Ed Duggan started a movement.
In 1987, a friend of his brought back three surf skis, ride-on-top watercrafts originally used for lifeguard races, from South Africa. Long and narrow performance boats, they sit 18 x 18 on the surface of the water.
Between 1987 and 1992, before he became competitive racing a surf ski, Duggan said it took him a while to get used to the balance in the ocean. Once he felt calibrated, he proceeded to compete in 21 consecutive Blackburn Challenges, a 20-plus mile open water row around Cape Ann that starts and finishes in Gloucester, on surf ski.
“We didn’t really know what to do with them, but the three of us were the first Americans that did it. I did my first Blackburn Challenge on one in ’92, but for five years, we just partied on them, learning how to paddle,” Duggan said.
Duggan doesn’t know of anyone in the country who has paddled surf ski longer than he has.
“I would like to know who they are because I pretty much know who paddles where,” he said.
Epic Kayaks, run by Olympic gold medalist kayaker Greg Barton, manufactures nearly every surf ski in the U.S. with its headquarters in Tennessee. Ed became a New England dealer for Epic 12 years ago.
“Surf ski has come a long way from the days when I paddled. Design and manufacturing have improved significantly,” Duggan said.
From there, he founded the Kayak Learning Center, now in its 25th year, operating out of Lynch Park in Beverly, conveniently placed next to the beach that serves as the starting line for the weekly surf ski race.
Duggan has a garage at the center where the different models surf skis are housed. Beginners are given ones primarily made of plastics, and the advanced models consist of carbon fiber.
Tuesday nights at 6:45 p.m., eight dedicated rowers gather, lining up their surf skis along the stone wall, shooting the breeze about their past week’s training regimen and mentally unwinding before a seven-mile paddle around Beverly/Salem Harbor.
Most of the usual racers were out in Oregon racing the Columbia River Gorge at the Gorge Downwind Championships, the largest surf ski race in the world with around 350 competitors. One of them is accomplished paddler Greg Lesher.
“Although I had been outdoorsy my whole life, I had never been involved in competitive sports," he said. "Once I started paddling surf skis, I got hooked on all aspects - being on the water off the beautiful coasts of New England, the discipline of training, the thrill of making progress in a technically demanding task, the competition. The biggest change, however, has been joining a community of people who share the love of the sport."
He came to the North Shore from upstate New York in 1996, transitioning from sea kayaks to surf skis after meeting head of surfskiracing.org Wesley Echols and Duggan, who assisted them in moving up the ranks of boats and paddles.
Matt Drayer, who has been involved with the sport since 2013 and rowed seine boats in the St. Peter's Fiesta this year, made a similar transition.
“Ed’s the guy that gets us all going," Drayer said. "In 2012, I raced Blackburn in a sea kayak and won my class. Then, Ed shot me an email and said, ‘What do you think about jumping in a surf ski?’ He’s all about jumpstarting the community."
On July 16, attendance was light with only three racers. Drayer, along with veteran surf skier Bill Kuklinski and first-timer Andy Schoeck, made up the racing trio for the day. The usual suspects come from all over Cape Ann.
The day’s course was around six miles. Drayer came in first with a time of 50:33, fuming as he could be while catching his breath. He’s been itching to break the 50-minute mark, a feat he’s been trying to repeat since 2015.
“As tough as the sprint can be, the ski’s so light. It’s like you’re carrying a potato chip,” Drayer said.
After a bit of recovery, the guys got back to discussing life as usual, a sign of a close-knit community bolstered by their love of the paddle, all thanks to Duggan and the magical surf ski.