Maine has 3,500 miles of tidal coastline, plus some incredible rivers and lakes. Penobscot Bay, located midcoast at the mouth of its namesake river, is a vast mosaic of islands with rocky shorelines, sandy beaches, cold, clear, open water dotted by lobster pot buoys and classic downeast harbor towns.
Thor Emory, owner of Thorfinn Expeditions, invites you to visit. —Tom Fucigna
What’s your background?
Outdoor education and adventuring. I worked for Outward Bound as an instructor, course director, and program director for a long time, and led courses up to thirty days in length in remote areas. I’m a sailor, skier, paddler, and endurance athlete, and I was a professional ski patroller in both the west and east during the winter months. Most of my work has centered on leading and instructing people in those activities, and the desire to work and have fun with people.
When and where did you first get into standup paddling?
I started here in Maine five years ago. I am a long time kayaker but SUP wasn’t really on my radar. A local woman got me into it because she wanted to be an instructor and saw an opportunity in the area.
Why did you decide to get into the SUP market?
I started Thorfinn Expeditions with the goal of providing challenging outdoor adventures and first class instruction through a variety of sports. SUP programs and retail have become the focus of what we do. We started with a few all-around boards, but I didn’t get serious until I started paddling a touring/race board. Then, I got hooked. I have been paddling hard for four years now.
We got into it because we saw a chance to do something new, which is a rarity in the outdoor industry. Our niche quickly became touring/race boards and getting people comfortable paddling over distance in open water conditions.
I am really passionate about the sport. I think that it’s a blast in all of its forms and it suits this area really well. All of our staff members are experienced sailors, adventurers and outdoor educators, and we all went and got ACA certified. We push each other pretty hard to improve both our paddling and teaching skills.
What features of your location make it appealing for standup paddling?
We have stunning scenery, with an amazing coastline in Penobscot Bay. Mountains drop right to the shoreline, and there are big open bays with hundreds of islands, and plenty of fetch for long downwinders, which are my favorite. The lakes are also fantastic. We even have a really good surf spot, just over an hour away at Popham Beach, near Bath, Maine. It’s a huge beach and very quiet, especially during the winter months.
Maine allows for amazing paddling at all levels. We have essentially been SUP pioneers at the end of the earth, but our corner of the world is pretty fantastic for paddling, even in the winter.
What SUP-related activities do your customers like?
Most of our customers on the lesson and retail front are just getting into the sport and they tend to paddle on the lakes and a little bit on the ocean. We have, however, been able to develop some pretty serious ocean paddlers, and they want race training, downwinder assistance, and general skill instruction to help their progression as paddlers. Our business is mostly focused on paddling hard, ocean tours, and custom training/downwinders.
What brands of gear do you carry and what's been popular?
This past season we carried SIC, 404 (including the Homemade series), and Boga boards, plus Hippostick, Quickblade and Kialoa paddles.
We sold a broad cross section last season including kids’ boards, all-arounds of various lengths, including some surf-specific boards, downwinders like the SIC Bullets, and touring/race boards. Our focus is on the latter so we sold a lot of 12'6" and 14' displacement boards. They fit this area better, and work anywhere people want to cover ground, whether it’s for fitness, exploration, racing, or run-of-the-mill downwinders. Our sell through was essentially 100 percent and we were out of boards early.
Have you run or participated in any events?
We sponsored and organized the first two-day Lobster SUP Cup here in Penobscot Bay last season, and it was awesome! I'd had the idea for a couple of years and, with the help of Ben Williams and Mark Benjamin as fellow race organizers, we pulled it off.
This is an amazing place to race. The course covered 26 miles in two days. The route is stunning and challenging and covers four harbor towns. Day one went from Rockport to Lincolnville, and day two was from Lincolnville Beach to Belfast Harbor. Competitors could choose to race a single day or take on the full challenge and complete the entire event.
August is a great month on the Maine Coast, as there tends to be less fog and more sun. The mornings are usually calm and then a sea breeze fills in from your back. The harbors are perfect for spectators. We started with a barbeque Friday night and ended with an after party and awards ceremony in Belfast Harbor.
We had about 30 folks from as far away as North Carolina and Canada, which is pretty good considering that it was the first year, we are at the edge of the earth, and it was a tough event. It went smoothly, with the exception of cross/upwind conditions instead of the intended sea breeze flow, which would have allowed for a downwinder. Larry Cain and Jessica Rando represented Canada very well by whooping up on the Americans. Larry ran a first class full day clinic and was a huge factor in the success of the race.
The race benefitted the Challenged Athletes Foundation's Operation Rebound, the premier sports and fitness program for veterans with permanent physical disabilities.
Next year we are planning to do three days of races and clinics, with each race being run out of a different coastal town on Penobscot Bay. Another goal for next year is to start a weekly skill-building and informal race series that will build towards the Lobster SUP Cup.
I have competed in a fair number of races here in the Northeast and will be gearing up to do a lot more. I went to The Carolina Cup in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina this past year, which was awesome, and I took third in the six-mile Money Island Race. I actually went to paddle in the 12-mile Graveyard race, but due to a board issue, had to switch events. I learned a lot though, and was really impressed by the level of talent, especially on the ocean side.
Last year I completed the 47-mile circumnavigation of Mount Desert Island in under 10 hours. That would be another awesome race. Another goal here in Maine is to knock off some downwinders from the outer islands like Monhegan and Matinicus.
Where do you think the SUP market is headed?
I’m not totally sure. I know that the popularity is continuing to climb. Maine is a bit behind, so it’s still fairly new here. SUP as a business here in Maine is tough because the season is short and the margins are thin. There are shops popping up all over the place, but most of them cater to low-level tours and pretty basic equipment. I’m more focused on the adventure side of paddling and race/paddle training, and I think that SUP could become similar to guided backcountry skiing at the higher levels. People with skills will travel and/or pay to paddle in cool areas.
What else would you like share with our readers?
I plan to go in a new direction that follows my interest as a paddler. Thorfinn is going to cut back on retail volume, and become more mobile and focused on programs. I may just operate through my Sprinter van. I’m looking to only manage one line of quality boards and paddles.
I’m interested in getting a power boat, here in Penobscot Bay, so that we can take small groups on even better downwinders. With power assist it’s a bit like cat skiing. Drag the gear and folks upwind, and then launch. For most people, you don’t need epic conditions. Moderate downwind paddling is really fun, and on the flatter days, you can access the islands and put down the miles surrounded by amazing scenery.
I want to lead programs in areas like Acadia National Park and Penobscot Bay, doing multi-day training, downwinders, and adventure travel trips/courses. I think that we are getting to the point where these types of programs are feasible. My focus for the future will be on performance paddling and adventure, offering race training, clinics and custom downwind programs/tours in New England for serious paddlers, primarily on a custom basis. I may actually be able to push the sport here as more of an ambassador and less as a shop owner. I can do that better by being on the water instead of being a retail shop owner.
A side project I'm working on this year is called "Downwind: Maine to Molokai", which follows me training here in the Northeast before going to the race next summer. We will be producing a series of webisodes involving others and myself as I prepare for the 2014 Molokai2Oahu race. I’ve been following the Molokai race closely for a couple of years. I can’t wait to get my feet wet in the islands, even though I know it will be a humbling experience. We will be filming here in Maine, plus Newfoundland, Toronto, North Carolina and other spots. The goal is to capture the training and paddling but, more importantly, just the adventure of it, the people and places (including much better paddlers than myself). We want to make it fun and really document the journey. Blasting past an iceberg off Newfoundland next spring should be pretty cool.