For the Love of the Drop
Andy St. Onge interviewed by Brendan McCray
Andy St. Onge is a born New Englander turned kamaiana waterman. The North Shore of Oahu has been his home for the past 21 years. He grew up in Dedham Massachusetts and spent a lot of time outdoors in New England's mountains and ocean. His Dad gave him his first surfboard when he was 14. In 1988 he moved to Oahu to attend Hawaii Loa College. He eventually earned a Master's and PhD in the philosophy of education from the University of Hawaii and now earns his bread teaching high school and college. Andy's one daughter was born in 1999. Brendan McCray recently asked Andy to share his two decades of experience surfing big waves on Oahu's North Shore and more.
I first met Andy St. Onge during my senior year of high school at a friend's apartment in Back Bay Boston. My impression was, "another prep-school-dead-head-wanna-be-surfer, but a nice enough guy." A year later and 5,000 miles to the west southwest, I'd see him hanging out at the lifeguard chair at Sunset and surfing Kammies. A few years after that, I'd see him fading in the pit at 12' sunset (4X overhead) on a 10' single fin with no cord. Andy is the real thing. He is, in my opinion, a modern combination a of a 50's big wave pioneer and a 70's single fin soul surfer. For many New England surfers the dream of becoming a big wave rider remains just a dream. Andy is living proof that with dedication, sacrifice and love this dream can become a reality. Reading Andy's responses below gives me goosebumps and makes my heart beat faster. He stirs up long forgotten emotions and memories from when I was learning to surf the North Shore in the late 80's. I hope you gain insight and perspective from what Andy has to say about surfing the North Shore of Oahu.
- Brendan McCray
Where did you ride your first wave ?
First wave on a surfboard at Seabrook, N.H. sometime in November of 1983. A day or so before, my Dad picked up a 7'0" swallow-tail, single-fin ("Aircutter" logo) at a yard sale in Haverhill, Mass.
Do you remember the first time you were scared surfing in New England?
The numbing cold of surfing in NE is scary given hypothermia can be, if not a killer, a real bummer. Only palpable fear I experienced in the Atlantic was on a sailboat, actually, caught in a Nor'Easter gale somewhere off the coast of Maine in the mid '80s — having to lower sail, step the masts, tie and batten everything down, throw a sea-anchor, and ride out a full-on white out. That was heavy. Otherwise I never really felt "scared" surfing during those early years surfing — a lot of curiosity and fascination — pure stoke. Fear was not really an issue for me back East and hasn't been in Hawaii either. I don't court fear or things that scare me. Being out of control scares me more than anything. So when conditions get serious, the overwhelming sensation for me — rather than "fear" — is one of intense concentration: a mix of excitement, curiosity and fascination. I might think twice, as Owl might say, but I'm not "scared." If you know your limits and have developed enough confidence to push them, then fear doesn't come into the equation that often.
Tell us about your first NE "gun" - any memorable rides?
Other than my first board (the 7' single fin pintail), the first real island style gun that I saw was in Watch Hill, R.I., summer of '85. A "Rick James" single fin pintail: red bottom and rails, yellow deck, with a half-shell logo: "Rick James Island Designs" or something like that. Probably an 8'6". It was beautiful, so elegant, extreme, and refined, like nothing I'd seen up until that point. I even rode it once in Watch Hill summer shore-break slop. I think that board was ultimately consumed in a house fire — the Kellogg place — sometime not too long after that. A year before I moved to Hawaii I went to the Board Shop in Hampton and Steve O'Hara's hooked me up with an orange 7'0" "Spectrum" thruster pintail, which seemed like a gun to me. It had vertical blue racing stripes and it was shaped by . . . "Rick Bullock" ?? (not sure, don't remember). Smooth lines, low entry rocker, thick foil: basic thruster mini-gun. I rode that board one time at Fox Hill pretty good during a snowstorm. Only guy out. Scored solid Southern Hemi swells at a few different spots up & down the California coast, around Santa Cruz & Big Sur later that summer. Took the Spectrum with me to the islands and rode it for a year or two until I finally busted it one day at perfect, barreling "Bayviews" on the West Side.
You moved to the North Shore in...
Moved to Oahu in 1988 and the North Shore in 1990. Have been here ever since; never left for more than a month or so during that time and have 23 consecutive, full North Shore Winters going along so far . . .
Do you remember your first surfing experience when you thought, holy sh$t Dorthy we aint in Kansas anymore?
Surfing progression was gradual but steady. It wasn't like I was charging Waimea, much less Sunset my first season. It took time and I was in no rush.
When I arrived in Hawaii and started surfing the North Shore that first season ('88-'89) I clearly recall not aspiring to be a "big-wave rider." It was more like I hoped to be able to ride waves of some consequence — like in the 6'-8' range — with a modicum of confidence and style.
First time that I witnessed truly solid, pumping Sunset that Fall I was awe-struck. Watching guys like Owl, Big Rog, Darrick, Booby Jones, & Felipe Pomar charging massive, windswept peaks way out in the ocean was like NOTHING I had ever seen or even dreamt of — it was radical. I felt at the time like "I will never be able to do what those guys are doing." It was another world.
The grand expanse of Sunset's lineup was spellbinding: quarter mile or more at sea, acres upon acres of raw, wild ocean, raging rips tearing into and around mountainous peaks, gaping, spitting barrels. Guys charging — air dropping into high-speed arcing bottom turns . . . It took me a while to adjust my frame of reference & orientation to what was really going on and how I might get there. Among other things, I couldn't relate to the equipment —10 and 11 foot elephant guns made what I thought was a "gun" look like an insignificant child's toy.
Did you see a lot of Polo shirts on the Shore back then?
The North Shore used to be a wild & dangerous place, even in the late 1980s. Outlaws and all that goes with it kept things interesting & on edge. Life just felt more threatening: an overall level of intensity that was menacing & much in force. More Hawaiians & local people; it was a distinctly more rural & poor place then.
Things were cheaper all around. And there seemed to be this sense of omnipresent, impending danger and aggression — on land & in the water — that in most respects is now absent or, at least, greatly diminished. Some might assume that this change is for the better. A steadily diminishing sense of an immediate risk of physical or psychological violence has the ironic — and in some ways also regrettable — effect of making the recreational surfing experience both hazardous and annoying. Escalating hazards correlate directly with increasing numbers of people who are oblivious & in the way — ditching boards, dropping in, whatever.
Some of the guys used to keep things like that in check; although "tough" guys today aren't the same thing, more like paper tigers. 15-20 years ago you had to be careful & alert, more deferential, maintain a low profile in order to survive. The local Hawaiian presence was stronger and definitely more intimidating. Nothing was rushed; you had to pay dues. Now a lot of folks arrive with new money and all and instantly assume all kinds of things, as if it were some kind of a "free for all." It's pretty rude & ridiculous for the most part.
I recall you had a VW van and used to hang at Kammies, BK single fins, looking like fricken Tarzan - was that about the time you became more of a single fin rider, and how long did it take that Kammieland hipster to become one of THE Sunset guys?
Within about a year of surfing the North Shore it became clear to me that some of the best guys rode single fins — Brewer single fin pintail guns to be precise. Owl Chapman and Roger Erickson really impressed me. I admired the clean, pure lines those surfers drew, not to mention all the set waves they caught. Moreover, I admired the way they looked. They had a certain strength & dignity; a pure, poised technique I liked. Their boards were elegant and they rode them well. Speed, power, trim and drive. Nothing they did looked awkward or spastic. Their style set them apart from most everyone else riding thrusters at the time.
So, for me, the choice was as obvious as it was practical & aesthetic. The surfer who impressed me the most was Eric Haas. Not only was he probably the best all around surfer in all of Hawaii between 1988 and 2002 or so — and totally underground — Eric was different, almost magic. There was a glow, an aura or halo around him like none other. He shined bright: a true & amazing natural talent: from the Kaiser Bowl to 3rd Reef Sunset and beyond — Hanalei, Cloud-break Kalalau, places no one has surfed . . . Eric is one of a kind. His love for & understanding of the ocean is profound. It's been one of the greatest pleasures & thrills of my life to share many memorable surfing experiences with him over the years — @ 3rd reef Sunset, Point Surf Kepuhi, Phantoms, way outside Mokuleia Beach Park . . . just Eric & I.
In the beginning I rode BKs. I even surfed with Barry Kannaipuni a few times at Sunset back in the '80s. Anyway, I scored my first single fin gun from a guy named Wally late in 1988. Then, one day Owl jumps into my VW. It's the fall of 1989. We hadn't met yet, although I'd seen him around, respected him, and I guess he noticed me as well. Owl proceeds to "school" me and lines me up with what it takes to become a real surfer: "You need some boards, kid, and I'm gonna make 'em for you." What was I going to say? First custom board was a beautiful, yellow 9' single fin pintail. Pure & simple; basic, like a bowl of oatmeal: wholesome. My relationship with Owl would take a wide-ranging, circuitous route from there. Long story. Short story is I've been riding Owls pretty much exclusively since then — dozens of boards; all of them primo. Owl did me a tremendous favor; I owe him a lot and I'm grateful. Basically, I learned to surf Sunset — came of age as a young man really — on the best boards, all of which Owl made for me. An exceptional privilege, to be sure, and both the equipment & friendship helped me become the surfer I am today. From that first 9' gun I slowly, over the course of season or two, progressed to a 9'7"; a year later got my first full gun: a 10'8". All single fins. Then sometime around 1993 Owl shaped me a 11' pintail (which I still have). That sort of set the standard: 9' & 10' guns for Sunset; and 11' – 11'10" guns for the Bay & Outer Reefs.
I began to come into my own at Sunset sometime around 1994 or 1995. That's about the time I started to get set waves on a regular basis. But success in surfing, especially on the North Shore, is a double-edged sword. Doing well, catching lots of set waves and all provokes as much envy and resentment as it does admiration. Some guys don't like the guy who pulls away from the pack and distinguishes himself on the peak; it makes them uneasy — especially when that guy gets more waves than they do. Some will see another's success in terms of their own failure or inability; others might respect him or, better yet, learn something. So it goes. I have always tried to learn from those I admire.
Have you ever met any surfers from Michigan?
Craig Elmer Chapman (aka “Owl”) is from Mackinaw Island, Michigan. He and his older brother Gary (aka “Chappy”) are two of the finest surfer-shapers of all time. Owl’s been at it, in the trenches & on the front lines of Hawaiian high performance big-wave riding & designs for four decades. And nothing would have happened in the first place were it not for Chappy, who was probably the single most important and otherwise influential surfer between 1966 and 1969 (despite the fact that very few even know his name today). In short, Chappy and Dick Brewer collaborated together on the research, design, and development of the modern surfboard at Sunset Beach, Waimea, and Honolula Bay. The Chapman brothers’ story is a trip — yet to be told, much less fully appreciated. True-grit Chippewa Indians who found their way to the Southern California Coast in the early-mid 1960s and on to the Islands in 1967 or so. An All-American Dream surf story like no other.
The rest is history, whether anyone knows it or not — two guys at the epicenter or vanguard of the research and development of the Brewer gun at places like Sunset, Honolua, Maalaea, and Waimea Bay. Their roots go deep.
While Chappy faded from the surf scene in the mid ‘70s, Owl continued over time to perfect the big wave gun. Big time: his boards are without parallel. Owl is in his own league as far as that goes. Owl is near the completion of forty-three (43) consecutive North Shore winters. He’s still on it: every day going to work, making boards, & getting set-waves. How many other shapers have ridden the waves Owl has? None of them have — and never will. He has seen things other guys haven’t even dreamed of.
Describe your quiver, favorite all time board?
The boards that I ride these days mostly fall into two basic types: traditional guns, relatively narrow in nose and tight, pulled-in pintail; and what we call "semis," which have a little less rocker and more area both up front (ears) and in the tail (hips). If it's honking & hollow, I ride a narrower board — full guns. Otherwise I ride a semi in waves from 1'-8', which range in size from 8' to 11' in length. My full guns, for the Bay, huge Sunset, or the outer reefs, are 11'1" – 11'10". Sunset guns are 10' to 10'4". All single fins. All pintails. I've got some other Owls kicking around, too: 7'4" (thruster), 7'10", 8'0, a few 9 footers, all single fins except for the lone thruster (which I haven't ridden in years).
Each individual board is unique — some have a little more concave, some this or that. Owl's got plenty of trick's up his sleeve. He can throw in all sorts of "hot shit." Owl makes hot rods — whether or not riders tap into the full potential of his designs is another question altogether. That'll take some serious time and commitment. "You got that kind of time and will power?" Nothing happens overnight — unless you happen to be Tom Curren or Eric Hass, maybe. In any case, Owl's boards are extremely versatile. They make surfing easy once you learn how to ride them. But they're not neutral. You've got to learn how to drive them. That takes go outs & water time. Most people have neither the time nor the patience. But anything is possible . . . if one is willing to apply oneself to the task.
All time favorite board? Tough question, it's impossible to answer definitively. But there have been some favorites over the years. The best boards seem to have
names. "Little Red," for instance, was a bitchin 9' fire-engine red single fin pintail that was magic — Owl made it for some other guy but I ended it up with it somehow. Rode a million waves and got some memorable tube rides on that thing until I busted it at Inside Sunset back in '96 or '97. "The Panther" is another exceptional board. Probably one of the best guns ever made: an 11'7" single fin pintail with a psychedelic salmon "acid splash" a'la Jack Reeves. Owl shaped it during the summer of '97 and I rode it that epic El Nino winter of '97-'98 until today — thousands of all-time waves on the Panther at 2nd & 3rd Reef Sunset, the Bay, Kaunala, & Kepuhi.
The rest is "top secret."
Who do you respect in the surfing world?
Plenty of guys are great surfers. There are simply too many to name and no offense to anybody as far as that goes. You, Brendan, are someone I respect in the surfing world, for example. One of the best guys on the Cape back in ’85. You were charging the North Shore before I got there. And you’re probably still one of the best guys on the Cape almost 30 years later. I never even came close to catching the kinds of waves you have back East. Extraordinary. You’ve completed a full circle. Some of the best guys on the North Shore today include Marcus Hickman, Kalani Chapman, Jamie O’Brien, Keali’i Mamala, Makua Rothman. These guys shine on outstanding days. There will be others on any given swell. Kala Alexander & Ikaika Kalama always charging, strong surfers. Chapman Murphey is another guy with grit; the Christensen brothers; plenty of underground guys charge. Sion was coming on strong the past few seasons; his loss this winter is tragic — suppose he pushed it a little too far . . . And my hat’s off to Slater — a perennial performer in all conditions, although he doesn’t surf Sunset. Super cool Hawaiian guy at Sunset though — smooth & graceful, always smiling — is Sterma: a classy-backsider.
But in answer to the question (in no particular order) I submit that as far as the all-around Hawaiian big blue water surfing thing goes the greatest respect goes out to guys like Gary & Owl Chapman, Sam Hawk, Eric Haas, Tiger Espere, Eddie Aikau, Butch Van Artsdalen, Roger Erikson, Pat Curren, Jose Angel, Alika Moepono — in their primes, they were among the best ever. Like a lot of old timers they have style & mana. I never met or surfed with Eddie, Butch, or Jose, but all of these guys exemplify soul and daring in the ocean. They’re the ali’i nui in my view. Also a word of respect and gratitude to both Chappy & RB: Dick Brewer and Gary “Chappy” Chapman were extraordinary. Nothing would have happened in terms of high performance surfing in the most extreme, challenging Hawaiian conditions were it not for them. Dynamic creative genius when it comes to design and innovation, they worked together in the mid to late 1960s to perfect surfboards. Chappy & Brewer should be recognized and given credit for the creation of high performance modern surfboards — both big wave guns & hot dog boards. Their contributions are unequalled in modern surfing. All that Ozzie “short-board revolution” nostalgia you read in the mags is a huge distortion, nothing McTavish or Greenough shaped really worked in Hawaii — from what they say, they all spun-out. It was Brewer who made the best boards for the best guys who rode the best waves. Last word on “respect” in the surfing world: Don’t stand too close to your idols, as they are very likely to fall over on to you. You get too close and you’re liable to go down with them.
Describe your most memorable big wave ridden, and your heaviest/scariest experience?
This question is almost impossible to answer. There have simply been too many "memorable" and "heavy" waves over the years. Here's one: I might have caught one of the biggest waves I ever rode on November 13, 1996. It had been raining for a month straight. Everything was totally flooded. The whole scene around the North Shore was Biblical — houses & cars swamped out, radical disasters, and a total loss for some people. The ocean looked like fudge, thick with dirt and full of detritus of all kinds. Things were crazy & perilous; definitely not ideal surfing conditions. The river at Waimea had blown out the entire beach from the lifeguard tower to the Kam highway — there was virtually no beach left. The corner where we usually paddle out (where they've been paddling out since 1957) was gone: underwater. The Bay was just one, huge river-mouth of gushing brown water. There were trees and all sorts of gnarly flotsam flowing into the Bay.
I managed to dig out from work a little early that day and got myself down to the Bay at about 1:30 p.m. As soon as I got there, I heard there had been a 30'+ closeout that took out everyone in the lineup. People were freaking out. Something like 20 boards were busted or lost on one set. So, by the time I arrived, the place was virtually empty; maybe five or six guys out. The Bay looked nuts. Almost too big. From the beach it looked big & gnarly and not at all inviting. Weather was overcast, rain drizzling, although the wind was a light SE. While there were long lulls between the huge sets, there was nowhere — obvious or safe — to paddle out. Shorebreak was bonkers: doubled-up, endless, relentless lines of white water surging hard into a river full of suds & shit. Even so, I thought I'd give it a shot and waded down to & through the river — trying to avoid the trees and sticks and stuff flowing out — and waited for a lull. I was standing in the middle of the Bay — not in the corner. I stood there for a long time and it looked like it might be a futile endeavor. When Waimea is really big like that, the paddle out (or coming in) is super dicey. Just getting out though the shorebreak is a major challenge; and coming in can be even more risky. While the chances of getting through the shorebreak are slim; if you do make it through the shorebreak, there is the very strong possibility of getting caught–inside & cleaned-up by a closeout — which makes the shorebreak look like nothing by comparison. A situation like this is treacherous. These kind of days are the rare, real test of a true Waimea rider. Once you make it out, riding waves is almost easy.
Anyway, I'm standing there kind of hoping I don't have to go out. Mixed feelings at this point; it would have been easy to just blow it off. Then this red Brewer washes in. I know it's Eric's (Haas) board (actually it was Eddie Rothman's; but Eric had been borrowing it that winter). It's a sign. I grab it and wait for Eric. Again, this was absolutely Code Black: huge, gnarly Waimea. Swimming around the Bay was something very, very few people could handle. But I knew that Eric could. And so Eric washes in a few minutes later, just as I expected. Ho! He's jazzed. Then Eric tells me he had paddled down to the Bay from Phantoms! Think about that for a moment: if Waimea is 25'-30'+ and closing out, the outer reefs (from Phantoms to Sunset to Pipe & Logs) are off the scale huge, breaking miles out to sea — who knows, maybe 40' or more. Incomprehensible. Giant — off the scale. Yet Eric had casually jumped in the water at Backyards and paddled over 3 miles in a raging ocean to the Bay by himself, with a fin tucked into his shorts. Just another go out. Nobody has ever done that — at least not since Woody Brown and Dickie Cross in 1947. Waimea must have seemed like V-land after what he'd seen & dealt with on that paddle down the coast. That's another story yet to be told . . . another of thousands of reasons why I believe that Eric Haas is the greatest big wave rider & waterman of all time . . . He charges like no one else — when no one else is looking. Eric is like "Go, brah! GO NOW!" I have always had this implicit trust of Eric (in the water at least). If he says "GO," then I'm going. Somehow I made it through the shorebreak — never lost my board! It was actually pretty easy; only had to pull through a couple soft ones. Minor miracle. Then I sprint paddled to the lineup as fast as I ever had: I'm OUT there. And I made it. Thanks, Eric!
There's no more than 5 guys sitting on the boil: Brock Little, Greg Russ, Paul Moreno, I don't know who else. I'm in another world; might as well be alone. No
one is saying much. There's a weird, electric buzz in the air. Despite the rain, all the brown water, and trees and crap in the channel, the waves are absolutely PERFECT. Glassy and super, super defined. You could really see clearly what the water and all that energy was doing: massive, top-to-bottom barrels rifling from Ke Iki across the Bay. Not a drop of water out of place. That was the day I learned about the outer boil — a narrow, defined ramp on the second reef that stands up just so and, if you like go, launches you in right behind the peak in the middle of the Bay. Catching waves was EASY. Smooth transition. Holding position and turning around for one of these monsters, however, is another matter. I caught a few. There were some big ones, too, still closing out in the middle on the sets; but no more full-on close-outs like there had been earlier.
One wave in particular stands out for me. I saw it coming from miles away. The horizon shifted and you can gauge by what's happening up at Logs and coming down the line from Ke Iki and Shark's Cove and all that what's going to happen next. I was deep and the furthest outside. No one hassled me for it. I'm on a red 11'10'' triple stringer single fin pintail — "Big Red" (Eric has it now). The outer boil lights up and I'm on it. Barely even had to paddle for it — just a little stroke, petting the cat sort of thing. I'm in & up — low & loose. When it's big like that there are a series of ledges in the wave. Waimea is actually a double-up. On the outside, it stands up tall and vertical — not quite concave yet. The ramp allows you to slide in behind the peak, which affords a split-second opportunity to penetrate and set trim high, just a hair off-center. This slim trim line lets you make the transition so that when the wave hits the next ledge and the thing really doubles-up, jacks skyward & goes totally top-to-bottom, you're already in. It's still vertical and virtually a fin-out freefall; but if you penetrate, you're in control despite the violent throw & throb of it all. When the wave — indeed the whole Bay — went concave I was low, poised,& ready for the suckout. The power & speed of it all is difficult to describe. I can remember a high-pitched hum from the fin of my board as it hit full hull speed. This strange, eery hum; time slowed down; the tiniest & farthest things came into perfect focus. I sensed everything. It was actually very peaceful. And I felt something like control. Pure stoke!
Then I became aware of a massive, spinning left tube coming at me from the other side of the Bay. I realized there was nowhere to go. Here at the bottom of a massive wall of water — easily 50' or more of cascading vertical face — and there was no "kicking out." Waimea Bay is actually a pretty small place; it's tight. And I was stuck in the middle of it all with little option but a sketchy prone out. On the other side of the Bay, approaching the rocks, the Bay closes out, so I hit a bit of fade (left) back toward the Point with the hope of iron-legging it through the shore-pound. No luck. Get hit by a cement truck and go for a vicious under-water adventure. Try to relax. Leash holds. Don't drown. When I come up after a 20-30 second beating, close to what used to be the beach, right in front of the lifeguard tower — maybe 20 yards away. Not a good place to exit the water. No choice but to death-grip the board and let a 10' shorebreak explode on top of me, blasting me to the beach — no (there is no beach) right into the river! Came to rest in the calm, sudsy, brown estuary . . . safe & sound. I paddled toward the trees and got out of the water.
After that I gave Greg Russ a ride back to Sunset. We got some beer at Foodland on the way. Drove real slow. Everything was serene. We didn't talk or say much. The moon was beautiful that night — a "surfer's moon" — a striking yellow half-crescent shaped like a curling wave.
What is your personal policy with leashes?
The overall quality & integrity of the surfing recreational experience would probably be a better — more honest, safer, & graceful — if no one wore a cord.
Surfing without a cord cultivates & enhances awareness, control, & strength. Without a leash one is — or otherwise becomes — more conscientious. One surfs faster. One learns (of necessity) to make waves from peak to channel. Ride the whole wave; not just focusing on sections & maneuvers. It's all about control, commitment, & clean surfing.
Ironically, the less you use a cord the less you actually need one — I don't lose my board that often and when I do I go for a swim, which loosens me up and can be pretty fun. Once in a while I wear a cord, like when I'm on the outer reefs or I'm at the Bay. But my decision to put a cord on is a very conscious, deliberate, and somewhat reluctant — one which I make precisely in order to either avoid a mile or more swim in open ocean or have my board wash on the rocks because 3 or 10 kooks dropped in on me.
Without cords, crowds would diminish. If guys didn't have cords to rely or depend on they: (a) probably wouldn't paddle out to begin with and/or (b) wouldn't last very long once they lost their board. And without cords, the best spots — by which I mean the most perfect, powerful, and consequential — would be the reserve of experts only, which is how I'd like to see it.
If surfers only surfed breaks at times and under conditions that they felt comfortable or confident doing so without a cord then both the quality and integrity of the overall surfing experience would be greatly enhanced. By the same token, if guys did not paddle out when they felt uncertain or unsure of their ability, experience, or safety then, too, the overall quality and integrity of the recreational experience of surfing would probably improve.
End of part 1. Click here for Part-2 (after checking out the photos below).
Visit with Dave Levy of Levy Surf Designs
By Peter Pan
It's below freezing and the wind is howling at the town beach. Dave Levy is outside in the cold, sanding down a new surfboard. There's no heat in this open air shaping room, but at least the sun is out. Dave is the only custom surfboard shaper in the northeast that works full time in the profession. There is a swell on the way this week and he wants to get the surfboard finished ahead of its arrival.
Surfboard shapers have always been glorified as freewheeling artists who use foam as their canvas. Often times the media will depict a shaper working in what could be considered a sterile operating room blanketed by rows of bright lights, spotless tools and a state-of-the-art ventilation system.
This might be true at one of the mass production surfboard manufacturing facilities in China, but not here in Narragansett. Levy works out of a tiny 2-room hut similar to what the shapers used in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Most custom surfboard builders now send their hand shaped foam blanks to special glassing shops for the final step in the process of making a surfboard. Levy does it all by himself. There are very few shapers in the world today that can make a surfboard from start to finish. That is why Dave has a steady clientele from all over the northeast.
His operation is primarily limited to one small room. When the weather doesn't cooperate he works in the room to hand shape the foam blank to his customer’s specifications. Then he turns the room into a glass shop to finish the process. Glassing a surfboard is an art form in itself and is probably more difficult than the shaping. The resin and hardener mixture, the air temperature and the moisture index must all be perfect or the job must be repeated. With the high cost of quality resin and glass cloth, there's really is no room for mistakes if you want to stay in business.
Levy’s glassing prowess is in such that shapers from all over the Northeast bring him their shaped foam blanks to be finished in fiberglass. Dave shaped his first surfboard in 1976 in an empty bedroom above the original location of the Watershed Surf Shop on Main Street in Wakefield. It was a custom round tail single fin for longtime ESA competitor Bob Fredette of South Attleboro, Massachusetts. In the the thirty four years since that time he has shaped and finished thousands of surfboards of every possible size and style.
Throughout his years as co-owner of the surf shop he continued to hand shape and glass custom surfboards for customers and began to build a solid clientele. In 2000 he decided to make surfboards full-time and has been able to do this for the past decade. Peter Pan interviewed Dave in his shaping room this past week and spoke about what it's like to be a surfboard craftsman in New England.
Pan: How's business?
DL: Surprisingly good! There are a lot of surfers out there who are serious about working on and improving their surfing. In order to do this you really need to ride a custom, hand shaped surfboard that is built to your ability and skill level.
Pan: Is this a better way to buy a surfboard besides just pulling something off the rack?
DL: It seems to work out better in the long run. I will make maybe 6 surfboards for someone over the course of one year and I will have them stand next to me in the shaping room while I am doing their board. They will tell me to thin out a rail or pull in a tail and say that it's exactly the way they wanted it done. Two weeks later, I see them in the water on another surfboard. They tell me that the board I shaped them was not what they expected. That can be frustrating. Sometimes it takes a surfer to try out several boards before he finds the right combination.
Pan: So they really don’t know what they want?
DL: A good surfer doesn’t necessarily know the dynamics of why the surfboard works for him. They all like to think they do and that is how they get into trouble.
Pan: What do you feel is your biggest competition?
DL: Cheaply made and mass produced fiberglass surfboards from Southeast Asia have been dumped on the U.S. market for several years. With no EPA regulations to contend with, low paid workers and cheap foam, resin, and glass, it is impossible to compete with them. Their downside however, is that many of them are poorly designed or made with inferior materials. They start to deteriorate as soon as they hit the water. These surfboards are also terrible to repair. I can’t tell you how many times I did major repairs on one of them and the repair bill was more than they paid for the board originally.
Pan: What's happening with the Stand-up Paddleboard market?
DL: That is a whole new market. Guys that have been riding production pop-out stand-ups are now requesting hand shaped custom boards for both flat water and surf riding. Due to the size and thickness of these surfboards, the costs are much higher to produce.
Pan: What do you see for future growth in the industry?
DL: Serious surfers including top amateurs, pros, and hot and up coming groms all ride hand shaped, U.S. fiberglass surfboards. Many beginners and intermediate riders will buy a low-end surfboard made in Thailand or China and soon realize that it is not well made and has no resale value. Consumers who purchase the molded “pop-out” style surfboards will also find that they do not respond like hand shaped fiberglass does.
Pan: How hazardous is your job?
DL: It's very hazardous to your health. Everything that you use to build a surfboard with is highly toxic and full of cancer producing fumes. Fiberglass cloth and resin are known cancer producers. The list of shapers and glassers from the 1960’s and 1970’s who have died from various forms of cancer just kept growing daily. That is why I wear a mask and gloves when I work.
Pan: Any parting thoughts?
DL: Building surfboards can be a dirty, messing and frustrating occupation. It is kind of like dishwashing. Everyone should have a go at it at least once in their lifetime, so they can see how really hard it is.