and Gaven Norton, two Nantucket natives, surfers and high-school classmates who founded ACK Surf School, a business that provides a personal surf experience for people of all ages through individual and group lessons.
The duo, who previously taught lessons at another island surf school, decided to change locations this year from Maddequecham, a beach further east from Nobadeer. They still provide everything needed, from boards to wetsuits, and have taught people with all levels of surfing experience.
“We try to go where the clients wanted us to go,” said Toole. “We’re excited for our new location because it’s so central to the island. The best advertising is seeing someone learn how to surf in front of all the people. We try to book lessons in the morning if someone calls so we can leave the afternoon available for walk-ups.”
With over a dozen instructors, the duo has 15-20 teaching boards and a handful of stand-up paddle boards that they set up right on the beach. When fully booked, they can take every board out in an hour.
“One of the kids we have teaching with us has been teaching two years longer than Sam and I,” Norton said. “He’s the only non-local now working for us. We have 14 locals and one kid from New Jersey. We have a ton of kids this year – lots of high school kids, college kids and two kids out of college, too.”
A day in the life of a surf instructor begins with a survey of the water to assess the conditions. On a rougher day, instructors with more experience will go out on the water, and some days, it’s too rough to teach. Other days, a day of lessons may be called off due to a rip current, leaving the duo scrambling to re-book for another day.
“It really is one of those things where the more time you’re in the water, the easier it is,” Toole added. “They’re all surfers, so a lot of it has to do with reading the ocean. Being surfers, they already know how to do that pretty well. We picked up a couple new guys last year and they’re some of our best instructors now.”
Toole and Norton have taught people as young as 4 and as old as 75, but regardless of age, they always run into a handful of people who are scared of the water. For those people, Norton suggests jumping right in, as nervousness turns to excitement once they get in the water.
“Kids that are the most scared of the water, as soon as they’re in, they love it,” he continued. “But you do get kids who are uncomfortable after a while. We don’t really get too many people who don’t want to be in the water. If you’re on the beach, you might as well be doing something fun.”
Toole added that the younger students typically take their time getting into the water, and he and Norton will sit with them on the beach until they feel comfortable.
“With the really little ones, we actually ride with them on the board so they’re on the nose of the board. With those big boards, they’d get dragged along, so we’re with them the whole time,” he continued. “We can stand up while they’re laying on the nose of the board, and we’ll pick them up and put them down.”
Throughout a season – which, depending on water conditions and temperature, begins in June and continues through the end of August – Norton and Toole will see many familiar faces, as people come back to take lessons year after year.
“After the first lesson, they say, ‘I want to start turning,’ or, ‘I want to do these things.’ People definitely get into it quick,” Norton said. “People get hooked and they’re with us every morning for a few weeks. Tons of people come back. We’ve had the same people for years. There’s one girl that my first lesson was with her when I was a freshman, and she still comes and takes lessons. She’s still at the same learning level, but she’s been coming back. You definitely get the families who keep coming back. One of the kids we used to teach is now one of our instructors.”
Both young men just graduated from college this past May – Toole from Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. where he studied English and Hispanic studies, and Norton from Salem State University in Salem, Mass. where he studied sports management with a minor in entrepreneurship. They both learned to surf from islander Gary Kohner – owner of Nantucket Surf School – and caught the surfing bug early on.
“After I took a couple surf lessons, my mom told me that if I wanted a surfboard, I had to join the swim team,” Toole said. “We would all go to the beach when we were younger. We would have our crew all surfing together when we were 10 and 11. When you’re that small, there are waves every day. When you’re 10 and 11, it’s coming up to your chest.”
While those days of learning to surf may feel like forever ago, they get to relive them every day in the summer with each lesson they give. Both agree that this is the best job they’ve ever had.
“A lot of the time, people will be like, ‘This is the best job you’re ever going to have,’ and we agree,” Toole said. “One, we get to be at the beach a lot, in the ocean and outside. At the same time, we get to teach a bunch of people to do something that we love to do, which is really rewarding. So I really do think it’s probably the best job we’ll ever have, realistically.”
To keep them occupied during the winter months, the team will be moving to Boston to run their recentlylaunched ACK Surf clothing line that appeals to college students and ties into their roots of living on the island. With warm summer days and upscale socializing at night, the line includes items that can be mixed and matched to be perfect for both.
“I wear some clothes that are from Vineyard Vines or J. Crew, but at the same time I wear a lot of clothes from Quiksilver, Volcom and Billabong, so it’s sort of like I haven’t been able to find something that meshes the two styles together,” said Toole. “So we’re trying to find something that does both. It’s probably how the two of us dress ourselves.”
Norton explained that he and Toole wear different “suits” throughout different parts of the day, and you don’t necessarily have to be defined by the one thing you’re wearing.
“That’s the stereotypical thing about surfers. I can see a client or someone I gave a lesson to during the day, and then at night I’ll go somewhere nice like the SeaGrille and be cleancut,” Norton continued. “You can wear a tank top at the beach, go change and throw on a bow tie and a polo. During the day, I’m the surf guy. But at night, I’m someone else.”
With help from an investor – who they gave a surfing lesson to two years ago – Toole and Norton were able to hit the ground running this summer after a stressful fall and winter at college of multiple phone calls a day back and forth.
One thing both knew they wanted was clothing at affordable prices. While they have experienced buying board shorts for $150 at other stores, they’re offering their striped, retro and red, white and blue shorts for $60 each. Their 100 percent cotton T-shirts and tanks are $24.
“We try to do it with the thought that we’re really trying to be geared towards the average college guy, and I don’t like going out and buying a pair of board shorts for $150,” Tool said. “We’re trying to bring our price points into very reasonable areas.”
Norton added that surfers go through board shorts quickly, so they want something that is affordable and comfortable. Made from Diamond Dobby Stretch material, the shorts they sell are similar to others that bigger companies are selling.
Although their clothing is being sold strictly online now, some will be available this summer at the Sail Loft, 4 South Water St., and the business will eventually move with Toole and Norton to Boston, Mass., where they’ll be moving this fall.
“So we’ll be doing this year-round. This is what we’re going to be doing during our ‘off-season’ from Nantucket,” Toole said. “During the fall we’re really focusing on looking and doing college tours. The guy who’s investing has connections with the crowd we’re trying to get to. So we’re going to focus on going to different colleges in the Northeast and going to different towns, showing off our products.”
Lindsay Pykosz is a Nantucket native and a staff writer for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.