Thor Emory, clad in a red dry suit, stood on the sidewalk of downtown Lincolnville with a paddle board tucked under his arm. Cars braked, and he marched across Route 1A in neoprene booties, careful not to slip on slush and snow. His destination, on Feb. 2, was the icy Atlantic Ocean.
To locals, this sight isn’t unusual. Emory, a brawny native of Mount Desert Island, is the founder of Thorfinn Expeditions, an outdoor school for sailing and paddling headquartered across from Lincolnville Beach. He has a thirst for adventure that doesn’t abate in the arms of winter.
Open water calls to him year-round.
In the past few years, Emory has developed a passion for stand-up paddle boarding, a sport rapidly gaining popularity in the outdoor industry.
“In every other part of the country, it’s exploding,” Emory said. “Maine is just starting to catch up.”
With a cuff fastened to his ankle, the board tethered to him, Emory waded into Penobscot Bay. The water swirled just above his knees as he expertly mounted the board and stood, a long paddle in his gloved hands.
“You use the core of your body, your upper body and your legs and feet,” he said. “It’s dynamic.”
Paddle boarding dates back to the late ’20s, pioneered by Thomas Edward Blake, a professional surfer who constructed the first modern paddle board while crafting replicas of olo surfboards ridden by ancient Hawaiian kings. In the early ’80s, the sport experienced a renaissance. Since, the long, sturdy boards have been snatched up by outfitters throughout the United Sates, including Maine’s L.L.Bean.
Emory was similarly swept up by the challenging sport. Nowadays, he finds himself standing on a board more often than sitting in his Epic kayak. On his board, he has paddled from Lincolnville to Rockland, about 18 miles.
But on Feb. 2, he and his new business partner, Chris Laughlin, stayed in sight of The Lobster Pound because on that particular afternoon, they weren’t alone. A BDN photographer and reporter were tagging along.
Thorfinn Expeditions is generally a three-season operation, so Emory typically doesn’t introduce people to stand-up paddle boarding in the winter. His go-to learning spot, Megunticook Lake, is frozen solid.
“Ocean touring [on a paddle board] is kind of new,” Emory said. “The ocean makes me nervous when people go out on their own.”
The ocean can be a dangerous place for the unskilled, so they stuck to the shallows as Emory helped a beaming reporter glide across the water’s surface on a board for the first time.
In the Thorfinn blog, he recently wrote, “Winter paddling in Maine is for experienced paddlers who have the necessary skills, gear, physical fitness, and above all — judgment. You have to be dialed in order to be safe and enjoy being out on the water. It can be very unforgiving. Weather changes rapidly, air and water temperatures can be unbearable and there is not a huge safety margin. If you hit the water or simply become cold then you may be in a pickle — a frozen pickle.”
Emory founded Thorfinn Expeditions — Finn being his 5-year-old son — in April 2010, beginning with sailing tours on his Maine-built, award-winning Presto-30 sailboat. But it wasn’t long before he expanded to other water sports.
It was fellow outdoor enthusiast and instructor Kea Tesseyman of Camden who suggested Emory take up paddle boarding. As a lifelong outdoor sport that would challenge his clients physically and mentally, it fit his philosophy perfectly.
Emory has spent most of life exploring and leading groups in the outdoors all over North America. He has been a commercial fisherman, a ski patroller on both eastern and western mountains, and for a decade he worked as senior instructor, captain and program manager of Hurricane Island Outward Bound Sea Program in Tenants Harbor.
“Most people who get into the industry or become Outward Bound instructors do it a little bit for themselves,” Emory said. “To get outside, to simplify life. But if you stay involved and get into teaching, it really gets to be about education. It all boils down to getting people outside. They always enjoy the experience, and so in a way, it’s really beyond you … As a teacher, it’s about setting people up for success, but stretching them a little bit.”
Wendy Jordan of Camden, who spent 22 years working for Outward Bound, is also an integral part of the Thorfinn team, as is Louis Wheelwright of Camden.
Laughlin, the most recent addition, spent the past 18 years paddling along the east coast in kayaks, surf-skis and paddle boards. He met Emory at the end of July at “Paddle to the Point,” a 3-mile stand-up paddle board race off Ogunquit’s Main Beach. Last month, they officially became business partners.
“The growth of stand-up paddling is kind of scary,” said Laughlin. “We’re trying to promote the lifestyle and fitness that goes along with it.”
Many yoga and Pilates practitioners are adding the water sport to their exercise regimen because it improves coordination, muscle control and balance, said Emory. In fact, a class on Pilates paddle boarding, the two combined, is taught in Miami.
At the beginning of summer 2011, Emory was teaching lessons for sailing and paddle boarding at a 1:1 ratio, but by the end of the summer, paddle boarding lessons were outweighing sailing 10 to one, he said.
The wintery wind picked up as Emory and Laughlin waded back to shore. Walkers combing the frozen beach stopped to ask them the obvious question: “Aren’t you cold?”
Of course they were, but what better way to advertise their business than by riding the ocean waves on bright yellow boards in the middle of winter beside the Atlantic Highway?
Back in the shop, they lifted their dripping boards (25-30 pounds each) onto racks beside other styles — boards with planed bows (flat like surfboards) made for riding over the waves and boards with displacement hulls (pointed like a kayak) to cut through waves. Shorter, more durable boards are now made for whitewater; narrower boards are designed for flat-water racing.
“It’s crunch time,” said Laughlin, who will be focusing on the retail side of the business while Emory will preside over the outdoor adventures. “We’ll have the shop complete by April with a full house of boards — 40 in stock, six surf-skis and kayaks and a full supply of paddles.”
And a selection of paddle boards will be available for rent.
“I suspect this summer and the following summer, you’re going to see a lot more paddle boarding around here,” Laughlin said.
“It’s not just a retail shop here,” Emory said. “There’s a larger mission or soul behind it, but people don’t know that until they experience it.”
To spread his love for outdoor adventure this winter, he and Laughlin will embark on the “2012 Thorfinn Maine Winter Odyssey,” exploring the Maine coast by paddle board, kayak and sailboat, visiting island communities.
Emory aims for Thorfinn to be a key resource for Maine’s paddling community, and he thinks paddle boarding has the potential to pull a new group out onto the water — when the water warms up a little.
For information, visit www.thorfinnexpeditions.com or call the Lincolnville store, located at 2516 Atlantic Highway, at 789-5115. All lead instructors of Thorfinn Expeditions are U.S. Coast Guard-licensed captains, and all staff are medically trained to the Wilderness First Responder level, with current CPR for the Professional Rescuer.