Portsmouth Herald, Saturday July 19

ŒIshmael' depicts region's radical surfing culture

By Adam Leech news@seacoastonline.com

PORTSMOUTH - "If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me."

Above is an excerpt from the opening paragraph of "Moby Dick," by Herman Melville, explaining the protagonist Ishmael's compulsive attraction to the ocean. This unstoppable force is the theme Ben Keller tries to capture in his documentary about year-round New England surfers, titled "Ishmael."

The one-hour documentary will debut Sunday evening at the Muddy River Smokehouse, 21 Congress St.; showings will run continuously from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Keller, who has been surfing as well as making films for 10 years, features 10 surfers from throughout New England in his movie. Men and women, ages 14 to 52, the surfers are linked only by a passion for the hobby that keeps them skimming along the ocean surface, even in near-blizzard conditions.

"This is something that is very close to my heart," said Keller, who lives in Scarborough, Maine. "You can't make a good film if it's not something you care about."

Three of the surfers in the film are from Hampton. Shane Smith, Steve O'Hara and Frank Domingos were interviewed for the documentary this past winter.

Domingos is not your stereotypical surfer, unless your stereotypical surfer is a 35-year-old product manager for Nextel with a wife and two children, ages 4 and 2.

Domingos said he thinks Keller was not trying to show the most-skilled surfers in New England, but was attempting to show the most-dedicated ones.

"It's just something that if I go through a period where I can't surf, for whatever reason, it starts to build on me," he said. "I enjoy doing it so much, it's hard to think about not being able to do it from October to May."

Keller, who surfs in the winter, said the people he interviewed are so devoted to their "hobby" that they literally let the waves dictate their careers and, incidentally, their lives.

"The love of surfers goes deeper than a hobby," he said. "If you take surfing away from these people they'll starve."

Keller said he has an agreement with his boss that he will be late for work if the waves are good.

"Anybody and their brother can go out in the water during the summer," he said. "It takes a certain type of person to get into 34-degree water with the wind blowing 28 knots in your face while it's sleeting."

Domingos said that, with the right equipment, coldness is not a factor until the wet suit comes off.

"It's interesting," he said. "It's not the most logical thing that comes to mind for a person to do in the winter."

Nico Evans, 20, lives in York, Maine, and has been surfing at York Beach since he was 8 years old. He works at Liquid Dreams Surf Shop on Long Sands Beach in York and regularly surfs in the winter.

"Real surfers surf year-round," he said. Evans, too, said the weather isn't a problem with the proper equipment, but there are often surfers with eyebrows frozen and icicles hanging off their beards from the spray and the wind chill.

"The best waves are in the winter," he said. "If you surf, you have to surf in the winter."

Evans said it's cold when surfers paddle out and have to go through a wave.

"It's like an ice cream headache every time you go under," he said. "But once you get moving and the adrenaline starts pumping, you barely notice it."

Keller said the movie gets progressively more cerebral as he tries to make a "soulful" connection between the surfers and the ocean.

"The culture of New England was built around the seashore," he said. "I love surfing, I love New England; it was a perfect fit."

Even though Evans has surfed in the much warmer climates of Costa Rica, Mexico and Puerto Rico, he said areas along the Seacoast are comparable in terms of surfing conditions. According to Evans, there are severa* secret spots" in New England that are very good, but those he will not reveal.

"If you're a devoted surfer, then you'll find (them) yourself," he said.

Greg Sessler, 24, who also works at Liquid Dreams, has been surfing since May. If he weren't moving to New Orleans, he said, he would definitely surf in the winter.

"I love surfing; it's fantastic," Sessler said. "It's just the fact that you're out there on the water; it clears your head; it's a great way to spend a couple hours."

Evans and Sessler both said they're interested in seeing the documentary.

"Yeah, I'll go," said Sessler. "Any excuse to go to Muddy River and get some ribs and see a phat surfing movie too sounds great."