The Chair(wo)men of the Boards

With a new surf club opening, Burlington is becoming an unlikely board sports capital.

On a windy day this spring, Burlington’s Russ Scully and Stowe’s Dr. Bob Arnot found themselves in the middle of Lake Champlain, surfing down building waves. Snow clung to the peaks of the Adirondacks. A swell, pushed by the strong southerly, funneled them past Charlotte’s Thompson’s Point. By the time the two were off Shelburne, the water was heaving itself into what might be considered a lake version of breakers. 

The pair, dressed in wetsuits and carrying paddles and life jackets, positioned themselves as the waves crested.

Jason Starr on his prototype paddle skis Photo courtesy J. Starr

They stroked hard and glided down the glassy faces. They surfed for 15 miles, balancing the standup paddleboards with their feet, bending forward Gumby-like, sinking a paddle, stroking back, legs moving like springs with the up-down-up-down of the swells. After hours of this, they came into the lee of Burlington Harbor, where they pulled ashore just off the Blodgett building.

“We did a lot of those downwinders to train for M20, but also just for fun” says Scully. “We now have a trailer, so we can take a whole bunch of boards anywhere and do a downwinder back. Sometimes we take the ferry over to Plattsburgh and paddle back.” 

The Molokai to Oahu (a.k.a M2O) sends stand-up paddleboarders on a one-way, 32-mile crossing of some of the gnarliest stretches of ocean in the Hawaiian islands. Currents, rogue swells and sharks are part of the fun. Scully, 49, has done the race as part of a two-person team with big-wave surfer and paddleboard pro Chuck Patterson, also 49.  Arnot, 70, has done the race five times solo. On July 29, he planned to race his sixth M2O.

“M2O is the toughest SUP race in the world,” says Patterson. 

Making Waves

On a hot, windless day in early July Chuck Patterson lounges in an Adirondack chair bearing the insignia “Burlington Surf Club.” The chair is one of many that’s casually arranged to look out over the lake at the new Burlington Surf Club, located just off the bike path in the South End.

Last summer, this stretch of waterfront was part of 16-acre lot with three vacant, industrial buildings—the headquarters of 72 years for Blodgett Oven. Now, there are people swimming and paddling off the beach. Kids  practice on windsurfers. A few Hobie Cats are pulled up on shore.

Patterson has his foil boards (paddle or kiteboards that rise up on an underwater foil) ready to go.  The first week in July, he was giving foiling clinics.

Patterson celebrated Fourth of July, 2018, in Burlington, giving lessons on how to foil.

At 6’2”, all chest and big guns, Patterson sports the perpetual tan and zinc-oxide nose that are hallmarks of a pro surfer. “I have huge respect for anyone who can do that race,” he says, talking about M2O, “and Dr. Bob, well he’s a legend,” Patterson says. (The legend was stoked when The Wall Street Journal wrote a July 21 story on Arnot, entitled “No Ocean Is No Problem For This Vermont Stand-Up Paddleboarder.”)

Patterson continues to talk about M2O and what it’s like to paddle in to Oahu’s China Wall, where hefty Pacific swells heave into a backwash. “It’s like paddling through a mogul field,” he says.

    Patterson should know. Along with surf icons Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama, he’s one of the foremost “watermen” in the world–someone adept at using any type of board for any type of watersport.

His bio reads like a series of coverlines for Outside Magazine: set record for skiing off 142-foot cliff; paddled with Great White sharks circling under him (and caught underwater footage with his Go-Pro); four-time winner of the U.S. Extreme Combined Ski & Snowboard Champion; and skied (yes, skied) the giant 40-foot-plus wave that stacks up off Maui that locals call Peahi or, more commonly,  Jaws. 

With Red Bull filming from a helicopter, Patterson was towed in by jetski to the massive wave. “The helicopter wash was so strong it kept blowing me back and I barely got over the lip—I was scared to death,” he says of his now-famous 2009 first descent of the wave on skis. He stuck it and streaked down the face making GS turns as the monster roared and crashed behind him.

Big wave surfer Chuck Patterson used skis designed by Essex, Vt.’s Jason Starr, to surf-ski Jaws, a massive wave off Maui. For a video of his ride, see Photo courtesy Jason Starr
Standing Up for the Lake

Looking out at the flat, glassy waters of Lake Champlain, you might think that Burlington would be the last place you’d find a waterman like Patterson. Yet, he spent two weeks here in July and is coming back for a week in August for the 10th running of Stand-Up for the Lake. The SUP fest has grown to attract more than 80 competitors from both sides of the border. It now has a cash purse of $3,500 and is one of 24 Paddle-League affiliated races held around the globe. It also has helped raise more than $60,000 for the Community Sailing Center, where Scully served on the board for many years. 

While Patterson will be there for his sponsors (WND&WVS is one, along with GoPro, Naish, DaKine and a host of others), the California transplant has started making more and more visits to Burlington just for fun. “This place is awesome! I’ve become really good friends with Russ and his wife Roxanne, so why not hang out here?” he says, looking out over the water. “Last Friday it was as windy here as anywhere, blowing 25 to 30 knots. Man, we were foiling, there were kiteboards out, a few windsurfers and then when it died down some we took the Hobie Cat out — all in one day,” says Patterson.  “It amazes me that this lake is so undiscovered. Look at it! I think I’ve seen the best sunsets here of anywhere.”

Roxanne Scully (third woman from right) and the WND&WVS crew that won the 2017 Dragonboat Festival. The team included Ali Marchildon (far left) who moved to Burlington from Hawaii and California’s Chuck Patterson (second male from left). Photo by Lee Krohn

For Patterson, there’s another connection to Burlington. In 2007, two of Patterson’s friends, Cody Townsend and Mike Douglas, were looking for a way to ski on waves. Meanwhile, Jason Starr, a former freestyle skier from Essex, Vt., had been experimenting with making skis for waves—though he’s the first to say, “I’m not really a surfer at all.” An avid river paddler, he started with paddle skis, then designed the skis that the McDermott brothers in Maine eventually built into the skis Patterson used to surf Jaws.

    Starr went on to found Paddlesurf Champlain in 2009, and still occasionally does lessons on the paddle skis out of his Oakledge Park base. “I don’t get a lot of demand for that, but it’s fun to get them out every once in a while,” he says. 

Starr is one of the people responsible for bringing paddlesports to Lake Champlain with his on-lake rentals, lessons and guide service at Oakledge. Steve Brownlee is another. Brownlee’s Umiak Outfitters sets up SUP and kayak rentals at Burlington’s North Beach (and on the Waterbury Reservoir). And the new Community Sailing Center, right on the city’s waterfront, is another popular launch and rental spot.

   North of Burlington, in a shallow bay off St. Albans, Curt and Jerri Benjamin and their son Jordan and his wife Erin have also made board sports a way of life. The elder Benjamins, now in their 60s, started off windsurfing

Russ Scully kiteboarding off WND&WVS winter retreat in Rincon, Puerto Rico. Photo by Amy Rodriguez

more than 30 years ago and have since moved into kiteboarding, becoming the only Professional Air Sports Association (PASA)-certified instructors  in Vermont. “We teach at St. Albans but also out of the Burlington Surf Club,” says Jerri, 65, who just finished teaching a women’s clinic there. From their St. Albans spot, the Benjamins’ KiteNPaddle also offers kiting and paddleboard trips out to the Champlain Islands. In the fall, they head to Cape Hatteras, N.C.

For a state that’s hasn’t seen a salt water wave in a millennium, Vermont’s surf/paddle/boardsports scene has grown at a surprising rate. And now, the Burlington Surf Club is taking that scene up a notch. 

Surf City

Not long after Russ Scully finished his downwinder last May, he and Roxanne started work on the surf club, a dream they have had for years, and the logical next step in what can best be described as their efforts to surf-ify Burlington. “I just want to make Burlington a model so that people look at what’s being done here and the good that can come out of it,” says Roxanne.

The Scullys moved to Vermont from Santa Barbara, Ca. in 1997. “We wanted a breakfast place like Mesa Café, where we used to go in Santa Barbara,” Roxanne recalls. So in 2009 they  created the surf-themed restaurant, The Spot, in an architecturally historic former Phillips 66 batwing gas station on Route 7. Then they started selling boards out of The Spot. That spawned WND&WVs in 2012. Then, in the summer of 2017 they opened Spot on The Dock, at the heart of Burlington’s waterfront.

    All the while, Russ had his eye on what was perhaps the most prime piece of real estate left in the city: the building and shoreline where Blodgett Oven was based. “At first, I just wanted the land beside it,” says Russ who lost out on the original bid. Then, the place came up for sale again. He put together $14.3 million and closed on the property in June, 2017. The idea: first build a surf club, then see what else would come.

    By our interview in early July, there was a surf shop, storage cabins for SUPs, windsurfers, kiteboards and more. In a shaded pavilion, a woman was leading a yoga class. Kids played on the sand bars out front. Hammocks hung between trees, clusters swung in the breeze.

“Just like the Community Sailing Center, our goal here is to show that anyone can get out on the lake,” Russ says as he nods toward the water. While the CSC focuses more on sailboats and dinghies, the Burlington Surf Club is about the beachier side of water sports. Once a week, Canadian Olympic canoeist and paddler Tommy Buday comes down to host SUP paddle clinics. On Tuesday nights, there’s SUP water polo. Wednesday nights are races and time trials.

    All summer, there are kids’ windsurfing camps. “Windsurfing camp! I can’t think of anywhere in the continental  U.S. you could find a windsurfing camp going as strong as it is here,” Patterson exclaims. “It’s like a little Hawaii here.”    

Quietly presiding over “little Hawaii,” the Scullys look like they just stepped out of the ocean. Tanned and fit, with sun-streaked hair, board shorts and flip flops, they both look a lot more like surf instructors than investors who just bought a 14 million-dollar property.  They are both. Russ is the current chair of the Burlington Business Association. Roxanne, 48 is a strong slalom waterskier and Brown Belt Nia dance teacher at the South End Studio. She supports local charities via her Onda Foundation and has helped lead the WND&WVS team (made up of employees) to victory the last two years in the annual Burlington Dragonboat Festival races which support cancer research.

Ali Marchildon, who helps manage the WND&WVS shop, embodies the beach/business vibe the couple have established. She moved to Burlington from Hawaii and worked for the Women’s Small Business Program before joining WND&WVS. “I’ve seen days out on the lake when people were out surfing the waves off the point,” she says, nodding to the north. “It’s not Hawaii, but it’s still a pretty great place to live.”

Why would any surfer move to Vermont?  For Marchildon, it was for her former husband’s career. For the Scullys, it was something different. “We were both from the East and liked to ski. We thought we’d just stay for a year or two, but we got married here and then it stuck. This is such a good place to raise a family,” says Russ. The couple now have two sons, ages 15 and 17. 

Russ grew up surfing in New Jersey and went to St. Lawrence University, where he started dating Roxanne, who grew up in the Adirondacks. After, graduating the couple headed west. He began working in graphic design for a newspaper in Santa Barbara, Ca. “We both just fell in love with the surf culture there,” Roxanne says. But with family in Dorset, Vt., and in New York, the couple moved back. Russ worked on software development for his own company, Scully Interactive, and eventually teamed up with Dave Gibson to found Propeller Media Works. He later left to focus on real estate and his own web design company and created the proprietary retail software e-beans (which he created originally for Vermont’s coffee roasting industry) his shops use today.

Rachel Miller, who started Stormboarding (teaching snow-kiting in the winter and summer kiteboarding in the Champlain Islands), first introduced the Scullys to windsurfing in 2004.

“She was the one who really got me hooked,” Russ says, and credits Bob Arnot with getting him into SUPs. The Scullys were so caught up in the surf scene they eventually bought a place in Rincon, Puerto Rico where they now hold surf, SUP and kiteboard camps with pros like Patterson. They also continue to host fundraisers for Miller’s latest venture, the Rozalia Project, which focuses on getting plastic out of the ocean.

The shop now has a “team” of sponsored pros. “Our ‘sponsorship’ isn’t much. It’s really a way of just helping them out a little bit so they can live the dream,” Russ says. The “team” includes Ben Gravy, a surfer from New Jersey who set out to surf all 50 states. When he got to Vermont in 2017, the WND&WVS crew guided him to a standing wave on the Mad River. Gravy checked off the “I surfed Vermont” box, sort of: “Who knew surfing was a thing in Vermont? Well, now it is,” Gravy deadpanned in his V-blog. 

The Scully’ new Burlington Surf Club where anyone can rent a board or get a day pass to hang and enjoy beach chairs, a yoga pavilion and the surf retail shack. Photo by Lisa Lynn

    “It’s pretty cool that we can get guys like Ben and Chuck to Vermont. They become our ambassadors and we want them out there talking about what’s going on here,” says Scully.

It’s a strategy that starts to make sense when you pull back and look at Scully’s bigger picture and the old brick Blodgett building that lies just past “little Hawaii.”

“This land has always been a dream of mine,” says Russ as he sweeps an arm. “Just look at this: in what other inland city can you ride your bike down to the beach and go paddleboard or swim or sail or windsurf. That’s got to attract a business.”

    The old Blodgett buildings sit waiting, as Russ, who, draws up plan after plan—some involving retail and business space, some residential. “One of our goals is to see Burlington grow—a place like this could attract another tech business like, perhaps a Google,” Russ says. Considering the start-ups that have launched in some of the Scullys’ other properties: Budnitz Bike (and Ello), Lunaroma and Eco-Bean, it’s not unlikely.  They just need to find more chairmen and chairwomen of the boards.