By Keli Campbell

 It's fall in Nova Scotia, Canada and I’m hiking over a boulder strewn beach trying my best to keep up with Nanci Boutet, a 66-year-old surfer, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and general badass. She’s tall, lanky, and fast, her one stride eclipsing two of mine. Tropical storm Phillipe inches closer and we’re checking to see if waves might make it into the inlet where we’re staying with her husband Marc and my partner, Pete.

We get to an outcropping that looks good, the swell lines hugging the rocks making us hopeful for a crested wave. But the swell isn’t big enough yet.

“Should we keep going?” She asks, already on the move. I nod and follow behind. We hike the entire length of the beach to the tip of the headland that sits between two inlets. It's a dual-purpose mission - wave check and rock scouting. 

Back at the house, Nanci is in the middle of rebuilding the beachside fire pit. Hurricane Lee reshaped the coastline and took the original fire pit with it. She's scavenged an old washed-ashore lobster pot for a bench seat, but the rest she builds from rocks. I jump in to help but soon realize rock-moving takes a certain talent - more specifically "rock selection." I get out of her way. She hefts massive boulders across the rocky beach, navigating the tricky terrain and singing as she goes. The word "unstoppable" pops into my head for the forty-seventh time today.

Nanci does everything fast and hard. She's a go-for-it lady who rises to any challenge, speaks her mind, calls you out, and doesn't take any shit. And she's just as unstoppable with her efforts to bring goodness to the world. While she's a force - she's ultimately a force for goodness, kindness, and respect.

That force shines brightest through her work with Special Surfers, the nonprofit she founded 12 years ago.  Having come to surfing later in life (after a solid run as a beach volleyball champ), Nanci still has that grom-like stoke for riding waves and she loves to share it.

Special Surfers gives people on the spectrum of autism the chance to catch waves during Maine summers with the help of a solid team of seasoned surfers. During last summer, I got to jump in as a volunteer and I found myself grinning the entire time, totally swept up in the joy felt by the special needs surfers and their surf "captains."

I asked Nanci what drew her to this cause. She told me originally she hosted free surf lessons for moms out of the surf shop she owned at the time, Aquaholics, and one of the women asked if she could bring her two special-needs kids along. After that, the cause sort of found her. 

"I've always felt like I advocate for the underdog and I want to see people succeed, especially when people doubt them. Probably because that's my history, and I think when people underestimate me or doubt me, or try to hold me back - that's when I really bust loose. 'Cause, don't tell me I can't do something because I'm. Going. Hard."

 Yep, unstoppable. 

The next time I see Nanci, we're in her hometown of Saco, Maine. Pete and I had just made it to town on the last leg of our 8-hour drive down from Canada, right into a clean swell. I'm exhausted but have never actually surfed in Maine, so we opt in for an evening session. Nanci buzzes around, getting wetsuits and gear together for all of us. 

We end up a leash short. As we pull up to the beach she spots someone she knows (I get the impression that might be everyone here) and hops out of the truck, procures our last piece of gear for a successful surf session, and slips into her wetsuit. I struggle into mine, still working to pull it up over my shoulders as I watch her grab her board and trot down the beach. It's overhead on the sets and she's riding a 6'8" quad. I grab my 8'6" funboard and follow behind. My toes feel like ice cubes already, but the waves are glassy, perfect peaks breaking left and right and Pete has already snuck into a racy left. Nanci paddles to the peak, wide smiles and hellos for all. I jump in. 

The next morning we set up her custom rocker from Costa Rica in the yard for some more q and a. 

"What do you define as a tombomb?" I ask.

“I think it's somebody who can embrace where they are in life and, being a woman is part of it, but if you are anybody and you’ve been told you can’t do something, or someone’s trying to hold you back or your whole life has been kind of underestimated, I think busting out and proving everybody wrong … that to me is tombomb," she responds.

When I ask what advice she would give to young women, she encourages reaching for the stars and never selling yourself short, emphasizing the importance of grit and tenacity and no surprise - Going. Hard.

"What about advice for women my age and your age?" I ask.

“Don’t let the societal norms you grew up with define where you are in your life. You could evaluate any minute of any day and reevaluate where you are, what you have been through, and where you’re going. And you can delete anything out of your repertoire that has been foisted on you by society and re-create yourself."

Her response hits me. I hadn't realized how much I needed to hear that, myself having had a few societal norms foisted upon me. I take her words and tuck them neatly in my memory like charms - Go hard. Recreate. Bust out. Do good. Keep Going.

I look around, Nanci perched comfortably in her tidy, happy yard, her garden growing abundantly, the swing set for her grandkids in the background, the Special Surfers truck parked in the driveway, and think ʻunstoppableʻ one more time.

Click below to listen to the entire interview with Nanci Boutet. 

Learn how she found surfing, what inspired her to open the surf shop, and what she was like growing up.  


  • Alec K

    Epic Keli! Love this a lot. Almost impossible to capture Nanci’s greatness in a piece but you did it well!!

  • Becks M.

    Wow – LOVE this and everything Nanci is about. xoxo

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